One never knows where a story about a “character” and a “celebrated” artisan will take both writer and subject.
Chuck Franklin and his American bull terrier, Rocky, greet me at their house near Eckman Lake. Rocky and Chuck have been living here with his wife Carol since 2015.
Retirement for the 72-year-old self-described ex-hippie (“actually, I am still a hippie”) has not been such an easy thing for a man who once had more than 20 artists and craftspeople working for him in his glass studio in Portland.
Well-known-in-glass circles, Chuck Franklin Glass Studio, a 2008 book written about his stained-glass work — “Windows of Character and Style” (Wardell Publications) — covers a lot of territory.
Chuck hands over the book as a gift — a bridge to understand the depth and breadth of his stained-glass operation.
He prepared for the interview — photocopies of articles, photos of stained-glass and mosaics; the DVD with an 2002 OPB Oregon Art Beat featurette of his work; an accompanying slide show of his creations.
His traditional, classic, art deco, freestyle and psychedelic glass work is all over the country inside churches, casinos, dozens of restaurants, private homes and public spaces.
Inside their house, the couple has ceiling-to-floor artwork, as well as plenty of glass from Chuck’s repertoire — large complex stained-glass abstracts and landscapes catching light and sun, abutting windows; wall art, to include his mosaics; and some fused glass pieces.
Everywhere I look, that spectrum of colors imbues the living space. Shadow, reflections, refraction, cascading colors.
Ancient discovery brings Heavenly light
“It is more likely that Egyptian or Mesopotamian potters accidentally discovered glass when firing their vessels. The earliest known manmade glass is in the form of Egyptian beads from between 2750 and 2625 BC. Artisans made these beads by winding a thin string of molten glass around a removable clay core. This glass is opaque and very precious.” — Stained Glass Association of America
If we could go back in time with Chuck, the reader would have a heck of a journey and some juxtapositions of a young fellow who was destined to be a fighter pilot to a jet-setting artisan flying out to jobs in towns like Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Austin, LA, New York.
His narrative cantilevers back to Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland (founded, 1917) — a school which really prepped him to learn the value craftsmanship.
Using drafting skills, exploring mechanical and engineering problems, designing art whether through woodworking or metal craft, Chuck learned more than academic tricks.
“I feel bad for today’s youth. There should be shop classes, and more crafts and trades. Not everyone thrives in an academic setting.”
When Chuck was 18, he headed to OSU with a Navy scholarship, but found out his eyesight wasn’t good enough for pilot school. He glommed on to aerospace engineering because of his talent for math. “I would sign up for math courses for the easy grades. But as a child, I always was doing art. I loved drawing.”
He tells me that the Vietnam War, the protests, the prospect of military endeavors overseas and other issues threw a boomerang into his youthful plans.
His last hurrah in the aerospace field was a short stint in California with 29 other students to work on the preliminary design of the Mariner Mars lander.
Once back in Portland, he knew that sort of work was not his forte or drive.
Down but not out in Stumptown
We talk about how life can take these curves to completely remake and refocus someone.
He was in Portland kicking around working odd jobs. He tells me this was both a low point and a very necessary new step in his life — “I was out of work, living in a friend’s garage, and I was a hippie.”
He started making candles selling them out of his VW microbus.
Then a trip to the hospital put Chuck in front of a wood sculpture displayed in the lobby. He told himself he could do that and commenced to carving.
That was in 1974. A tsunami of good fortune, being in the right place at the right time, and his engineering and artistic fortitude with a “no fear” attitude quickly coalesced into the budding glassman he is today.
Big-time glass works
His 34 years at that point in the fast-paced commercial stained- glass field garnered him a lifetime achievement award from the Art Glass Association in 2008. His glass studio. Another seven years working largely on McCormick and Schmick’s restaurants garnered his studio success. One year, the total gross for his business was upwards of $2 million.
He’s been at the art of glass since the age of 28, 41 years with his Portland studio.
The steam of business picked up at the right time. He met Carol more than two decades ago while she was cashiering at Hippo Hardware. When they married, Carol took over the books, the bookings, the travel, payroll and all the back of the house stuff not related to arts and crafts.
Chuck holds Carol’s hand telling me how instrumental she was in helping the business stay afloat and grow.
Deep down, Chuck realizes how layered his life turned out gaining all these skill sets and all these compadres in the business of designing, crafting and making great interiors of these high-end restaurants.
“I know when I die, I will be taking my craft and many techniques with me to the grave.”
However, even at 72, he has an eye to keep going, on a small personal scale. His smaller pieces are at Earthworks and Touchstone in Yachats. He is taking on commissions.
“I know I’ve had a really good run at this,” he tells me while finishing up a window for a homeowner in Toledo.
Give me light: Part II
“Mosaics have a long history, starting in Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC. Pebble mosaics were made in Tiryns in Mycenean Greece; mosaics with patterns and pictures became widespread in classical times, both in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. ... Mosaics went out of fashion in the Islamic world after the 8th century.” — Wikipedia
Chuck Franklin might have a common name, but his stained-glass art is all over the country in uncommon locales. So pervasive is his work in the McCormick and Schmick’s restaurants that for years, late 1970s and to 2014, he and his crew of 20 would work with electricians, woodworkers, carpenters and others to install his stained-glass chandeliers, ceilings, showcase bars and entrances and murals in order to fit seamlessly into an entire interior space.
“When I was given a job, I’d research the state bird and flower. Really get into some details.” Name a major city and one of the restaurants in the chain — now run by Landry’s — has his work in it. Sports team mascots, state flags and flowers are more of the mainstream images. Chuck and his team were very creative.
He has plenty of stories having all his workshop’s stained-glass fixtures and art styling crated and shipped via semi with all the woodwork and actual bars while he and a small crew flew out to do the assembling and built-in work.
“I had my share of parties and late nights,” he tells me, now as a 72-year-old who has slowed down but still has all these artistic and design gifts he wants to put to good use, but in a much more scaled down and even art-gallery fashion.
Tiffany and Company
Sure, when people think of stained glass, their minds go to Tiffany and LaFarge. Twice he has seen Tiffany works — at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and then later at the Orlando Morse Museum.
“My crew and I visited the museum several times to view and study the many notable windows that we had always admired in books. Windows like Four Seasons, Feeding the Flamingos, Wisteria and Magnolias. Fortunately, we usually had the museum all to ourselves, but the under-worked security staff shadowed our every move.”
If we rewind more, here we have this 28-year-old fellow, getting a gig at a new bar in Tualatin. He was signed on to carve all the wooden taps. The owner wanted some stained glass, but Chuck had never done it before. So, he got a book on stained-glass lamp shades. Soon, the Buffalo Head tavern had a new window with intricate work and the word, “Saloon” on it.
Back then, the city ordinance forbade the word saloon, so while the owner went to court to fight that so he could keep the new Chuck Franklin work, the stained-glass portion of the word was covered up.
The bar owner won, and changed case law in the process.
From that day on, Chuck was on his way in a new profession.
He reminds me that he was lucky by landing a little house he rented from a lady friend who let the young Chuck slip behind in his rent a few months.
Then the next big break — the bartender at Buffalo Head had a note to call Bill McCormick, owner of Jake’s in downtown Portland. If the reader ventures to Portland, the big “J” and other pieces in the restaurant are Chuck’s.
Then his life changed big time as McCormick and partner Doug Schmick started opening up restaurants all over the country.
They needed lots of interior stained-glass.
'When are you getting a real job?'
Before the house in Portland, he was in his friend’s garage for a while. His mother wanted him to get a “real job.”
His mother was upset her son was living the bohemian life and “messing around” with art and not making a living working for NASA.
“When I took her to the restaurant, and she saw my work she knew then I was serious. We were fawned over by the manager and waiters and received numerous compliments. By the end of the evening, my mom finally decided this line of work might have potential. I no longer heard the ‘real job’ question.” the people that kept telling me how beautiful it was, that was the moment my mother was proud of me and my profession.”
Chuck tells me that he and his sister were raised by their mom as a single parent.
Right now, he is placing a few things in galleries, and Chuck says for many years being a big-time stained-glass craftsman and now living in Waldport, he missed the adulation and attention. “Who doesn’t like having someone see their artwork and then get all these compliments?”
Themes between the glass
If there could be a theme for this profile, I might use something Chuck says several times during our time together:
“I had a great run. I don’t want it to end.”
That’s when Chuck, Carol and I talk about what it is to be a 72-year-old self-made, self-taught artist and crafts expert in a world where most youth are not working with their hands.
They both lament all the “sitting in front of computer screens” for hours youth are now occupied with, while also not gaining the gifts of full circle, holistic craftwork.
The skills, knowledge, history and technical abilities, plus all the comradery of other tradespeople and artists involved in these restaurant installations are valuable components that Chuck feels are missing in young people’s lives.
Chuck tells me he would love to teach and coordinate mosaic and stained-glass workshops in public schools. He knows by showing young people the entire process — from concept to design; from drawing to prepping; from gaining fluency in the glass and other materials knowledge to the actual long hours putting a stained-glass piece together — all would give youth multiple skills sorely missing in their educations.
Add to that marketing of the art and commercial pieces; traveling to different locations; interviewing clients and showing them materials and other examples of other works demands another whole set of people skills.
For Chuck right now, facing some medical issues, having self-worth wrapped up in his creative products is vital — giving him a sense of purpose, too.
We talked about their two children, Heidi and Jerry. Carol and Chuck were preparing to go to Portland for Chuck’s minor surgery, but part of the trip was centered around 55-year-old son Jerry’s heroic fight against bladder cancer.
Their son’s been receiving chemotherapy and radiation. They have grandchildren.
The interview always stays buoyant because Chuck and Carol have positive outlooks, possess incredible shared memories. Even with the dreary rainy light of the Oregon Coast winter, their home is lifted by an ocean of fire hues and glittering shards of light-beams from all glass works surrounding them.
Given the amazing joy and gratitude many clients over the years have displayed having one or more pieces of Chuck’s installed, we also talk about the ephemeral nature of commercial art.
Many of the restaurants — dozens — have been (and will be) undergoing rebranding, remodeling and massive interior redecorating. Many of Chuck’s pieces have ended up in the dump with the old two-by-fours, drywall and demolition materials.
He’s gotten phone calls from electricians and carpenters who have told him of restaurants that almost sent the work of Chuck to the dumpster. Some have reclaimed the pieces for their own personal homes.
The libraries in Lebanon and Sweet Home have Franklin’s stained glass. The city building in Beaverton has his work. Then there’s Jake’s Famous Crawfish restaurant; the chapel at Warner Pacific University; St. Mary’s Boys Home; William Temple House; Tualatin’s McCormick’s, Voodoo Doughnuts.
While Chuck’s math and engineering skills allowed for the studio to be a self-contained operation where all the work, design, drafting and architectural planning were done in-house, he still credits many influences in his life why he sees glass, shapes and final products the way he does.
“I have always enjoyed architectural diversity and was fascinated by Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings and glass work that he designed to complement them. In Tiffany’s work, I loved the rich use of colored glass, the lush landscapes, and the creative use of dimension and layering. Frank Lloyd Wright’s glass work satisfied more of the technical side of me.”
That technical side of Wright is what Chuck sees as a transition from exterior to interior. He sees that architectural glass design as also adding a “transitory feeling” to any space.
For Chuck Franklin, every piece of glass has possibility. Every shape in nature is a potential design. Every moment light hits the thousands upon thousands of colored glass pieces is a moment in his own artistic heaven where the stars, planets and earth all quicken into a kaleidoscope of a billion lights.
Better half responds
Carol Franklin definitely is a huge part of the glass-man’s success. She was kind enough to answer questions. What do you think about your husband’s art? And what do you like about Waldport?
“One of the things I have learned and been amazed by is Chucks 'can do' attitude. His positive approach to any problem has brought us exciting and fun adventures. From small windows to large domes, his brilliant use of design and color bring beauty into any space and I love being a small part of it.”
“Since we moved to Waldport, I have enjoyed sharing my love of the coast and the beauty of the surrounding forest with Chuck while driving the back roads. We love watching the deer steal our apples from the trees, grazing in the yard, and resting in the night when our Rocky dog is snoozing. He has created a 'little bit of heaven' here for us, and I am very grateful.”
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America's Education System.”