It started as a search for a decorative window and turned into a hobby. Discover how this Crystal Lake artist turned her passion into a business and a creative workshop for other glass artists.
All it took to get Suzie O’Reilly hooked on stained glass was a search for a decorative kitchen transom window, nearly 36 years ago.
“When I ordered the window and learned that the artist who created it was going to start teaching, I talked my two sisters-in-law into joining me in the classes,” says O’Reilly. She went on to learn about glass fusing and related techniques, eventually becoming certified in several aspects of stained glass.
O’Reilly’s enthusiasm prompted her to share with others, teaching classes in a home studio through McHenry County College. “As a mother of four, I found that working with glass in my basement workshop provided good mental therapy and a creative outlet that developed into a true passion,” she says.
As demand for her classes continued to grow, she took the next logical step in 1999 and opened O’Reilly’s Stained Glass at 58 N. Williams St., inside an historic building in downtown Crystal Lake.
Today, O’Reilly’s store carries a wide assortment of stained glass supplies for craftsmen, along with glass giftware including vases, bowls and platters, all made at the shop.
Customers come from Crystal Lake and outlying communities as well as Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa. A big draw is the shop’s extensive collection of bevel clusters for stained glass and glass doors, windows and transoms. It also stocks a wide selection of antique and art glass.
Although she doesn’t always stock certain big-ticket items, O’Reilly always offers to help customers locate whatever supplies – big or little – that they need.
“For example, it’s no longer practical for me to keep expensive grinders in stock,” O’Reilly says. “But they are available to our customers by special order.”
Johnsburg resident Karl Krause, a longtime customer, enjoys the vast selection. “If she doesn’t have what you need, she can probably get it,” he says.
Many customers load up on stained glass for projects they will complete at home, while others request one of O’Reilly’s handmade designs. To accommodate a broad spectrum of customer needs, O’Reilly’s also creates custom transoms and decorative pieces for the home.
“I had a customer who, after her parents died, had money from an inheritance to remodel her kitchen,” O’Reilly recalls. “She wanted four cabinet doors depicting her life as a little girl on a farm. The customer jotted down childhood remembrances whose themes our company incorporated into the windows. When she came to pick them up, she broke down in tears of joy.”
Another customer commissioned a religious window as an anniversary gift for his wife.
The store also offers repair service for damaged works. “If you own a piece of stained glass art that is chipped, cracked or missing pieces, bring it to us,” says O’Reilly. “We can mend everything from cracked windows to lamps.”
O’Reilly’s produces a number of wedding-related keepsakes as well, such as bowls for centerpieces, and what she calls “the wave,” a personalized stained glass piece with the customer’s name in elevated relief, and often set atop a special-occasion cake. In addition, she designs decorative pieces for baby showers and bar mitzvahs.
“You name it, we’ve done it,” says O’Reilly. “One meets a lot of nice people in this business, and we do our best to serve them so they become repeat customers. Helping people’s wishes come true is so rewarding.”
O’Reilly and her team of three maintain a busy class schedule, typically conducting lessons four days a week. Students learn the ins and outs of manipulating molten glass in an open kiln, as they form drop vases and other uniquely designed art objects from dichroic, or multicolored, glass. Other classes focus on reproducing scenic memories in glass.
Sessions on making ornaments known as glassgloben are popular during winter, when students especially enjoy turning out angels and holiday wreaths to give to family and friends. Another popular class focuses on bead making, for crafters who incorporate them into necklaces and jewelry.
“We also teach mosaics and have offered instruction on glass stepping stones, although the latter isn’t as popular as it used to be,” says O’Reilly.
Classes require a minimum of two students and are scheduled based on demand. Students range in age from 14 to 87, and many have forged friendships after seven to 10 years of classes.
The latest trend in glasswork is “painting” with frit, a pre-crushed fused, or calcined, glass. Though the frit technique has been around for a long time, it has become increasingly popular with hobbyists over the past three to four years. O’Reilly’s students work with various grades of crushed glass: powder, fine, medium and coarse.
“Many artisans layer colors of frit to create forest and marine scenes,” says O’Reilly. “Anything we do with fusing we accent with frit, which provides a unique depth to the finished product.”
When Krause retired five years ago, he decided he needed a hobby. He had always admired the large stained glass widows a neighbor had made, and decided to follow his friend’s advice: “All you’ve got to do is take the class.”
As soon as he walked in to O’Reilly’s, Krause knew he had found what he was looking for. Krause has since come to value O’Reilly as a knowledgeable stained glass teacher, someone with whom he can easily discuss project ideas.
His first creation was a snowflake, an introductory piece to get students acquainted with working with stained glass. Then, Krause created a pair of sidelights that he could insert on each side of his front door.
Today, Krause relishes tackling projects that are personal to him, and over the years he has shared his love of stained glass with his family.
“For my son, I recently made an octagon-shaped family tree in stained glass and am finishing up a different version for my daughter, something I call a picture-on-a-wall stained glass. I’ve also started the process of crafting a family tree for me as well.”
One of the first gifts to his two children was a set of initialed and dated stained-glass casement windows. He also enjoys making votive candleholders of all styles.
Krause can be found at O’Reilly’s every Tuesday and on occasional Thursdays, busily crafting another beautiful stained glass piece. Five years into his new hobby, Krause finds he’s fairly proficient, but enjoys the company he keeps inside the store. “Basically, it’s a ‘class’ only insofar as Suzie’s there to help me or answer questions if I need her,” he says. “Basically I’m buying time to work at her facility, instead of in my cold garage.”
Nearly a decade after she launched a business from her stained glass hobby, O’Reilly has no regrets about the welcoming destination she’s created from personal passion.
“When I first opened my store, I started going full speed ahead, and I have kept at that pace ever since,” she says. “Though running the business has not been without challenges, I find it a fulfilling vocation.”