Aberdeen artisan paints with glass, light

In this June 13 photo, Thom Berg demonstrates how he joins together the various pieces of stained glass by using lead came and a soldering iron as he works in his Northern Lights Design Studio in Aberdeen, South Dakota. (John Davis/Aberdeen American News via AP)

ABERDEEN (AP) – In light it glows and in shadow it shimmers.

It both reflects and is a portal to another side. Stained glass is the charm of many: a church window, fanciful awning or whimsical lamp shade.

Thom Berg has spent the better part of 34 years charming glass into masterful pieces or restoring shattered relics to their former glory. Most of the Aberdeen artisan's work is commissioned for new work or rebuilds.

"A lot of people are finding old stuff in Mom or Dad's or Grandma and Grandpa's shed or attics, and if it's broken, luckily I get the call. It's been kind of fun. I've seen some really neat stuff," Berg told the Aberdeen American News.

He was working on the restoration of an awning from Northern State University – a victim of heavy snow and ice buildup. He held up a textured piece of green- and hazel-swirled glass to the light. Each piece looked like the shape of a house a child would draw, with a couple extra notches.

He held a ruler and a gold-handled instrument with an oil chamber hidden inside, tipped in a carbide wheel. He slid it along the ruler, making a diagonal-etched line. A pliers-like tool with a flat nose that pinches against a small tooth cracked the glass cleanly along the etch line. A diamond sanding machine honed the shape and smoothed the edges and finer trimmings.

Finding the glass from the 1930s or 1940s took a while, but Berg lucked out after contacting about four glass manufacturers. It's not always so easy. If glass needs to be dyed to match, the costs go up.

Berg, 72, happened into the stained-glass trade by ego and stubbornness after moving into his home and studio just north of Aberdeen.

"Just after my wife and I bought this place. We built it up. We bought our kitchen cabinets. You could still buy kitchen cabinets from (JC) Penney's. We stained them, and it looked like you painted them with a Hershey bar. It was just gross," he said, making a sour face. "So I was a little into woodworking then. I made oak faces for them. Connie, my wife, thought some leaded glass would look nice in the corner cabinets. So I priced them. The old ego took over – I can do that."

Berg guesses he spent three times as much on his do-it-yourself project than if he'd had a pro do it, but ultimately the endeavor paid off. And not just monetarily.

"I found a hobby. It's relaxing. I enjoy it. It's really kind of taken me over," he said.

Another current project on his workbench is one for North Highland Methodist Church. It's a large circular piece with a milky-white dove at its center. There are 1,300 pieces spreading from the center point in rays. A project this size takes about three weeks of eight-hour days, off and on, Berg said.

The piece will be a new one for the church. Berg said a large tree was cut down outside one of the church's clear windows.

"There was tons of light coming in, people couldn't see because of the bright sun," he said.

Now, they'll have a dove surrounded by a kaleidoscope of colors to soften those sharp solar beams.

One of Berg's most easily seen commission pieces is a window he and his wife donated to K.O. Lee Aberdeen Public Library. It was donated in memory of their son, Evan, who died in 2003. The window is off the teen area and looks out to Washington Street and the Federal Building.

Berg has regular hours at the ArtWorks Gallery in Aberdeen Mall Thursdays through Saturdays. He encourages anyone to stop by. The gallery holds numerous works by area artists.

More recently, Berg has made education a priority. With that thought, he brought up an old friend. Vic Runnels was a South Dakota artist and of Oglala Sioux heritage.

"He dreamed of having a nationwide Native American art show in South Dakota. He kept asking me if I had any native in me. I'm just an old Norwegian," Berg chuckled at the memory.

Runnels said he'd never met a stained-glass artist who was Native American. Berg took that idea to heart and taught a stained glass class at Sisseton Wahpeton College earlier this month.

"It was just another way to say thanks to the educational and fun times I had with Vic – to try and reach out to the some of the Native American communities," Berg said.

Berg noted that there're just a handful of professional-level stained-glass artists in the region, even though there's a demand. It's a concern for a hobby he's come to hold dear.

That's why he will lead a workshop again at this year's Arts Education Institute at Northern State University. The annual institute is open to K-12 arts educators and administrators. It's July 15-18.


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