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Friday May 13, 2011

Through the glass brightly

Melding age-old techniques with new materials, artist worked meticulously to create dramatic effects with light shining through stained glass

Special to The Globe and Mail

In the 12th century, the monk Theophilus wrote a short how-to guide on stained glass windows: "If you want to assemble simple windows," he advised, "first mark out the dimensions of their length and breadth on a wooden board, then draw scrollwork or anything else that pleases you, and select colours that are to be put in. Cut the glass and fit the pieces together with the grozing iron. Enclose them with lead cames and solder on both sides. Surround it with a wooden frame strengthened with mails and set it up in the place where you wish."

The work of modern-day master Gerald Tooke epitomized how little the art of stained glass has changed over the centuries. Among Canada's leading practitioners of the craft, Tooke created expressive, jewel-like work that is prominently displayed in houses of worship and public spaces across the country.

A wizard with light and colour - essentially, he painted with light - his precision was legendary. In churches, for example, the four cardinal directions and the time of day the sun would hit the glass were meticulously calibrated. "He worked it all out," said his wife, Joan, also an artist. "If your services were at 11 o'clock, he wanted the window to be the best right then."

Though his work reflected profound religious themes, he was not especially religious. He converted from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism and studied with Jesuit friends, then returned to his Anglican roots.

"His religious nature was best expressed through his love of liturgy, good church music and art," said his wife. "Gerry often talked about the loneliness of the studio, [that] this is necessary for the creative process and the realization of the spiritual component in the work."

He knew that few people go unmoved when they sit bathed in the hues of stained glass.

Tooke's personal convictions "and the strength of his character were highly visible through all of his work," said Toronto stained-glass artist Sarah Hall, who knew him for more than 20 years. "This was often on a monumental scale, as his expansive windows at [Toronto's] St. Augustine's Seminary attest." At 1,200 square feet, the St. Augustine window, along with one other commission, was his largest work.

His commissioned projects, said to number around 100, may be seen in St. Boniface, Man., and Winnipeg; in Mount Allison University Chapel in Sackville, N.B.; and in Hamilton, Guelph, St. Catharines and Toronto, including at Ontario's legislative buildings, Calvin Presbyterian Church, St. Mary's Anglican Church, and Congregation Habonim synagogue.

He also worked on residential installations.

Tooke, who died of leukemia in Port Hope, Ont., on April 29 at the age of 80, "was one of the champions of modern stained-glass design in Canada," said Shirley Ann Brown, a York University fine arts professor and founding director of the Registry of Stained Glass Windows in Canada.

"He combined a deep appreciation of the colour and texture of the materials with which he worked with an understanding of stained glass as a contemporary art form," said Brown. "He always considered the transforming effect of the coloured light cast by a stained glass window to be an integral part of the nature of the medium and the design process."

Tooke also taught stained glass at community colleges and was a fierce arts advocate, especially in the area of how artists are taxed in this country. It was one of the pillars of his seven-year stint as national director of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

Gerald Ernest Tooke was born in London, England, in 1930 to a civil servant father and stay-at-home mother, who came to fear for their son's safety during the Nazi bombardments of 1940-41. They considered sending the lad to Canada, as many had done. But when a German submarine torpedoed the steamship City of Benares, which was carrying 90 British children to Canada, killing 77 of them, the Tookes thought better of the plan. Young Gerald stayed.

For five years, he studied stained glass at the Canterbury College of Art and apprenticed at Canterbury Cathedral, where some of the panels date back to the late 12th century. He served as a Royal Air Force radar officer before coming to Canada in 1954. Six years later, he won a national commission for a window at Woodgreen United Church in Toronto (which is 60 feet high).

His work from the 1960s combined abstract figures with two-dimensional backgrounds, explained Brown. Later, she noted, he moved to a more non-representational style, employing the varieties of glass available to the artist today, including flat antique glass and thicker slab glass.

The latter is employed in a 150-square-foot work in the Macdonald Block of the Ontario legislature building, unveiled in 1966. The slab glass is an inch thick, held together with epoxy resin, and lit with fluorescent lighting. But Tooke, by this time president of the Ontario Craft Foundation, and other stained-glass artists were labouring under prohibitive duties levied against fine glass. So he went to see his MP about it.

The MP, Donald Macdonald, a Trudeau-era cabinet minister, was so impressed with the young artist's tenacity (the levy on fine glass was eventually lifted) that he hired him as a special assistant.

"He had a very good manner," Macdonald recalled. "He was highly intelligent, cheerful. He had a light touch."

The political bug bit and, in 1971, Tooke ran as a Liberal in Ontario's provincial election. He lost "disastrously," as he put it, to the Conservative candidate, and went on to help found the Canadian Crafts Council.

As one of the youngest directors of the 570-member Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, he took the oldest national arts organization in the country from being a mere state of mind to actual premises in downtown Toronto, with a permanent gallery, meeting place and business headquarters. He was responsible for exhibitions (personally curating 12), operations, budgets and advocacy.

Tooke spent months meeting with officials of the federal Finance Department to devise a fair taxation policy for visual artists, statistically still among the lowest wage earners in Canada, to mixed results.

Meanwhile, his artistic technique showed little change from the time of Theophilus. He began by drawing a pattern on a large piece of brown paper. Every actual-sized piece was then cut out and coded by colour. He hand-painted each piece of glass and did the framing and leading. And it had to function as a window, so it couldn't leak.

Whether the window depicted the Stations of the Cross or Jewish themes, Tooke plunged into studying religious symbols. "He loved the research," his wife said.

In Port Hope, Tooke was deeply involved in the local cultural life. He was a member of the local branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, active in the Art Gallery of Northumberland and chaired the Port Hope Cultural Advisory Committee.

Tooke leaves Joan (née Saunders), children Simon, Gillian and Martin, and two grandchildren.

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