More Than the Sum of its Parts: an Interview with Ben… | Varyer

More Than the Sum of its Parts

Stained glass with Ben Houtkamp

You are walking down the street on a blinding Chicago winter morning. The kind where the sun prismatically ricochets off the snow crystals in a million tiny shimmering rays. Everything is grey, white until you see a brilliant explosion of technicolor rays through the window of your favorite shop. These colorful emanations are the makings of Ben Houtkamp, a visual artist working out of Chicago. Ben kindly obliged our request to video hang and give us the story of his newest stained glass pieces that caught our eye. We got the word from Ben on how the practice started, and where it’s going. You can find a couple of Ben’s new stained glass lightboxes in the Varyer Shop–a new tangent of work that he hopes people will like and understand. We think they will.

Ben’s father Frank is a stained glass artist and architecture student who has worked on church renovations and period homes since Ben could remember, but Ben himself never considered working with the medium, mostly sticking to painting and drawing. That is, until one day in 2019 a thought popped into his head: one of his abstract geometric drawings would look great as a stained glass window. He took it as a sign and used the opportunity to hang out with his dad and learn the process firsthand. Knowledge was transferred from elder Houtkamp to his scion.

Frank Houtkamp working on one of his stained glass compositions in his studio in Rockford, IL

Ben’s finished product created a domino effect of friends insisting on commissions in the same style. Since that initial experiment, he reckons he has done around 150 commissions and has made a few stained-glass pieces for himself in the process. Now he’s breaking open the medium and working in an entirely new format: hardwood, bulb-lit lightboxes that incorporate multi-disciplinary craftsmanship.

The pieces have big personalities; you stare at them and they stare back. Often evoking characters composed of convergent geometric shapes and lines, bright colors, and the occasional ogling eyeball. He recalls an interest in abstract and geometric art from an early age.

I got fixated on this phenomenon of seeing something abstract, especially something symmetrical, and feeling like it's got a facial expression and a personality. The more I thought about that concept, the more I started to see it out in the world. Like the front of a vehicle that looks like a face that's smiling at you, or maybe frowning at you.

Ben Houtkamp

The tendency for incorrect perception of a stimulus as an object, such as seeing faces in inanimate objects, is called pareidolia. It was once thought of as a symptom of psychosis but is now accepted as a perfectly normal human tendency.

The ability to experience pareidolia is more developed in some people and less in others.

Through experiments with forms and movement that conjure a sense of personality, his pieces evoke the viewer to ask, “Is that a face or...?” While the occasional set of eyeballs peer from a composition, Ben also prefers to keep it abstract, leaving the viewer to interpret what they are seeing. Some of these characters get names such as Lowell, or Gary–a large lightbox made for Hopewell Brewing Co. in Chicago.

His current studio is located on the West side of Chicago in the Austin neighborhood, stationed in a giant warehouse shared by something in the ballpark of ninety other artist studios. Though Ben grew up in Rockford and has a following in Portland, Oregon, he considers Chicago to be impactful on his work. He considers his first big break in Chicago to be a show at Hopewell Brewing Co. Ben speaks about how the connection to Hopewell formed at his old job working for a coffee roasting company blossomed into an opportunity:

'Gary' was fabricated in Ben’s dad’s workshop in Rockford, IL where Ben grew up, and is so named after a person from this past whom he recalls working with his father.

[Hopewell] kind of took a leap of faith offering me a show in their taproom, and I'm eternally grateful. It's one little thing like that which every artist needs to make what they're trying to do real to the world.

Ben Houtkamp

Ben believes there is a nascent reawakening of interest in stained glass art and composition and hopes that he is right, citing the medium as underutilized. He ascribes this to the fact that it’s one of those old handcrafts that needs to be taught. You either happen upon a job or come from a family that was in that trade as he did. It is a trade that generally resides behind closed doors. Ben is not interested in gatekeeping secrets for the stained glass Illuminati. His philosophy is that it’s hard to learn these things, but if he can do anything to help people learn, he’s into it.

The general process goes something like this:

I buy [whole sheets of] colored glass already made. I make my drawings on my iPad.

When I'm happy with the way the rendering looks, I transfer it to paper.

I take the glass that I bought and put my drawing on a light table and cut the glass over the drawing. The drawing is used as a template to cut individual pieces of glass.

Once they're all cut, I use what's called “lead came”, which is a long strip of lead that has an H-shaped channel.

You cut the lead with a pair of snips (lead dykes) into all of the little individual pieces that go between the pieces of glass. It's really malleable. You can bend it into whatever shapes you want. The lead fills the space and holds the individual panes of glass together, creating the lines which make up the geometry of your piece.

Once you have it all laid out and mostly assembled, you solder all of the joints on both sides. At this stage, it will still rattle around-- the glass and its lead channels are all together, but there are still small amounts of space.

So you dump this cement on and brush it around. It works its way into the lead spaces and grooves and any gaps where you may have cut a piece a little too small. Over a span of 15 to 20 hours, the cement will completely dry.

After an intensely laborious process waggishly alluded to as ‘horrible,’ eventually, all of the cement is either dry in place or brushed off. What’s left is a solid, weatherproof object ready for its new life as art. It is clear that Ben could go on to no end about the process. He let us know that a copper foil method can be used in lieu of lead and cement and is often an option for the novice glassworker. It requires less space to produce, although ultimately imparting a different look and feel to the finished stained glass.

Prior to the pandemic, Ben pulled inspiration from other current artists, galleries, and IRL interactions, which are slightly harder to come by now. These days Ben finds himself being inspired by products, specifically those that stimulate or trigger some sensation in your brain such as candy, cigarettes, or beer packaging.

I think about products that people use to cope through this strange pandemic time. I find myself being influenced by these product packages and color schemes that are sort of cartoonish and make your brain stimulated, then leave you to wonder why.

Ben Houtkamp

According to the Gestalt law of perceptual organization, things in the environment often tend to be seen as part of a whole. In many cases, our minds will even fill in the missing information to create cohesive shapes.

While we’ve all tried at some point or another to use Watermelon Sour Patch gummies to replace serotonin deficits in our brains, we are certain that Ben’s pieces do the same thing on a much grander scale. His painstaking process, passed down intergenerationally and shared freely, points to Ben’s Gestalt philosophy of the craft. That a whole can be, somehow, more than the sum of its parts. We can look into an amalgamation of colors, shapes, and lines in his work and see something not unlike ourselves looking back.