Saturday, September 16, 2006

Minnesota Artisans Mobilize Community to Create 9/11 Stained-Glass Memorial Window: Part 1

Editor's note: This week, as we mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11, GoodBiz113 is privileged to recognize a far-reaching project spearheaded by two exemplary artists/citizens/small-business owners in 2002. This is the first in a two-part series.

The Company
Rochester Stained Glass
1105 Center St. W.
Rochester, MN 55902
Phone: [507] 282-2752

Founded: 1976
Employees: 2

Contacts: Stephanie & Mike Podulke, Co-Owners

The Business
Since launching Rochester Stained Glass in 1976, Stephanie and Mike Podulke have been commissioned to create most of the community's stained glass. Among their most notable projects:
* 32 windows for Peace United Church of Christ
* Round window dedicated outside the Methodist Hospital chapel
* Window above the main entrance to John Marshall High School
* 20-foot-by-20-foot mural at St. Pius X Catholic School's east entrance, to memorialize a fifth-grade student's slain family members

The Podulkes' large-scale creations typically invite/require collaboration with the client's staff, members, students, etc., to design and build each project.

The Buzz
Besides owning and operating a small business, the Podulkes -- both of whom supposedly retired 30 years ago -- are exemplary citizens, too. Mike is a longtime Olmsted County commissioner who typically sweeps his elections. He and Stephanie consistently lend their time and talents to various community events and projects; e.g., neighborhood associations, annual Maypole dance and coming-of-age celebration at First Unitarian Universalist Church [AKA First UU].

The Catalyst
In spring of 2002, just months after thousands of men and women perished on Sept. 11, 2001, the Podulkes conceived the idea of building a stained-glass memorial window in Rochester, Minn. -- some 1,150 miles from Ground Zero, in New York City's Lower Manahattan financial district. Further, they'd involve some people from the community to help create it.

"This type of project is very healing for all the people involved," Mike explained. "With 9/11, we knew that the whole country is a victim and that our whole community needed to heal -- person by person, piece by piece. We wanted to make something positive and permanent out of a tragedy."

The Partners
* Olmsted County
* Rochester Park and Recreation Department
* 400-plus volunteers; e.g., firefighters, citizens, Girl Scouts, seniors, parents, kids, out-of-town Mayo Clinic patients

The Strategy
The Podulkes were prepared to donate their time, some glass, copper foil and other materials. Still, they'd still need space in which to build the memorial and, of course, for its installation. They knew just where to go.

"When Mike first called me, he said they'd need space for a two-foot-by-three-foot memorial," recalled John Hunziker, executive director of the Olmsted County Historical Society, and past president of the Rochester City Council. "Then, while scouting possible locations in the Mayo Civic Center, easy-going Roy [Sutherland, superintendent of Rochester Park and Recreation] simply said, 'Pick any spot, Mike.' Well, Mike saw that tall space and fell in love with it."

"In my mind, it was the perfect spot," said Sutherland. "There's not enough art in this community...I was familiar with their work, and knew Mike and Stephanie would fill it with something amazing."

The Process
After expanding their design to fit Mayo Civic Center's cathedral-like installation space -- measuring an impressive 33 feet high and seven feet wide -- the Podulkes focused on building the community's commemorative monument to 9/11.

In September 2002, the Podulkes did some grass-roots PR and advertising [e.g., word-of-mouth, hand-painted signs, blurb in Rochester's Post-Bulletin newspaper] to recruit volunteers to wash and cut hundreds of pieces of glass, wrap copper foil around each piece, solder, etc. Then, over three weeks in October, 11 tables in Industrial Building No. 2 at the Olmsted County Fairgrounds would serve as their "studio." For four nights per week, six hours per night, they collaborated with 400-plus people of all ages and backgrounds -- some of whom hadn't seen one another in 10-15 years.

"The stuff that people brought was incredible," Stephanie marveled. "Lots of people brought chairs. One woman supplied hot chocolate. And the glass! We received broken crystals, tops of percolators, camera prisms and lenses, and lots of assorted glass from wedding gifts -- expensive and ugly alike. A recovering alcoholic contributed the bottoms of six wine glasses."

Somehow, it all found a place in the Podulkes' keenly symbolic design. At the base is New York's Central Park, which rises to the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, hauntingly depicted in countless pieces of clear glass. Meanwhile, a rainbow-colored ribbon of glass floats from beneath the towers to the memorial's top, representing the spiritual connection between the community and the victims of 9/11. Bordering each of the memorial's 11 panels -- "none of which is true nor square," Mike notes -- is copper sheeting, into which more than 3,000 star-holes were punched; i.e., one to represent each person who died during 9/11's multiple attacks on our nation.

"In terms of size and scope, the memorial itself turned out to be four to five times larger than originally planned," said Stephanie. "Still, we wanted to involve people in this community blessing to those who died, and we wanted everyone to have ownership of it."

Evidently, it worked. Long after Ida Young and her family spent every possible hour working on their own panel, she still cherishes those weeks in October 2002. While off from her Mayo Clinic nursing job with a bad knee, Young, her three teenage daughters, plus some friends, created panel No. 9, which renders the tops of the Twin Towers.

"The Podulkes let me be there from beginning to end," Young enthused. "It became a really nice way to recuperate, and to connect with my family and friends. Plus, it provided significant time for reflection and remembering the events of 9/11. The entire process was almost spiritual."

Then there's the giveback aspect. "I've received a lot, and this was just one way to give something back," noted Young. "While putting myself though school, our family utilized a fair amount of community resources. What goes around, comes around. It's important to teach my children that, and to get involved in things that make a difference.

"Too often, I think, we take our freedoms for granted. What happened on 9/11 could have happened anywhere. This memorial will help us all to remember that. I'm very honored to have been a part of it."

Several years ago, Robin Taylor worked at the New York-based Population Council. Now a seasoned Prejudice Reduction Workshop facilitator for Rochester's Diversity Council, she, too, appreciated the opportunity to be a part of the Podulkes' project.

"9/11 really hit me hard," Taylor said. "For two years, I had the pleasure of viewing the Twin Towers' distinct place in the city's skyline. Moreover, to hear about friends who, for some reason, were late for work that day and somehow managed to avoid the chaos, destruction and death...It's overwhelming for adults to comprehend -- much less, to try and explain to kids. About all you can say is that, today, we're all citizens of New York, and we're all a part of the global community."

Taylor and her First UU walking group got involved in making the memorial happen. On several occasions, she also brought her two teenage daughters and her mother.

"The neat thing was having three generations of us there working it," she said. "Mostly, we wrapped glass in copper foil. It was fun to be creative, play with colors, and participate in something positive and constructive, not destructive... Now, it's just fun to walk by the memorial and see what we did. Everyone thinks it's spectacular."

Spectacular, indeed. Try framing all the panels. "It sounded like an enormous project," recalled Daryl Nigon, a Rochester native and president of Nigon Woodworks, which has framed stained-glass projects of all shapes and sizes for the Podulkes. "Once it was done, though, and installed, it just awed me...I'm so impressed that Mike and Stephanie would undertake a project of this scale -- to think of it, organize it, and then spend so much time to help Rochester remember 9/11. This is something that our kids and grandkids will have."

Peter Podulke, Mike's brother, is a 250-pound, self-employed brick and stonemason [and interpretive dancer] based in St. Paul, Minn. When he heard about the memorial, he was chomping at the bit to somehow participate in its development. Lo and behold, he was called down to install it -- with a little help.

"During the entire time the memorial was being assembled, I was just wishing for a chance to be involved," Peter gushed. "After all, 9/11 is such a difficult thing to bite off. It's hard to render such a horrible event. Mike and Stephanie managed to do it, though. The end result is thematically unified, with several social layers of involvement, craftsmanship, and complete wholeness and integrity of expression. I was delighted to break away to do it."

From the memorial's panel No. 1 on up, installation went well. Then, when the expandable floor crane carried Peter and panel No. 11 to the ceiling, that was it. He simply couldn't fit into the cramped, irregular space.

Fortunately, Stephanie and Mike knew just the diminutive, albeit strong, person for the job: Jean Hanson, a Rochester native, fellow First UU member and avid volunteer who had also spent time piecing together the memorial.

"Yes, I got to screw in the final panel," said the energetic Hanson. "It was such a small space...No one else could possibly fit up there."

Hanson then recalled the grave concern she had for her son and daughter-in-law, Chris, who lived in Midtown, just five miles from Ground Zero. "Of course, on the morning of 9/11, I called their house right away," she said. "Later, I learned that Chris' first cousin, who worked in the Twin Towers, had been told to stay at his desk. He chose to leave and survived...

"Whether or not you know someone directly impacted by 9/11, everyone is affected by it. It's a wonderful thing that Stephanie and Mike did to help our community remember that."