By Ingrid Howard
In addition to Christmas trees, lights and wreaths, Town Village Vestavia Hills has another decoration for residents to enjoy, and this one can last year-round.
On some of the windows in the independent living community hang stained glass creations made by hand in Ron Vander Shaaf’s third-floor apartment.
He learned that the price for a two-bedroom apartment wasn’t that much more expensive than a one bedroom, so he decided to get a two bedroom and have space for a stained glass workshop, continuing a hobby he’s had for 35 years.
His avocation started when he was living in New Jersey and working in the Methodist ministry. He was assigned to go to a town called Piscataway to start a new church. Church leaders didn’t have enough money to put stained glass in the windows, so they had put in pieces of colored vinyl.
After Shaaf left, some of the members made panels of stained glass for the windows of the church.
“After they were done, they didn’t want to touch stained glass. They were tired of it,” he said. “And one of the men said, ‘Do you want my equipment?’”
Shaaf accepted. He started taking classes in the evening and learned how to create his own stained glass.
When making stained glass, Shaaf explained, he has to glue the pieces of colored glass to pattern paper. He then cuts the pattern using special scissors and lines them up. He doesn’t get to take off the paper until all of the pieces are in place.
“So you really don’t get a sense of it until all the pieces are put together and you hold it up to the light,” he said. “And that’s like, wow. That’s when you’ve taken something from concept and all the little pieces come together and make one object.”
Shaaf uses patterns from books for many of his stained glass creations, but he also free-hands some of the patterns. He has almost all of his creations photographed and documented in a photo album.
On one page of the album, there is a photograph of a fan-shaped stained glass window. He placed six red and blue jewels in the stained glass, and there is a red half-moon shape in the bottom of the window. This was an example of a creation he free-handed.
“When the sun hit that in the morning, and I didn’t plan this, it would cast dots, red and blue dots, on the wall,” he said. “And the half moon of red would make a butterfly. It took a great deal of imagination, but it seemed like a butterfly to me. And as the seasons moved on, that butterfly would move down the wall.”
Other pieces in his book have special meanings. One photograph shows a circular creation with an arrow going through it, representing the flight of the 9/11 airplanes.
Another photo shows a rectangular window, and one corner has lots of red pieces, and the other corner has lots of blue pieces. In the middle, a river of purple and white pieces bisects the window. He said each corner represents the sources of good and evil, and the middle is a river between the two forces.
“I’m a theologian, so everything is kind of theological,” he said. “Sometimes we’re good, and sometimes we’re bad. So this is us wandering through life.”
Pieces that hang in the window, what Shaaf calls suncatchers, are his favorite things to make. He also makes lamps, bowls, nightlights, miniature houses and more.
For the most part, he gives away his creations for free. He set up a table at the Town Village’s Christmas Bazaar this year, but he said he does it for fun, not for money.
“That works pretty well, but that’s not what I’m about,” he said about the Christmas Bazaar. “In terms of material and time, you never end crafts –you never get back the money and effort.”
Shaaf also does stained glass demonstrations for some of the other residents at Town Village. Every once in a while, residents tell him that they want to get started making stained glass.
“I said, ‘I’ll be happy to teach you, but I want you to know before you start that, in order to get the equipment you need, it’s going to cost over $300,’” he said. “And that usually cools them in a hurry.”