It's nearly impossible to walk past Wendy Wilson's glass shop without wanting to peek inside. Large storefront windows display Tiffany lamps in various states of repair, elegant bud vases, sea-creature inspired blown glass marvels, and a range of other curiosities.
Step through the door, which is nearly always open, and you're likely to find Wilson and her husband and co-owner, James Silva, at work on one project or another. At one table, Silva may be scoring and hand cutting glass while, at another, Wilson ponders plans for a new creation.
From time to time, they'll check the kiln to see how their latest experiment in bending or melding glass turned out. (The couple has been working on a line of sushi dishes, which will be available for order at the Solano Stroll this Sunday.)
Across the eastern wall, sturdy shelves hold hundreds of sheets of glass in every color of the rainbow, some of it swirled, iridescent or rippled, all of it irresistible.
Work at the shop, which has been on Solano Avenue since 2004, runs the gamut. The couple does custom windows, doors and cabinets and can also handle repairs on any number of glass items, and in a range of styles, from craftsman to contemporary.
The shop's largest project dominates its back room. Five separate curved stands are covered with thousands of glass shards, each wrapped by hand in copper foil to allow the pieces to bind together. Churning in purples, blues and greens, "Into the Deep" is a jaw-dropping piece, for the ceiling of a private home, that's been years in the making.
"It's the view if you're standing underneath the water looking up at the surface," Silva, 39, said. "It should really evoke the feeling of being submerged. The water is rushing down and leaping and swirling. This is deep water. It's moody."
Silva, who's trained in architecture and relatively new to the art of glass, is quick to point out that the shop is Wilson's baby. He describes his wife as "a glass junkie."
In addition to the challenges of designing windows and choosing just the right color palette, Wilson said she loves to experiment with finding just the right shade. Once, when she couldn't find the right color she wanted, she took two complementary colors and sealed them together with copper foil to create what she needed.
Another aspect of the work that appeals to her is how it allows her to strive for perfection. Many custom projects take months, if not longer, to complete. Clients come in, perhaps with a design or style in mind, perhaps not. Wilson works with them to create a pattern and choose colors. Each piece of glass is cut by hand and shaped with a grinder. The project is built, then soldered, and finally weatherproofed. She said the effort can sometimes be heartbreaking.
"My first glass teacher said, 'Glass is a cruel mistress,'" Wilson, 47, recalled, "because it breaks. And it breaks at the worst time. You can't go fast with it. It makes you move slow. Then, when you get it together, soldered, and hold it up to the light for the very first time, you sometimes gasp. It's pretty dramatic."
Wilson was working as a carpenter in the 80s when she started thinking about stained glass for the first time. Then in her late 20s, she took a class in the art form at the Piedmont Adult School, and got "so jazzed up" that she "went out and bought every single tool" she needed: glass cutters and grinders, different types of pliers, "and glass, lots of glass."
She started making lamps and little tchotchkes, then went on to repair a window for someone she knew.
"It snowballed out. I'd do something for one person, and then someone else needed help," she said. "I've been doing it for 19 years."
Wilson and Silva live in Alameda, but they said they chose to open their shop on Solano Avenue because "it was in a nice neighborhood and the price was right."
"Albany has a safe, hometown feel," Wilson said. "There are so many neighbors and people out walking around. We're on a first name basis with the neighbors and the kids and the dogs. We pass out candy at Halloween, and I love to watch the annual Little League parade with the moms and the dads and the strollers. At Christmas, we set up a little village display in front. All along the window, you see a line of little fingers and noses when they press their faces up against the glass."
Albany contractor Lucy Wright hired the couple several years ago to make a pair of leaded and beveled doors out of handblown German glass for a 100-year-old mansion in San Francisco.
She met them when she stumbled upon the studio, which is near her home, one day when walking past.
"You could be walking into an artist's shop from 200 years ago or the present. This is an old art form. Some of those pieces they have examples of, or hanging on the walls, are hundreds of years old," she said. "It's exciting from a historical art perspective. And they're really warm and friendly people, really charming. I've been in there when other people come in, and they can help all kinds of people with all kinds of different projects."
Local artist Alisa Budiansky said she liked how Wilson, in creating a stained glass window for her, kept with the historical style of the home when she and her husband added a second floor.
"I did some sketches and we discussed what we were interested in," said Budiansky, who makes books and teaches bookbinding classes in Albany. "When we talked about color, Wendy said, 'Oh, I have this old piece of glass I've been saving.'"
The couple went with an art nouveau style featuring a curving grass pattern. The piece has both colored and faceted glass.
"We always notice it because it's at the top of a tiny little staircase, so that's the first thing you see when you get to the top of it," she said. "That's where the light shines in. There's light all the time, and when the light changes, it casts different colors on the floor, teals and purples and greens. The colors are just so happy."
Stained glass can be prohibitively expensive for the average consumer, but devotees say it's worth the money because of the joy it brings. One such aficionado is Joan Uhrhammer, for whom Wilson installed a large, 150-year-old window, which had been salvaged from an Iowa church.
The five-by-five foot window has a floral design in russets and blues, browns and greens. Uhrhammer and her husband planned the color palette of their home, which they renovated several years ago, around the piece, she said. After paying to fly it across the country, then have it repaired when it was broken during shipping, her love for the window is clear when she describes it.
"It's like a painting. It's a piece of artwork," she said. "And then you have the added benefit of having the light coming through. I've got rainbows all over my dining room when the sun shines. Why should someone have a piece of stained glass? It's not something you go out to the Pottery Barn and buy. It's something you love. It catches your eye. It gives a uniqueness to your home."
See a photo gallery of Avalon Glass Works projects online here.