Illuminating the 'Soul' of Glass
Work of Merrill glass artist known the world over
By Russ Gifford
(Originally published in The Weekender, 05/29/03)

photo by Mike Northrup

Mark Bogenrief stands in front of one of his famous 'lady windows.'

"Illuminating the Soul of Glass," an exhibit of monumental work by Mark and Jeanne Bogenrief, will shake your understanding of art and stained glass. One look around the Merrill gallery at the couple's detailed pieces and you'll realize you're light years from what you thought of as window art.

"We like to look at it as glass art," says Mark, now nationally known as one of the premiere artists in this medium. Surrounded by incredible pieces of work in Bogenrief's Gallery in Merrill, you'll see why.

Like much of the art in the gallery, their entire story of the business has a dream-like quality. The Bogenrief's started in 1978, when Mark and his wife Jeanne were out of work, due to a strike at IBP. Nearly a quarter of a century later, their gallery has grown to 20,000 square feet of workspace, and has quietly absorbed a block-long group of buildings on the main street of Merrill.   

But their growth has gone mostly unnoticed in Siouxland. Most of that is by choice. "The first 10 years we were a closed shop," says Mark. They were busy establishing the business, and they worked not from a storefront, but by auction, and later, by personal commissions to create specific work. "We are only now trying to change that, to give people a chance to see what it is we do here."

By the way, the 'we' Mark uses is intentional. Though he has designed all the work the past 24 years, the gallery employs 20 people, "and they are all involved with bringing the art to life," says Jeanne. "Mark is adamant about that."

The show in Okoboji makes clear why his work is in high demand. "The Bogenrief's have an international reputation for both extremely high quality and intensely detailed work in stained and beveled glass," says Lissa Potter, Director of Visual Arts for the Lakes Art Center.

This work is 12 feet by 12 feet and graces the "Bar" of a 62,000 square foot home in Boca Raton, Florida. (Photo by Bogenrief Gallery.)

Though self trained, Mark's skills have been noted by experts and commented on in books on the subject, and his skill has brought him fame as a conservator. "We have restored Tiffany, La Farge, Armstrong - all the majors," says Mark, standing in front of a large piece of work. "That came from England. Now that it is repaired, it is heading for a home in Chicago."

"Think of how many studios there are, and they choose to send their pieces to Iowa," says Jeanne, with a slight shake of her head. Clearly, the fairy tale nature of their story is not lost on her or Mark. The repair work is rewarding, since it establishes their credentials among the greats.

But much of the reason that they are not locally known is because their national reputation already drives so many commission works, like an immense 12-foot square window for a mansion in Boca Raton, Fla. Collectors all over the country, and the world, have requested custom-designed works. "Our customers are mainly CEO types," says Mark, "and usually for private collections."

So, with the kind assistance of a sponsor and the Lakes Art Center, people in Northwest Iowa will get the chance to see the magic Bogenrief Gallery creates. On display during this exhibition will be examples of large-scale windows, doors, dome ceilings, and lamps.  Also on display is a sample of their series of Glass Ladies.

Inspired by Alphonse Mucha's work from early in the last century, these exquisite 'lady' windows have thousands of pieces of hand cut stained glass and can be set into a window or placed in a lightbox and mounted on an interior wall. (Photo by Bogenrief Gallery.)

 "When we first started going to auctions, we used to see antique 'lady windows' - and after a while, they were gone. So, we started making them." A shy smile slides over Mark's face. "But like everything we do, we take it to a little different level." 

Yes - very different. These six-foot windows, with their slightly larger-than-life presentation, are arresting, harkening back to the era when art nouveau works energized the art world at the turn of the previous century. "A lot of these 'Lady' windows are inspired by the works of Alphonse Mucha," says Mark. But though they evoke the styles of the past, these works are original, and they live, sparkling with color and life. "This piece," says Mark, "has multiple layers to bring out the exact feel we want."

photo by Mike Northrup

Colleen Lundgren works on a season-themed window.

In the production area, Jeanne is finishing another of the glass ladies, working a piece of glass into an intricate pattern laid before her on a table. It looks like a huge jigsaw puzzle of colored glass and copper foil. "This one? It has about 10,000 pieces," she says, never taking her eye off the quarter-inch sliver of purple glass she is diligently but gently working into place. Numerous other people also are taking part in the creation of this large window, each working on a portion of the final product. "Mark is the dreamer, and his ideas and designs are big enough he could keep a hundred people busy," says Jeanne.

That is one of his goals. His other driving force? "We've both seen the ugly side of life," says Mark, a Vietnam veteran. "The point now is to leave behind things of beauty."

They are certainly doing that - with textured glass in hundreds of colors and sweeping lines that beautifully frame these detailed designs. And when light is added, the windows seem to come to life, not only illuminating, but also freeing the 'soul' of the glass - as well as the soul of the viewer.

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