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The glass cutter: Rochester's stained-glass window maker shares her colorful career

"I like that I can imagine something and then it becomes manifest – that something that was just in my imagination is actually lead and glass," Stephanie Podulke said.

Rochester Stained Glass
Stephanie Podulke vaccuums a stained-glass panel after cementing the lead to weather proof the glass on Thursday, April 28, 2022, at Rochester Stained Glass in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Stephanie Podulke has been making stained glass windows for a long time. After starting the business with her late husband, Mike, the couple moved to Rochester in 1976. Ever since, the business has remained in the building of a former grocery store on West Center Street. For the last seven years, her second husband, Jim, has worked with her in the same shop, lending his own skills with carpentry to the craft.

Their small shop is filled with sheets of colored glass, tools, and former projects spread around. Outside her office, her work can be seen throughout the community: from the Civic Center to the Rochester Public Library, to individual homes and businesses all throughout Southeast Minnesota.

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At she nears 80, Podulke still has a passion for the artwork to which she's dedicated more than four decades.

So how did you start all this? 

Mike always wanted to do this, so we thought, "Well where could we learn more about it than in Europe?" So we lived in Italy for two years and Holland for two years learning about it and then came back.

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It was kind of a silly reason. We had a studio in the cities and most of our customers were doctors, so we looked around and decided to move to Rochester.

Why Europe? 

At the time, all the stained-glass shops on the east coast – we were living out there then – were unionized. So you were a cutter, or a glazer or an installer. And that’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to do it all.

Rochester Stained Glass
Jim Frost solders a reinforcing piece of metal onto the back of a stained-glass window for durability with help from wife Stephanie Podulke on Thursday, April 28, 2022, at Rochester Stained Glass in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

So how does your process start?

A customer comes in – or a church, or a restaurant – and we sort of have a psychological coming together. Do they have some sort of vision? What do they want?

Then we do a drawing and hopefully we capture what they want. And then it’s a matter of cutting every piece of glass.

How do you cut it?  

This is what I cut with: just a plain old, garden variety glass cutter. It has a little wheel at the end of it. It’s not even sharp. That makes something called a score in the glass. It makes a scratch which disturbs the molecules enough that when you bend it, it breaks along the line.

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Wherever two pieces of lead come together, we solder it.

So does the glass just sit in the groove of the lead outlines? Do you glue it in? 

There’s this stuff called glass cement, which is an old, old recipe from the Middle Ages. And, it’s kind of like black peanut butter. When it dries, it’s waterproof and doesn’t rattle when airplanes go over.

Rochester Stained Glass
Stephanie Podulke vaccuums a stained glass panel after cementing the lead to weather proof the glass on Thursday, April 28, 2022, at Rochester Stained Glass in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

What has been one of your largest projects? 

I did this at the Civic Center (showing a picture of a stained glass window with an image of the Twin Towers). It’s 35 feet high.

I was so tired of hearing about how our country was disrespected. I thought about all the people who didn’t come home.

I said to people: “Bring clear glass that means something to you.” This window took about four weekends with about 400 volunteers. And they got to incorporate into these broken towers broken things from their lives.

Has there ever been an odd request? 

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Mostly, I can figure out how to meet people’s needs. But there was this one visiting doctor. He was a brain surgeon I think. His business card had a skull with the skin off and little tiny hairs growing off and a drill going into the skull with bone chips and veins and arteries. And he wanted me to do that in stained glass to put in his office. And I said no.

So what do you like most about your art and your career? 

Rochester Stained Glass
Stephanie Podulke and her husband Jim Frost show off a Covid inspired piece on Thursday, April 28, 2022, at Rochester Stained Glass in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

I like that I can imagine something and then it becomes manifest – that something that was just in my imagination is actually lead and glass.

And, I think both of us like projects. You put everything into it: all your thoughts. You dream about it. You’re really intense on that. You make it. And then it’s done. As a family therapist, I was never done. This has an end.

Do you ever plan on retiring? How long do you want to keep making stained glass? 

I want to do this until I don’t have any more designs in my head. (And) as long as I can still cut glass.    

Asked & Answered is a weekly question-and-answer column featuring people of southeastern Minnesota. Is there somebody you'd like to see featured? Send suggestions to news@postbulletin.com .

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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