Hearts Afire

My stained glass heart is overshadowed by Jean’s beautiful fused glass pieces (middle and bottom photos).

When a high school classmate invited me to participate in “Hearts on Our Doors” via Facebook several weeks ago, I immediately accepted.

I’ve lived in the shadow of Yale-New Haven Hospital for my entire life, and several physicians, nurses and staffers live in my neighborhood. When I heard that six physicians in a neighboring town were suffering from the Covid-19 virus, I hung up some hearts leftover from Valentine’s Day on a few trees on the main road bordering my property.

I wasn’t thrilled with my effort, but I wanted to do something to thank workers risking their lives to help people during the pandemic. Shortly after those hearts went up, a lot of other hearts and red ribbons began popping up.

I wanted to make a suitable heart, something that would convey my appreciation and came up with the idea of a stained glass piece. I failed to consider that I haven’t worked with stained glass in about 15 years, and had forgotten nearly every step involved in the process.

I took up the craft when my kids were young, and I was looking for a creative outlet. I was once so engrossed in the process that I failed to notice my 2-year-old daughter was scribbling all over my new living room furniture with a ballpoint pen.

When I looked through the Yellow Pages and found an upholstery cleaner who made emergency visits on Saturdays, I said, “I think this qualifies as an emergency.” He removed the ink, and I became a lifelong customer. But that pretty much put an end to my obsession with stained glass.

But something about this pandemic brought out my desire to resurrect the craft. Using glass that’s been in my basement collecting dust for years, I went about cutting, grinding, taping the edges of the glass in copper foil and soldering the piece. I was so eager to finish that I framed the piece and put on black patina, failing to remember to solder on wire to hang it.

A week later, the heart was still sitting on my kitchen counter and I was desperately trying to figure out ways to hang it. I eventually decided to drill through the glass using a special drill bit, but ended up cracking some glass in the process.

I was kicking myself over my stupidity when my son reminded me that this was just one heart, and I could make another if I was unhappy with it. He also commented that it wasn’t my best work anyway, something I couldn’t really dispute. Whoever thinks that lead-free solder works as well as the real stuff has never used it. Give me lead any day of the week.

So I hung my heart, cracks and all, on a plant hanger outside my house just in time for our state’s lockdown to officially end today.

It’s OK though. I want my heart to stay out there for a very long time, reminding people of where we’ve been and where we’re going. I don’t want people to forget the sacrifices front line workers made during this crisis and how much we appreciate their efforts. We all tend to have short memories when things begin to return to normal.

Looking back on it, I should have consulted my friend Jean, who owns a glass studio in town. I thought about it, but figured she might be busy. As it turns out, she was, churning out about 525 glass hearts in all sizes to give to health care workers and first responders to thank them for their efforts.

Jean launched her project after her 34-year-old niece had to undergo a heart transplant in the midst of the pandemic in North Carolina. Alone in the hospital and unable to have visitors due to Covid-19 concerns, Jean made her niece a small glass heart and a rainbow to lift her spirits.

She then decided to devote the next few months to making hearts to give to people helping out during the pandemic, everyone from police, fire and ambulance drivers to people delivering and shopping for food for the elderly.

“It was the one thing I could do,” she said. “Some people were making masks or donating their time, but I decided to make hearts to make people smile and show them that we care. I wanted people to not feel alone.”

The hearts are made of fused glass, a process in which glass is heated up to 1,480 degrees and joined with other glass in a kiln. Jean said it’s impossible to say how long each heart took to make, but noted the process takes several days. Jean made most of the hearts as pocket tokens, though some were designed to be worn as necklaces.

Each heart is handmade and unique, ranging in color from vivid oranges and pinks to deep greens and blues. Jean is now busy making larger hearts for shop owners and residents who want to hang them on their front doors or windows.

She’s also gearing up for the official reopening of her shop in downtown Guilford, CT., today. Jeanne bought the shop about a year ago, fulfilling her promise to herself that she’d one day get back to her art. A double major in studio art and American history at Smith College, she worked for years as an elementary school teacher and later, at Yale University.

I’ve seen lots of hearts over the past few months, but I think Jean’s glass ones are among the most stunning. Something about the glass and the way it shines is mesmerizing. To see more of Jean’s work, visit https://www.jgreshamdesign.com.

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