By Rob Lyon
first appeared in July 2006 Canoe and Kayak
In hindsight, I had to laugh. I was going through my slides from a fly-fishing expedition on Oregon's Deschutes River when I pulled out one that was just water. That wasn't like me, I thought. I must have accidentally tripped the shutter. After half a dozen similar exposures of nothing but the river's surface, I remembered that Steven had borrowed my camera when his was on the fritz.
For this enigmatic artist, studying and recording the interplay of light and water is a fundamental aspect of his work. From photos of rivers, lakes, and oceans pinned on his studio wall, Steven Wrubleski creates the extraordinary water-themed stained-glass panels that are his signature work.
With 25 years of experience, Wrubleski is at the top of his game and is one of the best glass artists in the Northwest today. Private work and installations take up most of his time, but he's picked up several public art commissions over the years as well. A signature project is located at an indoor swimming pool in a Seattle-area recreation complex where Wrubleski designed and installed a sequence of river-inspired panels. Circling the pool like a liquid corona, the panels expand the feeling of water to fill the entire space.
Glass plays with light , the same way water does.
Walking into Wrubleski's enormous Dutch-barn studio, I am aware of light streaming through cracks in the high walls, pigeons cooing in the rafters overhead, and the earthy smell of hay. An electric kiln stands outside the studio door, which has no lock, but simply a hank of rope for a handle. Inside are numerous glass panels, pieces, and shards, as well as several long tables where he and his helpers work. An old Dylan tune plays, and a kettle of water whistles on a wood stove in the corner.
The artist himself is angular and handsome, with tousled and receding sandy-colored hair, a ruddy face, and expressive blue eyes. He moves lithely around the room as we talk, making tea, feeding the cat, and adjusting the stereo. He appears comfortable, confident, and alert. Even while he is busy with his tasks, there is a catlike poise about the man. He has an extraordinary ability to concentrate, a childlike sense of humor, and a touch of the sardonic. It occurs to me that Wrubleski is like a strand of bull kelp. Anchored firmly to the sea floor, the plant itself is free and easy in the current—grounded yet dynamic. Not surprisingly, kelp is a favorite subject for his panels.
A lifetime artist—transitioning through painting and sketching, ceramics and sculpture—Wrubleski discovered that stained glass most closely resembles the element of nature he loves the most: water. A move from California to Washington's San Juan Islands in the early 1970s brought him closer to the sea and the land. He carved out a homestead in 20 acres of dense hardwood forest and built a solar-powered house. He and his wife, Wendy, grow a garden that is nearly legendary. Neighbors hear the tiller putting well into the dusk on summer nights as every second of precious daylight is utilized.
At the same time, Wrubleski built a Hooper Bay sealing kayak, which he paddled along the west side of Vancouver Island. Barkley, Clayoquot, Nootka, and Kyuquot Sounds became favorite haunts where he and his friends spent the better part of a month in late summer kayaking the deep fjordlike inlets and open, windswept coastline. On remote beaches, they lived off what they could catch, along with the cabbage, brown rice, and sprouts they carried.