by Nancy E. McCarthy
Ithaca artist Linna Dolph was always painting or drawing as a child. Although circumstances in her teen years caused a chasm between a desire to create and her capability to do so. In adulthood, Dolph would eventually embrace art again – often to the point of obsession. She started by designing and sewing Amish-style quilts and making found art sculptures. In 2003, at 52, she discovered antique stained glass and it’s been her preferred medium ever since.
“I love color, all color. I also like the absence of color,” she says. “Glass, with its brilliance in both color and texture, allows me the opportunity to experiment in many directions. I try very hard not be confined by the rules of the color wheel and the unjustifiable constraints of traditional design.”
Dolph sources quality, mouth-blown sheet glass, primarily from Europe. “My favorite is antique glass: a transparent, highly colorful, textured glass of absolute clarity,” she says. There is a finite supply, so she hangs onto all her scraps. Dolph cuts clear and colored stained glass into shapes and solders them together to make display art and objects. Her dazzling array of work includes hanging panels of cityscapes, landscapes, quilt and abstract designs, mobiles, sculpture and lamps.
Butternut Gallery and Second Story Books in Montrose, Pennsylvania, carries Dolph’s mobiles. “I find Linna’s work astonishing because it’s conceptually difficult and so beautifully realized,” says gallery manager Alice Mischke. “Her craftsmanship is first rate and her design and composition are amazing.”
Equally amazing is the long, circuitous route of life that finally led Dolph back home to art.
Horses and Art
“From the beginning, I surrounded myself with my two lifelong passions: horses and art,” says Dolph. Born in 1951 and raised in Ithaca, she was the middle child of three. She started riding at age seven, and by fourteen she was training and competing on show horses. When she wasn’t with horses, she was drawing and painting them or other animals. Early childhood was nearly idyllic. “Horses and art, what more could a little girl ask for?” she says.
But Dolph was a poor student, and by high school she was a wild child, failing her classes and distracted by a relationship with a young man. Her parents sent her off to the Moravian Seminary for Girls, a private boarding school in Pennsylvania which offered no art, horses, boys or freedom.
Dolph had no choice but to endure it, and it affected her deeply. “My passions were dashed,” she says. After graduation, she attended college in Vermont for a year but, unable to concentrate on her studies, soon returned to Ithaca. To support herself, Dolph worked in a bar and taught horseback riding for gym programs at Cornell University and Ithaca College.
After an unplanned detour working on a horse farm in Iowa and some additional college courses, Dolph once again moved back to Ithaca. She eventually graduated from Cornell University in 1980, at 29, with a degree in adolescent psychology. She worked as a job counselor for indigent teens – until she once again felt the pull toward horses.
Art and Horses
Dolph moved to Baltimore with a boyfriend, where she spent a few years exercising race horses at the famed Pimlico Race Course. It was during that time that she saw an Amish quilt exhibit at a Baltimore museum and became enthralled by the bold use of color and complex designs. She soon began designing quilts and says she constructed hundreds of them.
In 1986, Dolph returned once again to Ithaca, where she met her life partner David Dunbar; their daughter, Scout is now a mixed media artist. In 1990, Dolph bought a horse farm and turned it into a state-of-the-art dressage facility. “The farm, along with providing me with my ‘horse fix,’ also became my canvas,” she says.
In addition to constructing an indoor riding arena and a standard outdoor dressage arena and installing white fencing, Dolph used her knowledge of Amish design to paint large murals that hung on the inside and outside of the buildings. Her stadium course jumps were painted abstracts.
It was a profitable business – Dolph trained and boarded horses and held clinics on the property – but it was physically demanding, and she suffered serious back injuries. Then, in 2000, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In 2003, during recovery from reconstructive surgeries, one of Dolph’s riding students suggested that she stop by a local glass studio. The visit was life-changing. She booked lessons and began cutting and etching glass. “From my first score on, I was hooked,” she says.
The timing was fortuitous, as Dolph couldn’t keep pace with the physicality of handling horses. She sold the farm and turned her attention to full-time art making in 2007. In the Ithaca house she shares with Dunbar, she uses the dining room for supply storage and display, and the living room serves as her workspace.
It was an exciting transition, but also painful and even frightening. The early years were financially lean, and she often questioned her abilities and talent. But galleries and customers didn’t share her doubts, then or now. Dolph’s work is currently sold at Handwork Artist Cooperative and 15 STEPS in Ithaca, Butternut Gallery in Montrose and Pittsford Fine Art. An active participant in the Greater Ithaca Art Trail events, a program of the Community Arts Partnership (CAP) of Tompkins County, she welcomes the public into her home studio during art trail events such as First Saturdays (year round) and annual open studio weekends on the Greater Ithaca Art Trail (in October).
“Linna is an amazing artist and has been part of CAP events for many years,” says Robin Schwartz, CAP’s program and grant director. “She creates stunning glass work that is different from anything else I’ve seen before. When I think of her I think: color, light, innovation.”
The trail is a vehicle for Dolph to meet new art lovers and also see repeat collectors. Beth Moskow-Schnoll and Barry Schnoll of Romulus have visited her studio many times and own 10 of her pieces. They most recently purchased a mobile, now hanging in a large window in their home overlooking Cayuga Lake. “As soon as the sun rises, it hits the mobile and sends sparkles of colored light around the room,” says Moskow-Schnoll. “It is such a delicate piece, and the way the light plays on it and cascades around the room is mesmerizing.”
The hypnotic interplay of glass, light and line is what attracted Dolph to the medium in the first place. With each piece completed – often a sleepless marathon to finish – her commitment to her work only intensifies. It’s an obsessive lifestyle, yet a satisfying life. It’s the life of an artist.
The Artist’s Process
Dolph starts a new piece with a design drawing. She then selects the glass, considering which colors and textures will work together cohesively.
She numbers and cuts paper pieces from the drawing and traces these shapes onto the glass, scores and cuts the glass with a grozer and uses a wet diamond file to smooth edges. The glass is cleaned and dried, the edges wrapped with copper foil (as a solder base) and the foil burnished onto the glass using a fid (a conical-shaped tool).
Dolph applies flux, a chemical adherent, to the foil and then carefully solders the pieces together. Excessive heat can crack the glass and ruin the project. She thoroughly washes off the flux and then brushes patina onto the solder lines. Patina is an acid that must be handled with extreme caution. She wipes the excess off immediately so it won’t stain the glass, then washes the entire piece again.
Once the piece is dry, Dolph polishes the glass and the solder lines; the polish leaves a whitish film layer behind. She uses a soft cloth, a baby hairbrush and wooden picks to remove the film to expose a subtle luster on both glass and solder.