By Sara Walters —
Retirement usually marks the end of a career, but for Gary Bengtson, it signified the beginning of a new one. The former architect is now the proud owner and artist behind Prairie Glass Studio & Gallery in Stoddard, Wisconsin.
“I always admired the Prairie-style stained glass,” explained Gary.
So about 10 years ago, when life slowed down a bit, he and his wife, Christine, decided to explore their interest in this unique art form. Together they took a six-week course where they learned the process from start to finish, including cutting, grinding, selecting glass, wrapping copper foil and even soldering. They also took a course on mosaics, a form that Christine gravitated toward.
The Bengtsons thoroughly enjoyed this artistic outlet, so they decided to take their work on the art fair circuit. Eventually they realized their particularly fragile pieces weren’t cut out for being hauled around, so they shifted gears. When the DeSoto residents spotted a vacancy on Main Street in Stoddard, it seemed like a natural transition.
“Maybe that would make a good place to have a studio,” mused Gary when it became available. “That way we can keep doing things we really enjoy doing.”
Lured by this idea, and by the abundance of traffic on the Great River Road, the Bengtsons resolved to go for it. Now they’re approaching their third summer as owners of the studio. It’s not just the Bengtsons who contribute to the beautiful art available at Prairie Glass. They’ve also got an assortment of artists selling pieces on consignment. “It’s a mixed bag, a really good selection,” said Gary. The studio features local pottery, photography, fabric work, woodworking and more.
Of course, there are also pieces designed by the Bengtsons themselves. Gary specializes in Prairie-style architectural stained glass made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright. He adheres to the style but has included his own touch in the form of handmade steel frames. “They [stained glass] can go outside. They’re meant to go in gardens,” shared Gary.
To achieve a more natural appearance, Gary actually rusts the steel frames. He’s also created some windows for “older-style cottage homes” in the La Crosse area. In general, his designs are very geometric.
Christine’s pieces also include some stained glass, but have evolved into mosaics, jewelry and painting as well. The former travel agent has always loved the arts, according to Gary, so they’ve enjoyed these projects together. “We decided that rather than sitting in a La-Z-Boy when we retired, we’d interact with people,” said Gary.
And that’s exactly what they’ve done. The first summer was slow, but traffic has picked up since. They’re hoping this trend will hold true for the upcoming season. The studio has limited hours (Friday, Saturday and Sunday only) and is open from May through October. This allows the Bengtsons to preserve the free time they have enjoyed in retirement while still allowing them to create and share their art.
“You do it for the pure joy of it,” said Gary, reflecting on his motivation for this post-retirement career. “You meet some super neat people and get to enjoy the arts. It’s a way of staying busy. But not too busy,” he laughed.
Prairie Glass Studio & Gallery is located at 144 North Main St. in Stoddard and is set to open for the season on Memorial Day weekend. Regular hours are from noon to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. For more information, find the studio on Facebook or call (608) 790-7110.