Finding The Light
One artist finds a meaningful tie between his glasswork and his life.
Liel Leibovitz - Staff Writer
It’s a recurrent theme with great artists: They don’t choose their medium, the great ones say, their medium chooses them. Jimi Hendrix said it of his guitar, and Michelangelo of his slabs of marble. The same is true for Jeremy Langford and his glass.
Langford, 49, is an Israeli artist who, in recent years, has built a reputation as an internationally renowned master of glass. After years of accepting institutional commissions — Langford’s work is everywhere, from Israel’s Supreme Court building in Jerusalem to the British Museum in London — he is now seeing a new trend, evident particularly around the tri-state area: synagogues, schools and even private individuals, impressed by his work, are now ordering pieces at a growing rate.
Take, for example, a recently completed synagogue in Deal, N.J. Bored with the traditional stained glass creations common in most synagogues, the shul’s patrons were looking for something extraordinary. One of them, Ralph Hazen, remembered that a cousin in Israel had once raved about Langford’s work.
“He said Jeremy does wonderful work,” Hazen remembered his cousin gushing, “really unique work, and that he had showpieces all over Israel.”
A quick glance at Langford’s catalogue was sufficient to convince Hazen that his glasswork was the perfect fit for the synagogue, and he commissioned Langford to design the entrance doors to the synagogue.
Titled “The Jerusalem Heritage Doors: Abir Yaacov,” the doors are made of 50 mm of stacked, fused and deeply carved glass, depicting such traditional themes as Jerusalem’s famous stones, religious artifacts common in ancient times, or the Twelve Tribes of Israel. As the doors are double-sided, Langford hand-engraved both sides to keep the work entirely symmetrical. Finally, despite the glass’ thickness, it’s nonetheless a terrific conductor of light, which makes the piece vary in appearance from hour to hour, iridescent in the morning and gauzy in the afternoon.
The doors, Hazen said, transformed the synagogue altogether.
“It made the shul like a work of art,” he said. “Instead of plain windows, we have biblical scenes, and it makes the shul elevated and unique among other shuls in the area. It’s just not the same old thing; there’s a certain look of stained glass that is very normal, but what Jeremy does is not normal. He makes more of an art out of it.”
Not normal is a title Langford himself would take little offense at. After all, his life has been anything but: Born in England to a family immersed in show business, Langford spent his childhood traveling around the English-speaking world before settling, at 16, in Israel. Young and rebellious, he took an instant disliking to the young country and escaped back to London. There, he started dabbling in glass, making amateurish work and showing it to friends and strangers alike. One of these strangers, he said, would help determine the course of his life.
“I met a very old man,” he said, “with a bushy white beard and white hair. He said, ‘if this is what you can do without having had any training, you need to learn seriously.’ And he took me under his wing.”
Enthralled by the new powers bestowed on him by his mysterious mentor, Langford nonetheless did what came naturally to him, which was, once again, to leave. He left London for South America, where he traveled, eking out a living by making and selling small glassworks. Life, he said, was good.
Slowly, however, it occurred to Langford that glass may be more of a metaphor for his own life than he was aware of. He became interested in kabbalah, and through his studies of Jewish spirituality realized that his medium and himself were alike.
“Glass is made of sand,” he said in a recent interview to The Jewish Week. “Sand is a dead medium, in which nothing can grow, and still, out comes glass, the most transparent, natural material. There’s a strong correlation here to the spiritual process of human beings — a very base material, man is stuck in himself; life, however, is a process, applying the pressure and the heat necessary to make the transformation. Glass is the ideal state for a human being to be — transparent, but not without his borders.”
As soon as that realization sunk in, Langford, who sports a long gray beard and a pair of laughing eyes, threw himself with the convert’s passion into both his kabbalistic studies and his artwork. The two, it seemed, complemented one another; the more he understood himself, the more he understood glass, and learned to overcome the misconceptions plaguing his medium of choice.
“People see glass as something cold, brittle, unwelcoming and dangerous,” he said. “Quite the opposite is true. Glass is very elastic, very versatile, very friendly, if only you take the time to get to know it. Glass and I have come to know each other very well; we respect each other a great deal.”
Building on that mutual respect and understanding, Langford began to ascend to the top of his field. Starting with minor works, he was soon offered major commissions, such as the President’s Residence, Bar Ilan University and the Hilton hotel in Mayfair, London. He mastered various techniques, including stained glass, painted glass, carved glass, sculpted glass and stacked glass. His approach, he said, is closer to that of the architect’s than the artist’s.
“I define myself as an architectural glass artist,” he said. “Architects over the last 20 years have overcome snobbery and preconceptions about glass artwork. It was looked at as an ecclesiastical medium, fit mainly for synagogues, but now they’re realizing that it can say so much more than metal or stone. It can be either opaque or transparent, it works really well with light, and architects are really warming up to it.”
As, apparently, are individuals, seeking to adorn their home with an unusual work of art. One such individual is Greg Markowitz of Alpine, N.J.; on a recent trip to Jerusalem, he came across one of Langford’s works, contacted him, and visited him in his studio near Bnei Brak.
“Jeremy started to ask me all kinds of questions about myself,” Markowitz remembered, “and then he said, ‘I’m going to draw, I want to get a feeling of freedom, that’s my goal.’ And he started drawing something that looked amazing. I said, ‘you’re telling me that you could do this from glass?’ He laughed and said he could. I didn’t expect it to be so impressive.”
The result was “The Alchemy,” a 12-foot stacked glass, lit and colored statue.
And while none of Langford’s clients are willing to discuss price, Langford himself said that his work — meticulously planned by himself and hand-made by eight artisans whom he conducts — is “extremely high end.”
For the growing numbers of individuals seeking to build their own, private Sistine Chapels, this seems to matter not at all.