WOODFORD COUNTY — To see examples of Guy Kemper's stained-glass art, go to the Catholic Memorial Chapel at New York's Ground Zero; a light-rail station in Seattle; or airports in Chicago, Baltimore or Orlando, Fla.
To see where his art is fabricated, go to two factories in Germany, where craftsmen work by hand, using centuries-old methods of coloring, blowing and shaping glass.
But to see where Kemper's art begins — with quick, bold brush strokes of tempera paint on paper — drive to the end of a narrow country road, down a gravel path onto 52 acres where Clear Creek runs through the Woodford County backwoods.
When I drove there earlier this month, light reflecting off the previous night's snow poured through the windows of Kemper's studio, which a previous owner had built to be a machine shop. Kemper, 52, was working on designs for a wall of glass panels that will dominate the lobby of a new hospital in Birmingham, Ala.
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"My art is not about what I want; it's about what the building wants," Kemper said, explaining that his goal is to use color and light to create not so much a piece of art as an environment.
"You really have to think about where the space is and how light will come into it," he said. "What's going to be the right mood for the psychology of the user? Every window wants to move. You have to get the right direction and the right colors."
Kemper's huge, abstract windows have brought him international acclaim. Now, he is finishing his first commission in Lexington since 2001. It is something he has never done before: mosaics.
In late April, Kemper will install the 9-foot-square mosaics in lobbies at the new University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital. The pieces, being fabricated by the German company Franz Mayer of Munich, use pieces of glass and polished stone in patterns that suggest blades of grass.
It is the latest evolution of Kemper's artistic career, which began almost by accident.
The Louisville native had always dabbled in drawing and painting, but he didn't think he could earn a living as an artist. Kemper moved to Lexington in 1979 and earned a degree in soil and plant science. He figured he might become an extension agent or work for a seed company. Instead, he started repairing stained-glass windows a friend was buying and selling.
Kemper set up a glass shop in downtown Lexington in 1983, and he got his first artistic commission a few years later from Ohavay Zion Synagogue in Lexington. A few others followed, including the one in 1999 that changed his career: a huge window for Florida's Greater Orlando International Airport.
That job led Kemper to begin working with two German companies — Lamberts Glassworks, in eastern Germany near the Czech border, and Derix Glassstudios near Frankfurt. They are among the last practitioners of ancient techniques that Kemper says create glass of unrivaled color and durability.
The Germans introduced Kemper to a European tradition of separating art and craft. Artists design, but craftsmen produce. "That was a revelation for me," he said. "Before, I would only design what I could make. This freed my imagination."
The result has been a close partnership. Kemper leaves his farm periodically to spend several weeks in Germany, helping the craftsmen execute his artistic vision. "I go to the best glass-blowers in the world, and they make me look really good," he said.
Kemper says he begins his process by studying the place where his window will be installed. He analyzes light patterns, thinks about how people will use the space and sometimes builds detailed architectural models.
He then uses brushes and paint to create images and color combinations that will translate well into the unique properties of hand-blown glass. Many of Kemper's huge windows, which cost tens of thousands of dollars to make, are inspired by feelings of flight, motion and energy.
Once the designs are finished, Kemper goes to Germany, where craftsmen mouth-blow large glass bottles with two or three layers of color. They cut off the bottles' tops and bottoms, and through careful reheating and flattening, they create sheets of unique glass.
Powerful acids are used to dissolve some of the glass surface to create his designs, along with occasional use of vitreous enamels that are then kiln-fired. Sometimes sandblasting is used, or prisms are worked into the design to create colorful patterns of light in a room.
Kemper hopes to continue pushing the limits of his creativity for many years, but he worries about whether the craftsmen will be around to produce it. Most artists use faster, cheaper ways to make stained-glass windows, but Kemper doesn't think they look as good or will last as long.
"Nobody else does what I do," he said. "Some people don't like it. But if you like it, there's nowhere else to get it."