Chicago Artist With Rockford Roots Follows His Father's Glass Footsteps
Ben Houtkamp waited until his late 20s to take on an artform that he first learned as a child.
A northern Illinois artist is mirroring his father by changing to an artform that some people may only notice during Sunday services.
Ben Houtkamp is a contemporary stained-glass artist. He lives in Chicago, but he grew up in Rockford. He said he always knew he would be a creative professional.
“From the time I was born, I had all kinds of creative opportunities around me,” he said. “And you know, a house full of art supplies. And perhaps most importantly, my father has been a full-time artist since the 70s.”
His father is also a stained-glass artist and has an art studio in downtown Rockford called Houtkamp Art Glass Studio. Houtkamp spent a lot of time at that studio. He said he’s made a couple of glass panels as a child, but this wasn’t something he considered doing for a living.
As a preteen, Houtkamp decided he wanted to assist other children with their creative endeavors. He did this by helping at the Discovery Center in Rockford.
“Volunteering with them gave me the opportunity to not only explore, you know, creativity myself,” he explained, “But also work with children who are younger than me and, you know, kind of see an outside perspective of what it's like to be a youth learning creative processes.”
After that he continued studying art in high school and even attended Rock Valley College for a couple of years.
He still hadn’t thought about following in his father’s footsteps until one day, about three years ago, he saw something in one of his own drawings that made him look through the glass that shaped his childhood.
“I first you know, called my dad and said, ‘Hey, I've got a drawing here, I think would make a nice little glass panel, could you help me through the process?’ And he was eager to do so,” Houtkamp explained.
He said this type of art isn’t something most artists would delve into, and this is why it took him so long to explore it.
He doesn’t think the process is that hard but said it does take time. He explained that he starts off by taking colored glass sheets and cuts them based on a graphite drawing that is placed underneath the glass. After that he starts putting things together.
“And then once you have something that essentially resembles your final product,” he added, “you solder all of the joints, you know, where different pieces of lead came come together. And usually border it with something. I put steel borders on mine as my dad taught me to.”
The last step of the process is cementing everything into one final piece.
Now you may be asking how he does all this without breaking the glass. Well, Houtkamp hasn’t figured that part out yet.
“I accidentally break glass every day. And, you know, the trick of it is just to try to not break yourself in the process,” Houtkamp explained, “Which is something that you unfortunately have to just get used to a little bit, but it's not the most dangerous thing in the world.”
The broken glass gives him more artistic freedom because he can melt it down and create other things. He said he probably has hundreds of pounds of shards that is he looking to recycle one day.
Houtkamp wants to bring stained glass into more areas instead of just churches or other historical establishments.
“That could be everything from just small, commissioned pieces of artwork for people's homes to large scale glowing lamp structures for bars and restaurants around town,” he explained. “Really my hope is to be open minded with what kinds of establishments can receive the work, because it'll bring stained glass to more walks of life.”
Houtkamp did this in his first show “Faces” at the Hopewell Brewery Co. in Chicago. He’s said he’s always wanted to create minimalist faces in his stained glass using the windows to the soul as the focal point.
“And eyes are such a common subject in painting and drawings, and, you know, even photography, but it's something you rarely see in stained glass,” he said. “And I certainly can't claim to be the first to use that motif.”
He said observers have told him that the boldness of the eyes gives the glass a bit of personification.
Currently Houtkamp is working on a 13 and a half foot long glowing stained-glass structure for a business that will soon open in the Chicago loop. He said this is his most challenging piece to date.
Houtkamp wants to inspire other artists to think about the tools they have around them and find ways to create for a different medium than they are used to.
He’s looking to move to another studio space in a couple of months and one of his goals is to offer studio tours and classes for the public. He said he also wants to do more creative things in the city that he grew up in.
- Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.