My father grew up in somewhat similar circumstance as I did, in the business of a family stained glass company that was started two generations before him in the late 1800’s. The company had become rather large and very renowned in the art circles. His father had become a giant in the industry and of the greater art world in general. His father also forwarded the success of the family company by networking and surrounding himself with other great designers in the industry. Even though my father, Robert Frei, was a good, young talent in his own right, it seemed an insurmountable task to measure up to all that surrounded him. Later, when I got to know him, I sensed a leftover humility from that beginning. I think that is why he struck out into more of an inventor roll, as he seemed destined to be eclipsed in the art world of his youth. Then, his father died young, and thus handed over the business during the start of a serious downturn the the liturgical stained glass industry. Most of the other old time studios went belly up during that time. My father was a pragmatist. He did what needed to be done. He seriously downsized the studio to fit the amount of work he was able to get. He recognized the new reality, cut costs and capital by closing the large old plant in downtown St. Louis. He built a new studio onto the back of his house in the woods, keeping just a couple of the best employees. He never said so, but I sensed that he felt like he had failed in some way. But he kept on. He liked his craft. He liked to design windows. He liked to get the job done. He was extremely good at those tasks. To him, it was a job, a good job. Let pride go. To me, he was brilliant.
Despite all of this being forced upon him, my father gained an advantage that was not sought after. With much of the old guard swept away, both internally and externally, he was able to move and grow into his own territory, and that is exactly what he did. He filled a void with his own innovations in art that ended up being very impressive, winning awards and used for tours to this day. The trouble was, what was an advantage to his own growth, also left him void of peers to appreciate, give accolades and help forward what he was innovating and accomplishing. You can’t have it all.
This is a take on my father that seems to be uniquely my own. It was of an inner doubt that he did not seem to share, and one that did not end up holding him back in any way. I thought that it was obvious enough, until I mentioned it to others just after his death. Everyone’s head turned just slightly crooked, like a dog trying to hear some faint sound in the distance.
My growth into the field had some loose similarities to that of my father, other than art was never my main interest, and the space never opened up. That is not to say that I would have done anything with that space, but without it, one is best to carve out some other niche, and tailor your skills to fit that niche. Mine was simply getting the job done. That I got from him.
This story is preceded by “Trading Hiding Places For A Stained Glass Studio” and “The Home of a Tradesman“