Earning the designation of a triple threat in the art world doesn’t come easy. Even the most talented artists take years to perfect technique and master skills to present multi-faceted performances worthy of accolades.
The owners of Classical Glass of South Carolina present a triple threat in their own way. Bill and Hi Roberson have built an enduring, creative business based on service, beauty and, above all, craftsmanship.
Framed scenes in stained glass decorate the Main Street studio shop. The vignettes vary in size, subject and mix of vibrant colors, yet they all are remarkable in their artistry. An Arts and Crafts-style door transom may hang next to a dove of peace. A Biblical scene contrasts with an arresting red, green and purple depiction of a Carnival mask. When the sun streams through the store windows, prismatic magic ensues.
In the middle of the shop, large tables hold works in progress. Here, Bill and sole employee Guy Fowler create stained glass creations one step at a time. Bill consults with his clients then ink-draws the patterns. One window may have five pieces, another hundreds. No matter the intricacy, each glass section is cut by hand to fit the design — no machines, no lasers.
“The cutting has to be almost perfect,” says Bill.
Windows may be further embellished with painted details, such as the feathers of a bird or creases of a robe. Colors are set by kiln-firing, which is done on-site. The sections are then soldered together with lead or copper foil. From there, a piece may be ready to frame or painstakingly installed as a window that could last for generations.
Bill points out that the Classical Glass way deviates little from original glass artisan techniques used centuries ago. Modern manufacturing allows for wider ranges of colors and eliminates some of the pitfalls faced by the original craftsmen, like the poisons in the paints. Still, many hours go into a single Classical Glass creation. “It’s labor intensive,” says Bill.
Having another skilled artisan working by his side helps Bill. Guy originally learned his trade working in Charleston, where he honed his etching and sandblasting techniques before joining the Classical Glass team. Since Bill and Hi opened their studio in 1993, they’ve had as many as seven employees, but Bill says it’s easier on many levels with a smaller crew.
While Bill and Guy work with the windows, Hi masters an important part of any business – the customer service and books. Her easy laughter and animated banter puts customers at ease. Her attention to detail works well for Classical Glass and her relationship with Bill. “We work as a couple,” says Hi. “Some couples can, some can’t.”
In fact, it was Hi who set Bill on his path of becoming a stained glass artist. Bill had always been creative, painting and selling his artwork as a teenager. He also made a living illustrating textbooks as an adult. The couple met while working as actors in North Carolina. After they moved to Columbia in 1988, Hi gifted Bill with a stained glass class as a Valentines Day present. His first creation, a hummingbird, still hangs in their home.
In the years since, Bill says he has created thousands of windows. By his count he’s installed at least 4,000 church windows. “I’ve seen old ladies break down and cry because they always wanted the stained glass windows in their churches and now they see them,” says Bill.
One of the most poignant Classical Glass creations hangs locally at the United States Army Soldier Support Institute Noncommissioned Officer Academy at Fort Jackson. Bill created windows memorializing Sergeants Major Lacey Ivory and Larry Strickland, who lost their lives in the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The windows include powerful symbols of an eagle holding a Sergeant Major insignia; an American flag; four plumes of smoke representing the Twin Towers, Pentagon and the crash site of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Penn.; and cracked columns honoring the loss and sacrifice of that day. Classical Glass creations also can be found at Shaw Air Force Base.
In many cases, Hi allows Bill the artistic spotlight, yet she is right by his side to add to a story or tuck his wayward collar. They also find creative release in pursuing acting jobs around the Southeast.
Between the pair, they’ve worked in movies like “The Patriot” with Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger, “Radio” with Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding, Jr. and George Clooney’s “Leatherheads.” Bill even was cast as “Fat Man at Bench” who sat next to Tom Hanks and his box of chocolates in the blockbuster movie “Forrest Gump.”
Fat Man at Bench: It was a bullet, wasn’t it?
Forrest Gump: A bullet?
Fat Man at Bench: That jumped up and bit you.
Forrest Gump: Oh, yes sir. Bit me right in the buttocks. They said it was a million dollar wound, but the army must keep that money ‘cause I still haven’t seen a nickel of that million dollars.
from Forrest Gump
Truth be told, though, Bill’s favorite acting job came working with Sidney Poitier in “The Last Brickmaker in America.” Bill swears that the acting legend never broke a sweat or lost his cool bounding up a set of stairs in sweltering temperatures for take after take.
Locally, many recognize Bill as a bit of a wild man. A series of Riverbanks Zoo commercials featured him dancing and lip-synching to “Wild Thing,” sporting a tie-dyed shirt and holding a live koala bear.
While Bill and Hi love acting, they couldn’t count on it to consistently pay the bills, even with the residuals they receive as contract actors. Hi says that is one reason they opened Classical Glass.
In acting, the couple says, you have little control. That’s not the case in stained glass creation. They agree there is nothing like unveiling one of their windows and seeing everyone’s jaws drop.
“It’s rewarding to make glass,” says Hi. “At the end of the day you have something beautiful. You get a scorecard with this. You get to see that you make people happy.”
In addition to his stained glass work, Bill Roberson has acted in numerous movies, including “The Patriot,” “Leatherheads” and the blockbuster, “Forrest Gump.”