Pilot Mound artist Karl Unnasch cuts and lays glass for a window commissioned by F&M Community Bank in Preston. The piece will be installed by mid-March and it features images of local interest.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Pilot Mound artist Karl Unnasch cuts and lays glass for a window commissioned by F&M Community Bank in Preston. The piece will be installed by mid-March and it features images of local interest. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Local artist Karl Unnasch is working on a unique project this winter as he has been commissioned to create a stained glass window to be installed in the front entrance transom window at Preston's F&M Community Bank.

Unnasch explained, "It becomes a sort of 'Where's Waldo' sort of thing. There are all sorts of things to find - things from agriculture, nature, Bluff Country...I like to add elements that throw people, make them look again, throw them off."

Unnasch has been working in his Pilot Mound studio, scoring and snipping sheets of kaleidoscopic, multi-faceted and simply surprising glass into shapes for the piece. Featured will be familiar images of animals - such as a large cow, a buck and two fawns. There are birds, including a soaring bald eagle and a proud wild tom turkey. In addition to a large rainbow trout, there are additional symbols of Bluff Country, such as a canoe, skis, a bicycle wheel, a very large but elusive strawberry, maple, oak and chestnut leaves.

Unnasch explained glass sheets have a grain intrinsic to their chemical and manufactured properties.

"Glass loves to be cut straight, so I want to be sure, especially with the background, that the grain all goes the same direction. Art glass has its own little song or personality," he said. "You learn to appreciate what the glass is doing...and you're not cutting glass, you're convincing it that it wants to break where you want it to...you're breaking it with style."

F&M Community Bank CEO Dan Christianson and Unnasch had been conversing about adding Unnasch's artwork to the Preston bank's structure as a way to greet patrons for a while, and the conversation came to an end and the actual work began last fall.

"Last fall, I talked to Dan Christianson and he said we should pull the trigger on this project. I threw him a design, and then I started drawing - you have to have so many different skill sets to do this, like conceptual skills, drawing, working in three dimensions, have the facilities of a potter for glazing, and be able to install the window at the end," he explained.

Unnasch started drawing, brought it back to Christianson, showed him and there were only a couple little surprise things that they decided to add at the end.

"It will have all the images I associate with Bluff Country," he added "This is a window for the area. These are not images you'll readily see in Chicago and it isn't made for a big city."

Unnasch begins his commissioned work by discussing the window's potential focus with the patron, then creates an initial scale sketch that gives both him and the patron an idea of what will be included. He then changes details accordingly and transfers the sketch to his computer - one technological allowance that has greatly expedited the design process.

Unnasch is then able to enlarge it, redraw it and go to work cutting glass pieces to fit a puzzle that will eventually be full-color art glass.

"It's just making a visual puzzle...basic design and composition elements," he said. "I'm messing with scale, though, because the strawberry and golf ball are huge. And I want people to try to find the apple, because at first, you don't see all of it."

He's spent approximately two weeks in the glass-cutting process, choosing which shards and sheets will complement one another and add texture as the light passes through.

Unnasch said the project will be ready to go in a couple weeks. "I'm a little over halfway done - cutting is easy. It's the painting that takes a little longer," he added. "This one, I separated the pieces by color, and it easily has over 400 pieces. It doesn't look like it, but it has a lot of little parts, especially the turkey's tail, because I wanted to make that a leading point."

Before final assembly, Unnasch paints pieces that require more detail using powdered glass glazes, chemicals that literally fuse to the glass during firing.

"It fires right into the glass, and the color doesn't fade. It's actually mineral in nature," he stated. "If you've ever seen halos on a lot of figures in windows, that's silver stain that makes the gold and yellow. I'll paint the seeds on the strawberry, put the spots on the trout, then when those are fired, I can put the pieces back in."

While this particular window is leaded, Unnasch also does copper foiling for people.

"I want to design a window that reflects who I am as an artist - a lot of people can make a stained glass window of a bear or a unicorn, but that's not what I got into the business for," he said. "Any computer can design a window, but it doesn't have the hands-on qualities that only an artisan can bring out...with all the technology, I have yet to see a machine outpace a good artisan."

Recent snow days have afforded Unnasch the silence that he enjoys in the north-facing old Pilot Mound Store. He's spent his days laying out the mosaic and hearing the high-pitched glass lower its voice as he scores it into smaller parts, then the gentle "snap" as it breaks with style.

The artist looks forward to the upcoming day when he can bring the finished work to Preston and install it in the bank's transom.

"There will be a lot of color...something for spring," he concluded.