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About Sattler's Stained Glass Studio Ltd.

Norbert Sattler: Portrait of a Craftsman

By Sarah Hall and Jeffrey Kraegel

Glass Art - March/April 2001

What is a design but an idea waiting to happen? This composition of paint, pencil and paper can only suggest what a window will look like. The work itself, built from glass and lead and placed in site, with the whole world as its background, is truly a separate creation, for which the design was but a seed.

This transformation of an artwork from design to reality requires a delicate blend of artistry and craftsmanship, materials and techniques. Many stained glass artists start out building their own windows, which gives them total control over this process. However, there comes a point when the works are too large or too complex for one person to do alone, and outside help is needed. In North America, artists have usually responded to this situation by expanding their business, taking on more space and hiring craftsmen as needed. Of course, problems do arise when the artist finds the demands of administering a shop full of employees have overshadowed any chance of actually doing art.

One solution would be to contract out the work, but with no tradition of independent fabrication studios (as is common in Europe), it has been difficult for an artist in North America to find a studio that will create work to the standards they require. Fortunately, some of the European studios have started offering their services to North American artists. One studio that has moved its primary operations to this side of the pond is Sattler Studio, and since setting up business in Nova Scotia in the 1990s, it has quickly established itself as one of the best fabrication studios in North America.

Nova Scotia is well known for its natural splendors, and highway 332, which winds along the South Shore region of the province, treats the traveller to a sampling of these. One can see dramatic ocean vistas and white sand beaches, interspersed with tidy fishing villages, antique stores and country churches. One also sees a number of artist's studios and workshops - drawn here by the beauty and the relative affordability of the area. At the village of LaHave, just past its popular (and very unique) bakery, the highway turns north and west to follow the river toward West LaHave, and the home of Sattler Studio.

Since its establishment in 1993, Sattler Studio has steadily built a reputation in North America for its ability to work with artists, and for its uncompromising dedication to quality. But its story began long before this, in the Rhineland of Germany. There, at the age of 15, Norbert Sattler began a three-year apprenticeship in a small, family owned stained glass studio in his home town of Ahrweiler. He enjoyed the work, and finished his apprenticeship with diplomas in the disciplines of Glazier and Artist Glazier (stained glass), in 1971. With his journeyman=s papers in hand, he set out to continue his education in the wider world.

He spent the next seven years in what he refers to as "Die Walz" - working with various stained glass studios in Germany and Switzerland. As he gained more and more experience, he began to dream of owning his own studio. He recalls that at the time, he still considered himself primarily an artist: "wearing my hat at a tilt, with a scarf placed carefully around my neck." Although he sold some works, he began to feel that his true profession lay elsewhere, and after seeing some powerful works done by other stained glass artists, he decided that his destiny was to bring others' work to reality. It was around this time that he met his future wife, Helga, who is the other half of the Sattler Studio equation.

In 1977, Norbert and Helga Sattler settled in Scheuring, Bavaria, Germany, and there he opened his own studio in 1980. By 1982 he was able to expand the business, building a workshop and studio with three floors and an exhibition gallery. Although "Glasmalerei Sattler" was in competition with much larger and more established studios (some dating back more than 150 years!), it managed to survive, and then to thrive. Norbert attributes this success to the studio's emphasis on serving the artist: "We always maintain an extensive stock of materials, so that there is a broad selection of glass to choose from; and we consistently provide the artist with the highest level of craftsmanship, combined with a knowledge and appreciation of the art."

In 1993, the Sattlers immigrated to Nova Scotia, Canada, and opened a studio. Norbert knew that with his abilities he could have moved anywhere in the world, but says he chose Nova Scotia because he loves the landscape and the country. Furthermore, from this location, he can serve clients across North America. As the new studio continues to develop and expand, the Sattlers also maintain the original studio in Scheuring.

Sattler Studio in Nova Scotia overlooks the beautiful, broad, LaHave river. Like his first workshop, it was designed and built by Norbert himself. Along with a gallery, office space, storage and work space, the studio includes a private apartment for artists to stay in while working on their projects. Sattler Studio places great importance on the artist being present during the glass and color selection, the glass cutting, and the various glass treatments. The decisions made here will affect how the final product looks, and from the selection of lead widths to the painting of the glass, the artist's input is essential. Norbert points out that each painting on the glass is original; it is never a reproduction. Depending on the size of the project, the artist will spend anywhere from one or two days, to a couple of weeks at the studio.

For Norbert Sattler, the relationship between the artist and studio is key. He considers it his mission to devote all of his energies, and those of his studio, entirely to transmitting the artist's ideas into glass. This is not a passive process, where a design is mailed in and the finished window is shipped out six weeks later. Rather, it is a partnership - one that provides the artist with an environment in which they can focus entirely on their design, while leaving the technical considerations and the fabrication work to the studio. This collaboration requires patience, trust, and an ongoing commitment to quality. It also requires a willingness to experiment - to take risks in order to achieve the best work possible. For many artists, this level of dedication is a dream come true; at the same time, it can be overwhelming, as they are suddenly confronted with a variety of possibilities that might in the past have been unknown or inaccessible to them. An artist who has difficulty making decisions may want to be sure their design intentions are clear in their mind before they begin work with Sattler Studio. (continue next column)

Although Norbert Sattler claims to have put his artistic identity behind him, it's clear from the way he works that he still has the artist's eye. He has the rare ability to see each detail of a project at the same time as he is considering the artistic whole. He is meticulous in preparation and in his attention to detail, but throughout the process, the focus is on supporting the art, not displacing it with technique. The design, and the creative process, remain in the forefront.

Early in most projects, Norbert travels to the site to investigate the location of the window, the framing and the surrounding area. He takes measurements, taking photos as needed, and sketching the framing profile. He notes important factors: What is the light like? Is there a busy street to be neutralized in the work? He explains that these observations, combined with his knowledge of the artist's design, will help him to make the right technical decisions as the windows are built.

Once in the studio, Norbert's attention to detail comes through in his constant effort to improve the window as it is being made. It is common to see him at the glass easel in front of the large studio windows, working with the artist to check the colors before the glazing begins. Beyond the colored glass pieces on the easel, one can see waters of the LaHave River, moving out to the ocean with the tide. Norbert points out a piece whose color doesn't quite "fit" with its neighbors. He brings out a sheet of glass with a slightly different hue; this one is better, but will necessitate a change in another adjacent piece. Norbert quickly cuts the two pieces and makes the substitutions. Satisfied with the changes, he and the artist move on to choose the glass for the next panel.

Watching the Sattler Studio in action, one begins to see the other ingredient of its success - the dedicated people who perform and support the studio's work. Foremost among these is Helga Sattler, who directs her many talents toward making sure the studio and all its projects go smoothly. In effect, she performs the same role for Norbert that he does for artists: setting up and maintaining the conditions that will let him do his work. Calm, organized, and blessed with a wonderful sense of humor, Helga keeps it all going. This means doing everything from organizing and scheduling, to bookkeeping, to cutting glass, to convincing a supplier to get a spare part to them today, and not tomorrow.

Norbert admits that he usually feels drained after weeks of intense work with an artist, and he will usually engage in somewhat less challenging work like restoration or building projects to help him regain his balance. Thus restored, he can then prepare to immerse himself fully in the next artistic glass project.

Although the studio concentrates on fabrication of stained glass, Norbert Sattler has maintained an interest in other types of glass work. One of these is the development of original designs for sculptural glass lamps. Many of these are large-scale pieces, intended to be installed in churches. Over the past decade, Norbert has created and patented two major design programs for these lamps.

In conversation with Norbert Sattler, one senses an active and informed participant in the creation of fine art. He knows that he and his studio are part of a long and respected stained glass tradition; but like the artists he works with, he understands that the stained glass tradition includes - even demands - artistic innovation. Although he is able to fabricate and restore traditional windows, Norbert does all he can to encourage and support contemporary approaches in art, seeing this as a natural and essential part of living in the modern age.

To this end, he remains active and involved as an international exhibitor of stained glass. He also helps artists to create exhibition pieces, and will invest large amounts of time, knowledge and resources to pursue an idea, even when it takes him "to the limits of the glass itself." This work and experimentation has often led to wonderful results, and each year, works fabricated at his studio are exhibited in various national and international exhibitions. Most recently, eight artists working with Sattler Studio were chosen by Helmut Kaestel, president of the Munich Secession, to exhibit in "Das Farbige Licht 2000" in Hans-Reiffenstuel Haus in Pfarrkirchen, Germany. This exhibition has now been invited to the prestigious Museum Moderne Kunst (Modern Art Museum) in Passau, Germany.

Asked about the stained glass scene in North America, Norbert Sattler notes the constant pressure to reproduce older styles of work. As he sees it, the public tends to try to apply their own personal preferences - what they would like to see in their own homes - to the commissioning process, despite the fact that decisions on public art need to be based on a very different set of considerations. Thus, the continuing nostalgia, and demand for traditional 19th century stained glass windows. "Many people," he says, "do not have the respect, nor do they have the capacity for abstract thinking to admire contemporary (religious) art, and regrettably, those who do, often don't have the power to commission it."

Norbert continues to hope for a breakthrough in North American tastes; a maturing appreciation of contemporary art, such as he has witnessed over the past two decades in Germany. In the meantime, he continues to do what he does best: helping stained glass artists to realize their vision. The last word goes to Mimi Gellman, a well-known designer whose recent work at Tanenbaum Shul, in Toronto (see figures 6, 7, and 8), was built in collaboration with Sattler Studio:

"The Sattler Studio is everything that one would want in a fabrication studio. They have a deep understanding of the art making process and an intuitive grasp of the individual artist's needs. The masterful craftsmanship of the studio combined with their keen interest in experimentation challenges the visiting artist to see each new project with a fresh perspective and makes working with the Sattlers a totally satisfying and inspiring experience."


2102 West LaHave, RR#1
Pleasantville, Nova Scotia, Canada
B0R 1G0

Phone: 1-902-688-1156
Fax: 1-902-688-1475
Toll Free: 1-866-724-5515

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