Since 2002, Virginia Folklife has supported more than 100 pairs of masters and apprentices from fiddle makers to dancers. On Sunday, May 5, Folklife will present this year’s Apprenticeship Showcase in Charlottesville. WMRA’s Chris Boros went to Dixon Studio in Staunton to meet the team of master stained glass artist Ronald Dixon and his apprentice Todd Hinkle.
Ron Dixon: There’s always a moment when you see it and when you go to church you’ll see it in most cases. An odd thing, I wasn’t really encouraged to go into it because it wasn’t a dying art but there wasn’t much need for it especially in Ireland where I grew up. It’s an interesting business, you go from a fine brush to hard hats and scaffolding. So you’ve got a lot of hats to wear and it’s fun and the end result is striking. And it’s one of the arts where people don’t pay much attention to. They see it in the church and they probably go “Oh wow, that’s beautiful” but they don’t understand where it came from, how it got there, or anything else, so we’re not really noticed much for the general public or only when they want glass in their church or restoration repair.
WMRA: And Todd, how did you get involved working with Ron as his apprentice?
Todd Hinkle: That’s a little bit of a funny story. I was working a job, the quarry property joined Dixon’s property and I had to go over and set a seismograph up for a blast. And Mr. Dixon came down and got to talking to him and I asked him about the job I had and this and that and over the next few weeks I’d go back and talk to him. I ended up putting in my notice and going to work for Dixon about 15 ½ years ago. Loved every bit of it.
WMRA: What is it about this type of art that attracts you?
TH: I’ve been fascinated with it since I was a kid. Not knowing anything about it but just fascinated by the looks of it. Just going into churches and seeing the old windows. But I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance to lay a finger on making a stained glass window or anything and I really have enjoyed doing it.
WMRA: So you’ve been an apprentice for 15 years.
RD: His early stages was that Todd had some really good mechanical skills. But as we progressed and we did start bringing him in to select glass and then how to cut it and especially when we’re doing restoration which is his main area of apprenticeship. So he’s progressed, a good glass cutter even though he’s left handed and it confused me on how to teach a left handed man to cut glass, that was a problem all on itself but we were able to make it work.
WMRA: How did you make it work?
RD: I stood in front of him instead of behind him. I don’t know. But anyway he works fine with the left hand. The next step if there’s anything on the glass that needs to be painted, that’s usually what I’ll do but that’s the sort of next stage in his apprenticeship is learning the painting, how to do that.
WMRA: It’s amazing to me as someone who has never worked in this field at all to think that 15 years and there’s still things to learn and areas where you can grow. How do you feel about that?
TH: I like it. It seems like you’re doing something different every day. You’re not stuck with the same thing. One day you’re cutting glass and the next day you might be laying a window together, you’re doing something different every day.
WMRA: When you’re working with an apprentice like Todd, do you find yourself learning new things by the teaching process?
RD: Patience. (All laugh).
TH: And a whole lot of it.
RD: A lot of time what comes naturally to me is only because I’ve been doing it so long. The process is not a difficult process to do, it’s just that you have to do it long enough to get good at it. I suppose it’s like a musical instrument. You get a sound out of it and you may be able to play two or three notes, but to do a beautiful recital takes years and it’s that kind of thing.
WMRA: And Todd, as an apprentice what is your goal in this? Do you want to set up a shop next door to compete with Ron someday?
RD: That could happen. (All laugh).
TH: I don’t see that happening.
RD: I want to retire sometime.
TH: I just want to work with him until he retires and I’ll just see where I go.
RD: If anything happened to Dixon Studios, Todd could still open up a fine establishment because there’s an awful lot of old windows and they’ll need restoration.
WMRA: And do you want to learn every aspect of this, Todd?
TH: Oh yes. I want to learn as much of it as I can learn.