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Glass Therapy

By Melody Murri

Sisters Mary Strang and Patricia McKee have thrived through quarantine and beyond by creating fused and stained glass art in Rush. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 brought work and social interactions to a grinding halt, sisters Mary Strang and Patricia McKee were determined to weather the storm.

They did a lot more than that — they thrived.

“Isolating” together in Mary’s basement glass studio in Rush, the two spent hours crafting stained glass and fused glass art, ultimately launching their own pop up boutique called Glass Therapy.

“We started out creating for fun and to have something to do, but have since started a business to sell our items,” said Mary, who lives not far from her sister. “We chose the name Glass Therapy because we considered the time we spent as our version of lock-down therapy.”

Picasso-inspired self portraits. Mary depicted herself with earrings and made wearable earrings as a companion project.

A mechanical designer by profession, Mary had years of previous experience making stained glass and fused glass pieces. And Pat, a retired structural engineer, was keen to learn. Their competitive spirits as sisters and their knowledge and passion for fine art set them up for success, carrying them through quarantine and beyond.

“She taught me everything, but don’t tell her that,” quipped Pat. “I never took a class, except from her.”

In early 2020, the two got together almost every day. But Mary’s work schedule has them meeting in the studio just three or four times a week, at night and on weekends.

Mary’s long-term plan was always to work with glass after retirement and possibly start a retail business to sell her art. Though she hasn’t retired yet, she’s got a running start.

“We’re not really entrepreneurs and we’ll probably never be able to live off the money we make selling,” she said. “We’re just hoping to support our ‘therapy.’ Like everything else, glass is getting more expensive.”

Cutting sheets of colored glass into tiny shapes, they melt intricate designs and patterns together in a kiln at up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. When the kiln finally cools, some 16 to 18 hours later, out came the ornaments, snowflakes, flowers, “sundangles,” coasters, clocks, kaleidoscopes, dishes and swizzle sticks they’ve dreamed up.

“I like opening the kiln — most of the time,” said Pat. “It’s either thrilling or it’s the worst day of your life, because it’s a disaster.”

Mary makes sundangles or suncatchers out of glass and adds things she’s collected over the years like shells, stones, beads and hardware.

“I like the precision of making snowflakes, flowers and ornaments,” said Pat. “I have the pieces in front of me and just play with them until I find something I like.”

She’s also created game-themed glass coasters created to look like Sorry!, Parcheesi, Monopoly and Rubik’s Cube.

Getting started

Mary’s passion for stained glass ignited when she joined the workforce right out of college.

“I started going to local craft shows and buying stained glass things,” she said. “My mother suggested I try making them myself, so I took a class at Rochester Museum and Science Center and I was hooked.”

More classes followed at Rochester’s Studio 34, where Mary learned to fuse glass in a kiln.

“It wasn’t long before I bought my own kiln and continued making things for myself and as gifts,” she said. “After that, it was glass, cutting tools, a soldering iron, a ring saw for cutting odd shapes, a grinder, scoring tools, a light table and kiln accessories.”

Her pride and joy— a 20-year-old top loading 18-inch Rampmaster kiln by Evenheat — is programmable and “runs like a top,” Mary said.

It’s powered by a 240v outlet, which in off hours runs the clothes dryer.

“I noticed my electric bill went up about $50 when we started,” said Mary. “I can tell when we haven’t been doing a lot of work because the electric bill goes down.”

For others just getting started, Pat and Mary recommend taking classes and online tutorials, as well as visiting museums and anywhere that will inspire a hunger to learn more.

Sister challenges

While Pat and Mary work side by side, creativity is best done solo.

Recently, though, they started competing against each other on “sister challenges.”

About once a month, one sister will pick a theme and they both create something that complies. They don’t see each other’s pieces until the final “big reveal” and the winner gets bragging rights.

Among their recent challenges: Picasso-inspired self-portraits, clocks, Wassily Kandinsky-inspired anything, scrap-glass-only pieces, bowls, non-traditional Christmas trees (decorated), something for each other, something for somebody else. Most recently the two made pieces for the Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo) 6×6 exhibition.

While Pat gains inspiration through the colors, light and patterns of everyday objects. Mary said she’s inspired by her travels locally and abroad and visits to museums.

“Dale Chihuly and Peter McGrain are two of my favorite artists,” she said.

As for the end product, Pat measures its overall quality and success by whether she had fun making it.

“If I had fun, then I like it,” she said. “It’s pretty subjective.”

“We make what we like and we try to sell it,” said Mary. “But if people don’t want to buy it, we’re still OK with that.”

Glass Therapy creations will be available in September at the Memorial Art Gallery’s Clothesline Art Festival. In Naples, they currently have pieces at Wildflower Gifts and expect to appear at various craft shows around the Finger Lakes this summer.

Find Glass Therapy on Instagram at www.instagram.com/glasstherapy807