Larry Ribbecke and Emily Stoneking are separated by a few decades — he's 70, she's 39 — but they share a passion for an art form that dates back to the Middle Ages: stained glass. Since they met nearly 20 years ago, this mutual appreciation has grown into a fruitful business relationship at Lawrence Ribbecke Studios in Burlington. In the South End facility, the two work side by side to restore and create original decorative works of stained glass for private homes — and lots of churches.
In 2001, Stoneking was working at PhotoGarden and, in her spare time, making intricate tile mosaics of Roman and Byzantine religious iconography. "I've always just wanted to go back to the Middle Ages," she commented.
At the time, one of Stoneking's coworkers was Ribbecke's stepson. When he learned of her hobby, he recognized that she and Ribbecke were kindred spirits. They began working together that same year.
"I had no idea that stained glass was a thing you could do," recalled Stoneking, surrounded by drawings, designs and stained-glass works of all stripes in the studio.
At first, she did relatively simple tasks, such as staffing the adjacent supply shop (which stocks tools and more than 600 types of glass) or doing the final cleaning of newly completed windows.
"As Larry got comfortable with me working on stuff," Stoneking said, "he'd give me something that stretched me a little further."
Today, Stoneking is a full-fledged studio partner, doing everything from fabricating new works to calculating quotes for potential customers. Recently, she finished making a pair of windows after the design of early 20th-century British architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh; the elegant panels featuring mirrored roses will be installed on either side of the fireplace in an Oregon home. At the workbench, Stoneking admired the subtle gold shimmer of the glass.
"Emily is the best apprentice I've ever had," Ribbecke said, praising her "mixture of competence and enthusiasm."
For his part, Ribbecke's love of glass began early. He still remembers his first visit to the Cloisters as a high school student in New York City. One memorable teacher would assign self-guided field trips to Manhattan's many art meccas. Never mind contemporary art; it was European medievalism that captured young Ribbecke's attention.
"When I saw [that museum], I thought my heart would stop beating," he recalled. "You're back in 1200 — that made me an instant medievalist."
The glass in particular entranced him. Ribbecke remembered thinking, "I am looking at light through the same window that thousands of years of eyes have seen."
Years later, as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate living in Boston with "a perfectly good engineering job," Ribbecke saw a flyer for a stained-glass course taught by artist Richard MacDonald. At $100 for six weeks of instruction, Ribbecke joked, this class was the "better buy" over the $35,000 of student-loan debt he'd incurred for his degree. He recalled MacDonald's materials as "resplendent."
Ribbecke moved to Hyde Park, Vt., in 1971 and to Burlington seven years later. He had planned to stay just the weekend but instead began putting down roots. Ribbecke has occupied his current space since 1996. He, and now Stoneking, have cut, fused and built glasswork that is part of Vermont's architecture.
Their creations appear in 10 to 15 churches in Chittenden County, Ribbecke estimated. In fact, church jobs are their bread and butter. Though he's not religious, Ribbecke enjoys these commissions immensely.
"I love spiritual spaces, to know the sanctity of space," he said.
One of the studio's most stunning and innovative works is "Cosmic Strange Attractor," an original 10-by-13-foot church window commissioned by Barre's Church of the Good Shepherd. Installed as a replacement for the church's disintegrating triple lancet Gothic window, it features a triform mathematical drawing that Ribbecke, Stoneking and church committee members refer to as "the dove." The design can alternately be seen as a three-winged wheel, a representation of the Holy Trinity and a nod to physics and the enigmas of the cosmos.
"Science and religion are embodied in that window, and mystery, too," Ribbecke said.
He and Stoneking have worked to forge their personal connections to glassmaking, physics and history. Last winter, the pair exhibited together at Burlington's Flynndog gallery. Ribbecke's semiabstract glass works referenced physicists and concepts from quantum theory. Two of his titles were "A Wrinkle in Spacetime, for Rainier Weiss and Ron Drever" and "A Tale of Two Kitties, for Erwin Schrödinger."
Alongside these heady pieces were Stoneking's circular medallions, reproductions of the medieval Occupations of the Months. She based these on time-marking scenes created in the 12th century for Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, Stoneking explained.
Though Ribbecke and Stoneking are always working on their own projects, their thriving business keeps them plenty busy. One month, they might be working on a dozen or so small pieces; the next, dedicating themselves to a church window restoration.
"Sometimes they'll take all summer," Stoneking said of church commissions. "Sometimes they'll take three years."
In addition to working on churches and historic buildings, Ribbecke and Stoneking team up with clients to design and fabricate custom pieces. They are currently at work on a 2-by-3-foot scenic window depicting two loons against the sunset, for a couple in New Hampshire.
Ribbecke pointed to the curves in the blue glass that will represent a lake. "Big, fluid lines," he said. "That's the kind of window I love to build."
Stoneking agrees that designing and creating original work is the most fun aspect of her job, but she also delights in seeing the tool marks of makers who came before her.
"I like knowing that someone 150 years ago was very proud of their work," she said, adding that she enjoys thinking of herself as part of this lineage of artisans.
In this way, Ribbecke and Stoneking are following the centuries-old tradition of apprenticeship — building a relationship based on blending past and present to perpetuate an art form. As Ribbecke put it, "There has to be room for other craftspeople to come up."