Artisan of Light

Feb 12 • ARTSY SMARTSY, Reviews, Interviews and Features1 Comment

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Peter Swanson’s film captures beauty and trials of a renowned stained-glass artist

Screening and Q&A
of ‘Light There Be Light’
Sun., Feb. 17th • 2:30 p.m.
Cameron Art Museum
3201 S. 17th St.
$5-10, www.cameronartmuseum.com

PAINTING WITH SUN: Rowan LeCompte, with 70 years’ experience working with stained glass, completes a piece for the Washington National Cathedral in the documentary ‘Let There Be Light.’ Film still by Peter Swanson.

PAINTING WITH SUN: Rowan LeCompte, with 70 years’ experience working with stained glass, completes a piece for the Washington National Cathedral in the documentary ‘Let There Be Light.’ Film still by Peter Swanson.

It took six long years, but filmmaker Peter Swanson finally finished his documentary, “Let There Be Light.” Originally intended as a portrayal of grand master stained-glass artist Rowan LeCompte as he prepared a window for the Washington National Cathedral’s 100-year anniversary, what the film also captured was the tragic and unforeseen obstacles which arose during this grueling process. Ultimately, the documentary shows the spirit, determination and passion of an artist who is a legend in his field, with over 70 years experience.

LeCompte is a renowned stained-glass artist whose extensive body of work includes over 30 years of creating stained-glass windows at the Washington National Cathedral. His windows are installed in Wilmington at Cameron Art Museum’s (CAM) Weyerhaeuser Reception Hall, Church of the Servant, First Baptist Church and New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

CAM celebrates the artistry and life of LeCompte with the Wilmington premiere of Swanson’s film on Sunday, February 17th. Swanson will introduce the film and hold a Q&A session afterward. encore spoke with Swanson about his times with LeCompte, the film’s trials, and the unbreakable spirit of an artist.

encore (e): When did you first become familiar with LeCompte’s work?
Peter Swanson (PS): When I was 16, I went to high school in Bethesda, Maryland, and at the time my mother worked for the National Cathedral Association. So I used to carry the mail around the Washington National Cathedral grounds as my summer job. Later, I saw a documentary by Majorie Hunt about the stone carvers who worked on the cathedral. [Hunt won the Oscar for Best Short Film that year.] But for me, the [cathedral’s] glass was the really magical part. Then, in 2000, I wrote a proposal to try to get the cathedral interested in my film on Rowan’s work. They were interested but didn’t have any money. In 2006, I read that Rowan was actually going to make another window for the cathedral; I couldn’t let him do it and not document it. It’s almost like getting the opportunity to document someone like Michelangelo doing work in the Sistine Chapel—the chance doesn’t come by often. So I introduced myself to Rowan and we hit it off. I’ve been going down to his studio in Virginia about three times a year for the last five or six years.

e: What are some of the things you learned with LeCompte?
PS: Rowan is just a master of the art form and he has a real passion for stained glass. I mean, he’s been doing it since he was 14 years old, and he made his first window for the cathedral at 16. I started working with him when he was 82, so he’s had quite a history of that. What I learned—and this is with all great art—is that it’s a really long and arduous process that you have to be committed to. It took him four years to make this [last cathedral] window. And this is a massive window that he first envisioned in his head and then had to translate that vision into glasswork.

e: Is four years standard for that kind of project?
PS: Actually, the window was supposed to be ready in a year-and-a-half, but it got delayed. His work slowed down; he developed a tremor in his hand—so he’s not working as fast as he used to. It was ultimately three years behind schedule when it was finished. After four years of working on the window, the Cathedral Arts Committee rejected it. So this became a big dramatic twist in my documentary, and then there was an appeal process [to get the window installed], which took a year-and-a-half . . . But then there was an earthquake that did about $17 million in damage to the cathedral. So now the window is still sitting in crates until they get the damage repaired, but it should be installed next year some time. [Unfortunately], I had to end my film there just to get moving, but the earthquake gave it an interesting ending.

e: This must have been a difficult undertaking to document.
PS: Well, I started out doing a celebration of LeCompte’s stained-glass windows but [the story] just kept taking all these twists and turns. At one point I found myself in between the artist and the institution, which is never a place I wanted to be. I just kept telling both sides that my job was to follow the story and not take sides.

e: What is something you hope the audience takes from your film?
PS: Part of me just wants to celebrate the creative process—I’m tired of films that celebrate blowing things up. There is drama in creation, and I think we need more of that kind of stuff. Most people see art and don’t realize the struggle and passion behind it. Hopefully my film will inspire a creative spark in viewers.

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One Response to Artisan of Light

  1. Anne Womack says:

    How long is the DVD please? I recently bought several copies but cannot find out the length of the DVD anywhere. Thank you.

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