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Corning childhood fueled his passion for glass A conversation with Gregory L. Witul

Gregory L. Witul, 29, is a small-business consultant who dabbles in genealogical research, but his real passion is stained glass. His interest began -- appropriately -- when he lived in Corning, where as a young boy he recalled going to the museum of glass daily after school.

After moving to Buffalo, Witul began to document the many vibrant church windows through photography. Today, he is writing the biography of Buffalo stained glass master artist Joseph C. Mazur.

People Talk: How did you become so involved in stained glass?

Gregory Witul: Basically from my background growing up Catholic and in Corning. I spent 10 years of my life there. Glass gets into your blood. You just know everyone. Corning is great for the first week because you get to be a tourist, but after that there's nothing to do and if you're not interested in glass, you will be bored. So after school I'd get a cup of coffee and go to the museum.

PT: Does your pulse race when you see stained glass windows?

GW: Oh yeah. You have this explosion of color, great iconography. I love the symbols and the meanings -- all the little things that are hidden in a window. It's telling a story, and it's just fun figuring that story out. So when you go into a new church you can lose your breath.

PT: What did you think when all the churches began to close?

GW: I found it to be a travesty. There's great mural work. There's great architecture, and there's great stained glass. Corpus Christi was the first church I got expensive camera equipment for. I went all out to photograph the windows because I knew if I didn't do it, no one else may. Once the churches are closed, the windows get gutted, broken.

PT: How much is a window worth?

GW: If you have a Tiffany, you're looking at a couple hundred thousand dollars. [Trinity Church has] got to be insured for a couple million dollars because they have the best of the best, the perfect mix of La Farge and Tiffany.

PT: Where are you happiest in Western New York?

GW: I'm a big fan of Joe Mazur. He's the guy I've been working the hardest on, and I love being in his windows, but the best church that had his windows they tore down, St. Barbara's in Lackawanna. I also love Corpus Christi. I'm a big fan of the Munich style of windows, large scenic windows.

PT: Do stained glass masters take the sun's position into consideration when creating windows?

GW: The best ones take into consideration where the window will be located -- the longitude, the latitude -- because you're really playing with the sun. The sun determines what the window will look like at different parts of the day, and at different times of the year.

PT: How much of stained glass creation is science?

GW: It's almost all science. So you need to have a good architect to create a strong arch to put your window in, a good chemist to make all the different colors, good craftsmen to cut the glass, a good artist and another good chemist to make the lead to hold everything together. A good engineer to solder all those points.

PT: You had that in the Middle Ages?

GW: We've been making and experimenting with glass for 3,000 or 4,000 years.

PT: What's the latest innovation in stained glass?

GW: Laminates and inserting solar cells into stained glass windows. The Stained Glass Association of America this year met in Syracuse. One of the artists there had started to incorporate solar cells into her windows. It's not going to power a house, but it will power a lamp. The other thing is laminates that unite thin pieces of glass with plastic so you don't have to handle lead anymore. You can put a laminate window anywhere. It's significantly lighter, cheaper to be made and you can really play with elements.

PT: That's cheating.

GW: It is, but lead is the Achilles' heel of the stained glass window. It's only good for 70, 80, 100 years. So in theory, every 80 years every stained glass window in the world has to be releaded. With laminates you don't have to do that. And the [Environmental Protection Agency] said lead is dangerous. It is cheating, but people said the same thing about [Louis] Tiffany and [John] La Farge 100 years ago.

PT: Your favorite window?

GW: I love the Praise window in Westminster Presbyterian with Schroeder [from Peanuts] because it's a very secular window. It has the Lincoln Memorial, Duke Ellington, Westminster Abbey, St. Mark's, Marian Anderson. It is a great window expressing religious ideas with nonreligious themes. It doesn't have saints or angels. It has contemporary musicians.

PT: Are you deeply religious?

GW: Not deeply. I go to church. I don't want to go to hell. I think there may be a hell.

PT: What unexpected places will you find quality stained glass windows?

GW: Aurora, New York -- north of Ithaca. It has one stop sign and no red lights. Windows from 1863 produced in Buffalo are still in their original place in the middle of nowhere. Even if the place is not wealthy now, at one point those people may have been. The windows in this church were donated by Wells of Wells Fargo. Tiffany windows show up in obscure places, too.

PT: How rare are Tiffany's windows?

GW: They are extremely common. That's the great misconception that Tiffanys are rare. And Tiffany never made a window himself, like Henry Ford never built a car. He was an interior decorator. He oversaw production.

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com