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Through a Glass Brightly

October 17, 2003—There is a quiet healing that comes through creation. For IUP alumna Leah Davis, that healing emerges through chunks of colored glass, meticulously arranged into new and restored pieces of art.

 

Stained Glass

Leah Davis holds a window crown she recreated for a church display cabinet.

Leah Davis holds a window crown she recreated for a church display cabinet.

A second career became a labor of love for Davis, a 1977 graduate with a degree in special education. She received her first taste of the therapeutic value of art at the age of fifteen, working with her mother at a Huntingdon community center.

“It wasn’t art therapy, but it was therapeutic for these children, because they all came from underprivileged homes,” said Davis. “I didn’t know then just what value it was having for those kids.”

She had hoped to combine her loves while at IUP, but the art program was too full for her to double major. Instead she focused on special education and the special needs of children and families and taught special education at a Huntingdon high school for a year after college. Still intent on her goal, she moved to Montana and Oregon to take two years of art courses as prerequisites for a master’s degree in art therapy. The last two classes that she wanted to take were closed, however, and she was forced to take a stained-glass course.

“I credit God for giving me the nudge to go in that direction,” Davis said. “I fell in love with the medium.”

She traveled next to Vermont for graduate school. The school operated like a placement program, and she worked her practicum for three years with United Cerebral Palsy in New York City. UCP hired her during that time, and she continued working as an art therapist for multiply disabled children and adults for another year after graduating. She followed that with a move to Chicago, working as an art therapist for seven years for the Illinois Deaf Blind School (currently called the Philip J. Rock Center and School). While doing this, she started her first stained-glass business.

Select for a gallery of Leah’s work 

In the fall of 1989, she moved back to Huntingdon and was hired as a special education teacher by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, working at SCI Huntington, one of the largest maximum-security sites in the state. During her seven years there, she helped create the prison’s first special education program. After two years, she transferred into the psychology department to work as art therapist for about 150 special-needs inmates, helping sex offenders with in-depth counseling and therapy.

“You can only do that for so long,” she said. “When I was starting to get burned out, I decided I wanted to move back into the community. There were a lot of good things that happened in prison, but I felt I could do even more for children and families that could possibly keep them out of prison.”

She started her stained-glass work again on the side while continuing to work full-time with children in the mental health field. It wasn’t long before she opened her stained-glass store, and the roles began to reverse. Soon she was at the store full-time while working with the children on the side, and two years ago she gave up all of her mental health art therapy work to focus completely on her artwork.

“It was difficult for me to leave the mental health profession, because I loved working with children and families and loved seeing the healing occurring there,” Davis said. “But I realized to heal myself I needed to do my own art and have my own work and focus on that. I always felt spread too thin, trying to do a lot of things for a lot of people. Once I started to focus, my business started to blossom even more. It has been a really positive thing.”

Her store, Wine Art Glass, has been open for six years. In addition to Tiffany-style lamps and stained-glass panels, it features many samples of her specialty: stained-glass grapes and grapevines with hand-cut recycled copper leaves and vines. She found a niche in wine festivals, traveling through several states every year to local and national wine conventions in her Toyota pickup truck, emblazoned with airbrushed grapes.

Leah examines the damaged stained-glass windows in the church's basement.

Leah examines the damaged stained-glass windows in the church's basement.

Her current main project, however, is restoration. Davis recently completed a year-long project for the Huntingdon Presbyterian Church, located just across the street from her shop. Church members had found about sixty stained-glass windows that had been crated in 1955 and stored in the basement.

During Davis’s inventory of the heavily damaged glass, she found three windows that belonged to the original chapel, dating back to the mid-1800s. Documents described how a Sunday school teacher had his pupils build the windows.

She photographed and sketched them, numbering and labeling each piece before they were taken apart. Because of the damage, she was forced to alter the design, but she was able to build three smaller arched windows using the original hand-cut, faceted glass “jewels” that decorated the original windows. The new windows were used as transoms along the top of an oak display case the church built to house an antique organ and other memorabilia. 

Davis used some of the remaining glass to create new windows for the pastor’s study and one of the Sunday school rooms. She is also making keepsake pieces that the congregation can purchase through the church. It’s full-time work, and she is not taking on any new projects at least through Christmas, 2003, because she’s so booked. She has two assistants, including her fifteen-year-old son, Elijah. Davis was the recipient of the 2002 Entrepreneurial Success Award, presented by the Greater Huntingdon Chamber of Commerce. She was also chosen as one of Pennsylvania’s Best 50 Women in Business for 2003 after being nominated for the honor in 2002 and coming in that year at number fifty-one.

“I see the world in a very different way than most people,” she said. “I love to design and create. Art is therapy for me. It’s something I do every day to keep me sane.”

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