Story and photos by Manda Perkins
PROVIDENCE−For some, collecting antique glassware means storing pieces in a china cabinet, only to wait for the occasional dusting. But for artist Nikki Root, it means chipping and breaking away at the old glass to make pieces of art.
Root’s passion for glass work began 20 years ago when her family moved from Atlanta, Ga. to build a home in Providence. Their Atlanta home had stained glass windows, a comfort she insisted on having in Utah. To avoid the high cost of purchasing custom designs from a glass company, Root decided to try making it herself.
“Stained glass speaks,” she said. “Once you have it in your home, it’s really hard to live without it. So I took a class and learned how to cut and solder, and then I took off from there.”
Since then, she has designed and sold countless customized stained glass pieces in Utah and Idaho, and has taught classes on her craft in Cache Valley. But it wasn’t until two years ago that she discovered her real passion − recycled glass.
Root now collects Depression glassware and any interesting glass she can get her hands on to transform into windows, framed pieces and many other things. She scours thrift and antique stores to find the most colorful and intricately cut glass.
“The thing that is different about recycled glass is that you get a unique texture, color and shape,” she said. “I travel across the country and everywhere I go I take an empty suitcase and I’m always on the lookout for cool stuff−glass with a unique texture and shape.”
Depression glass is glassware produced between the 1920s and 1940s during the economic depression that affected most Americans. This glass is of relatively low quality, and was rather affordable during its time. It was very common for manufacturers to include a candy dish or a goblet with the purchase of a bag of flour, laundry detergent, or even a tank of gas. “Women would find a collection that they liked and would continue to buy that particular brand of laundry soap to collect all the pieces,” Root said.
But, says Root, it’s the color and often intricate designs that drew her to using this type of glass for the depth and dimension it adds to her pieces. The inspiration for an entire window often comes from a single interesting dish she finds, which becomes the focal point for the rest of the piece. Using a carbide glass cutter and pliers, she scores then breaks the dishes into the shapes she needs, then uses a soldering iron to bond the pieces together.
“I have developed my own method,” she said. “It’s not even really something you can teach, because each piece has to be approached according to its shape, its thickness, its texture. Sometimes I have to go to bed thinking about how I’m going to cut something.”
Peggy Wolford Rasmussen, an artist who has worked with stained glass professionally since 1985, described Root’s method as “genius.”
“She’s more than just a glass cutter,” Rasmussen said. “Usually glass becomes more brittle as it ages, so I can only imagine what she’s doing. It’s not a flat sheet of glass; we’re talking about a three-dimensional piece. How do you even cut it without it breaking?”
Clients interested in purchasing Root’s work can customize their piece by size and color, among other things. She encourages customers to provide glass that may have sentimental value.
“I particularly like using stuff that is family heirloom,” she said. “I love it when people bring me family heirloom pieces that may be chipped or have imperfections on them so that I can make something out of it. It’s just a wonderful way for them to enjoy old family pieces. That’s what gave me the idea to use this; I was looking at my grandmother’s Depression glass.”
Root recalls a couple who ordered a window panel for their front door. They supplied Root with glassware that had been passed down from both sides of their families, as well as other pieces they had collected over the years. “They told me that if they ever move, they’re taking the window with them,” she said.
“If [clients] bring their stuff, they don’t really know what the end product is going to look like−neither do I. But I have never done a piece that didn’t turn out right. Even if it’s done with colors I don’t love, it’s stunning and gorgeous because of the uniqueness of it. People that have these pieces love them.”
Rasmussen said she admires Root’s work for its unique and unusual qualities.
“I haven’t seen anybody use the types of glass pieces that she’s using,” Rasmussen said. “And to even think that you could use the bottom of a plate, or the edge of a plate, and use it in the way she is. It’s just wonderful.”
Prices for Root’s work range from about $200 to thousands of dollars depending on size, glass used and time spent.
“It’s so very time consuming,” she said. “I can’t calculate my time because I have search time, design time, and it may take days or come together quickly. Then I have the actual manufacturing time; the balance has to be right. Everything has to be just right.”
But Root said she doesn’t mind the time she spends. With the ease of a studio connected to her home, she is able to be a mom and a grandma, all while committing time to the work she loves.
“You don’t tire of it because everything that you make is different. There is no question; this is my passion.”