Artist's work in stained glass brings blessings

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Brenda Verdery-DeVaney's shop in North Augusta is like a museum.

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Brenda Verdery-Devaney of Savannah River Art Glass in North Augusta at New Exodus Missionary Baptist Church.  Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Brenda Verdery-Devaney of Savannah River Art Glass in North Augusta at New Exodus Missionary Baptist Church.

Intricate, exquisite works of art line the walls, displaying every color under the sun. The subjects of these hand-crafted pieces vary from biblical scenes depicting the life of Jesus Christ, to vivid flowers, to contemporary abstract designs.

Those are the stained-glass windows that Verdery-DeVaney shows her potential customers.

She started making stained-glass windows 30 years ago. The owner of Savannah River Art Glass at 203 Jackson St. in North Augusta has been in business for 21 years.

Verdery-DeVaney begins with a line drawing on brown paper called a "cartoon" before cutting out each component on glass. Then, she puts the pieces together like a puzzle, solders them on both sides, and cements and polishes the window. In some instances, she sends the window to be fired.

"Pretty much anything that can be drawn can be put into glass," she said. "I'm blessed to be able to do something I love with others that equally love the art. You can't not enjoy doing this. The materials are so beautiful. You get excited to see the next piece come off the table and see the light come through."

Her work can be seen in homes, churches and business across the Augusta-Aiken area. Clients include Gary's Hamburgers and Cheddar's Casual Cafe.

The business also does beveled glass, etched and carved glass, restoration work on church and residential stained-glass windows, and installation of protective coverings.

Verdery-DeVaney loves the art, but she doesn't neglect the business side of her shop. She has always handled her own bookkeeping.

"I started off doing it that way. I liked doing my own books," she said. "I have an accountant, and he's awesome, but I still like to balance my own checkbook. It's always helped me keep a handle on the business aspect of it. My dad was wonderful with finances, and I'm especially blessed to enjoy art and be able to do the business part of it, too."

Behind every stained glass window that Verdery-DeVaney creates, there is a story. Each window provides a glimpse into a person's life, she said.

She once created a window for a couple who were reunited after being childhood sweethearts. They had gone their separate ways, gotten married and had children. Years later, both of their spouses died, and they reconnected.

While they were courting, they sent each other butterflies. They got engaged and wanted a garden tub window with butterflies, which are symbolic of their love for each other.

"You get those kinds of stories, and they're special," she said.

Another set of stained-glass windows fulfilled a woman's dying wish. She and her husband never had children, and the client wanted to give her church, Wrens Baptist Church, 12 scenes from the life of Jesus. The order was placed and the pictures were drawn and ready to be carved from glass when the woman became ill and had to move to an assisted living facility.

Because of interference from other family members, the project was brought to a halt. When the woman died two years later, her husband was able to fulfill his wife's wish.

Verdery-DeVaney said that she has talented staffers who help bring the stained-glass windows to life. She has been fortunate to work with many talented craftsmen over the years, she said.

"It's a combined effort, there's no question. There's not just any one of us. We all have our strengths," she said.

Thom Carlton has worked with her for more than 20 years. They were co-workers before she opened the business, and he joined Savannah River Art Glass in 1997. She describes him as a "loyal and gifted artisan."

"I love it. I got the job that most people want when they retire," Carlton said. "It's nice working for people you love and get along with. It doesn't get any better than that. I look forward to getting up and going to work in the morning. I couldn't ask for a better boss."

Jaime Lever, a former construction worker, has been working as an apprentice at Savannah River Art Glass for almost one year. His boss said he is picking up the craft quickly and is very attentive to detail.

"I enjoy it. It's fun. I guess the real joy is seeing the people's faces when we put the windows in," Lever said. "I like everything about it. She's the best boss I've had. She's a sweet lady."

Artist-in-training

An Augusta native, Verdery-DeVaney grew up loving art, and she had encouraging parents who supported her interests.

Creativity seems to run in the family. She is related to the founder of North Augusta, James U. Jackson, whose daughter, Edith Alexander, was also an artist.

Her mother, Helen Verdery, was a kindergarten teacher and taught classes downstairs in a North Augusta mansion owned by their cousin, Alexander, who also taught art classes upstairs.

Her father, Davis Verdery, worked on the railroad. He stops by her shop to visit her every day.

After high school, Verdery-DeVaney attended Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Fla. While at an exhibit, she met Tina Leser, a renowned fashion designer whose work has appeared in high-end retail stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, and got a job hand-painting fabrics for one year for Leser's company, Fashion International in New York City. She painted the fabrics using a detailed method called batik.

She moved to New York for two months and then lived in a room in Leser's private residence in Florida while she finished the job.

Verdery-DeVaney then took a job in San Jose, Costa Rica, for six years, where she taught art and drama in an English-speaking school. When political unrest erupted in Costa Rica in 1979, she returned to North Augusta. She found a job doing design work for a small stained-glass shop and fell in love with the craft.

Taking charge

In 1989, Verdery-DeVaney considered the possibility of opening her own business. Peggy Turner, the original owner of Neptune Dive and Ski in North Augusta, offered to rent a small building next to Neptune to Verdery-DeVaney at minimal rent, which she gladly accepted.

"She (Turner) had been in business for a long time. She was a really encouraging landlady and friend. She was as much an encourager as anybody I've met and has continued. I've done art glass for her kids and the front door of Neptune," she said.

The shop needed some work, and Verdery-DeVaney's friend and coworker introduced her to his friend, Blake DeVaney, a carpenter who would later become her husband.

DeVaney worked alongside his wife as she built the business.

Verdery-DeVaney still remembers the first church that hired her to craft their sanctuary windows, Bath Methodist Church.

Soon afterward, Fairview Presbyterian Church in North Augusta contacted her to make the first of 10 full-figure "Life of Christ" hand-painted windows, each measuring about 5 feet by 12 feet.

The job took two years to complete because of the volume and detail of the order.

Joanne Folger, an elder at Fairview Presbyterian, was one of the committee members. She had contacted several businesses, including a contractor that designed windows for the cathedral in Washington, D.C., but no one could produce a picture that she liked -- until she met Verdery-DeVaney.

"I can't tell you how thrilled I was with her. It was just an answer to prayer," Folger said. "This really gave her a reputation. That job was a breakthrough for her whole business. She's such a genuine person. She's not just an extraordinary artist, but she's a good businesswoman. She's very thorough, careful and knowledgeable. She's a delightful person to deal with."

During this time, Savannah River Art Glass moved across the street into a larger building. In 2002, when discussion of North Augusta's new municipal building started, the business moved into its current location on Jackson Avenue.

Verdery-DeVaney's husband became ill and died in November 2009 after battling leukemia.

"My husband was a true gift to me. Anything good we accomplished with hard work as a team," she said.

Life was hectic during his illness. In between caring for her husband, she rushed to the office to make phone calls, attended appointments and worked on a few drawings.

While her husband was undergoing chemotherapy, a friend who owns a large stained-glass studio in Virginia brought work from a church to keep Verdery-DeVaney occupied. The gesture meant so much to her.

"Friends like that are just beyond words. That gave me the opportunity to not worry about keeping Thom busy and cash flow going. Those kinds of blessings -- you can't get over the goodness of people," she said.

Charleen Tinley has been friends with Verdery-DeVaney for 57 years. They've known each other since they were in diapers.

"I'm proud to be her friend. We call each other sister. I'm proud to have her in my life. Not everybody is lucky enough to have somebody that wonderful," Tinley said.

Tinley said her friend is a woman of strong faith and credits the success of her business to God. She is unique and has a "double pull" because she's talented in art and business. She views her business from a logical, intellectual stance, while still maintaining her creativity.

"She sprinkled all that with a good work ethic and being so reliable to the people that hired her that she just got a great reputation," Tinley said.

Hand-crafted

Verdery-DeVaney designs custom glass pieces that reflect homeowners' personalities. While some clients want a traditional, clear beveled design, others might want to incorporate their favorite birds or flowers into their home.

One client wanted a garden tub window to surprise his wife. The design contained a queen bee because his wife was the "Queen Bee" of their home, she explained.

Another client loved cats and wanted a window with her cats' pictures on it. Verdery-DeVaney created a whimsical design with drawings of the treasured cats lounging in and near a tree.

She works with clients to develop a design and select colors. She shows them glass samples because some color combinations work well together, while others don't, she said. After she completes the drawing, either she or Carlton cuts out the design from glass.

"They're only as good as they're crafted. You've got to have good people who are as loyal to the detailing," she said.

The hardest windows to complete are the memorial windows, she said.

"You want so desperately to design and craft a window that will be what the loved one envisions and will give them comfort when they look at it. Those are emotionally hard," she said.

Her most recent jobs include new stained-glass windows for New Exodus Missionary Baptist Church in Hephzibah and Poplar Springs Baptist Church in Thomson. One of her favorite jobs was creating contemporary windows for a McCormick, S.C., home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Verdery-DeVaney no longer makes stained-glass lamps, though she repairs them and occasionally gets orders for custom lamps.

"We really don't do those anymore because they're making them in China, and we can't compete with them. It's really hurt the stained-glass market," she said.

The artist doesn't plan to retire any time soon. When she does retire, she's considering doing some mission work in Latin America.

"I don't plan on changing streams, as long as we're given good health and the opportunities to continue doing it," she said. "We've been very blessed by the CSRA, how supportive they've been of us. Even in the slow economy, all of sudden we would have another blessing."

Brenda Verdery-Devaney

TITLE: Owner of Savannah River Art Glass

BORN: March 30, 1953, in Augusta

EDUCATION: Attended Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Fla.

FAMILY: Stepdaughter, Samantha DeVaney

CIVIC/EXTRACURRICULAR: Stained Glass Association of America, Greater North Augusta Chamber of Commerce, True North Church in North Augusta, supporter of CSRA Humane Society

HOBBIES: Helping animals, spending time outdoors, collecting shells, music and reading


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