Glass artist shines light on church’s need

Des Terblanche beside one of the church windows.

The way light changes as it moves through glass has captivated Des Terblanche his whole life.

So much so, that his entire retirement is devoted to teaching stained glass as an art form.

“My job,” he says, “is to recover this art form.”

But behind that, like the light which burns – and in turn casts the colours – his deeper intention is to restore each window of the Church of St John the Evangelist, in Fish Hoek.

Inside the stately church in 6th Avenue, the 80-year-old stained glass windows pour a profusion of rich colour onto the pews. It is the only contrast to the contemplative, dark interior.

But as beautiful as they are, the windows are in desperate need of restoration, and it’s not a simple job.

Mr Terblanche shows off the windows, shipped in from England more than 80 years ago. Each has a story; they depict the trinity, the church, the sacraments and the sanctification… as well as depict God, as seen by the church.

Mr Terblanche describes how each is hand-painted and then fired in a kiln, and then in his studio across the road, shows the connective material used to hold the glass in place. This tubing can be bent to the shape of the glass, and is then filled with a substance to hold it steady.

“All that is great, except the glass is heavy, and this ‘putty’ which is used eventually turns to powder over the years. Then, with that and the weight of the glass, the whole thing begins to shift downwards, and to sag. If this continues and the glass shatters, it’s a far more complex situation to fix,” he says.

It means he would have to hand paint and fire that glass from scratch, and match the tones of the original paints.

It has become his mission to lovingly restore the windows before that eventuality. So far, he has done three, and five more are in desperate need of his touch.

“I worry that it would take longer than I have left on this earth to finish my task. So I want to train men to help me.”

He is not being sexist. He is being practical. “I only say men, because this work requires climbing stepladders and hoisting heavy glass about above your head. It is hard labour, heavy, and dirty work,” he explains.

For learning the art, however, his doors are open to everyone; and his greatest supporters are women.

“There is a steady stream of people who come to learn for reasons entirely their own. I teach them how to cut glass first and then each lesson we build on the process and artistry. There are two items I ask them all to make, to test the basic skills. Then they are free to work with anything they want. Everyone is different, and so is their expression,” he says.

He shows off a wall of work. His students have created a wide variety of work, from the Tree of Life and angels to lampshades, sun catchers, decorative serviette holders and glass panels for doors.

This is another aspect to his work.

“I love the work, all of it, so I don’t mind going out to assess things, especially if I am tasked with restoring them. This could be replacing a previous design or being given free rein to do my own.”

He says not many people want to do the clunkier less glamorous jobs, they want to go straight to restoring church windows. But they forget, he says with a soft smile, that those clunky jobs are the ones that teach and stretch you, and give you the experience.

His day job was in telecommunications but 16 years ago he picked up his first piece of glass with the intent of making something beautiful out of it.

He hasn’t looked back once. After retiring and leaving Pretoria, he made Cape Town his home.

“I approached the church with my offer and they were delighted. I have my studio on their property so that I can work on the windows in close proximity to the church, and it works very well,” he says.

He says the stained glass is also a metaphor, an example of what we should strive to be as human beings.

“Glass is just glass, especially if it is dark. It needs a bright light behind it, to show the beauty of its colours. We are the same. We need to shine our inner light, to reveal our own true colours to the world.”

To contact Mr Terblanche, or for more information, find him on Facebook or go to www.decorativeleadglass.co.za