Washington Post Article
Her Stained Reputation
At a Virginia B&B, a one-time-arts-and-crafts failure finds redemption under glass.

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 20, 2002; Page C02 - ESCAPES

A simple sleeveless dress was the last thing I made with my hands. The armholes were so huge, so unintentionally revealing, that my seventh-grade teachers excused me from Wear Your Home Ed Dress to School Day.

So imagine my shock at creating a stained-glass work that filled me with pride as I hung it in my living room window.

I mean not to brag but to make the point that if Barney Harris can successfully teach me stained-glass techniques during a two-night stay at her bed-and-breakfast, she can teach any being with opposable thumbs.

You don’t have to join Barney’s class to stay at the Chestnut Cove Bed and Breakfast in Farnham, on Virginia’s Northern Neck. The place has charms all its own.

First of all, the location is a relaxing antidote to city and crowded suburban life, and just under three hours by car from D.C. The Potomac, the Rappahannock and the Chesapeake all join together at the Northern Neck, along with numerous creeks and wetlands. I hesitate to praise the area too highly, lest hordes descend and ruin its rural character.

The chance to get to know Barney and her husband, Bob, is alone worth the drive. As a master glass blower at NASA, Bob created intricate glass models of spaceships and satellites that were presented to VIPs and “senators who pushed funds for NASA”, says Bob. He also used to build and fly experimental planes in his spare time, and is an expert pilot of radio-controlled planes and helicopters.

Next month he will begin offering classes in piloting flying machines the size of desks to guests who seek mechanical diversions. His explanation of why he and his wife decided to open a bed-and-breakfast says a lot about the kind of atmosphere you can expect as a guest in their home.

“It’s something for me to do since I’m not building airplanes,” he says. “We want to bring people here, have some fun with them, and maybe make a few bucks.”

The couple, formerly of LaPlata, MD, moved to the Northern Neck and bought 15 acres along the water two years ago. They built a house and put two guest rooms on one side of it, each with a private bath. Chestnut Cove opened for business a year ago.

Barney teaches in a spacious studio attached to the back of the house, where she also works on pieces commissioned by churches, businesses and individuals.

I arrive at the B&B and Zekiah Glass Studios with my friend Kathy Tolbert, and find Barney pulling freshly baked bread from the oven. Homemade soup is simmering on the stove, and a photo-ready fruit tart is cooling on the kitchen counter. Since the B&B is 15 minutes from the smallest town and 30 minutes from a larger town with a choice of restaurants, lunch is included in the modest price of a stay here.

We savor the food before heading to the studio for our first lesson. Barney never takes more than four students at a time. In our case, since Bob stops in frequently to help and no one else has booked a lesson that day, the ratio of teacher to student is 1 to 1.

The process, in brief: You make a sketch of what you create, then either draw a full-scale cartoon or let Bob or Barney do that, depending on your confidence and skill level. Then you trace each piece of the cartoon ,cut it out, glue it to a piece of glass, score the glass, break it with special tools, then grind it to an exact fit. As each piece is completed, you fit it in your growing jigsaw puzzle, keeping it in place with horseshoe nails you must repeatedly reposition.

And that’s just the first day.

The sun is setting by the time we head out for the Oaks, the nearest restaurant, tired but gratified. We keep reminding ourselves to memorize the turns on dark, winding country roads in the hopes we’ll find our way back. After a fried seafood dinner in the town of Lively -- a dinner that was better than you’d expect to find in a small town -- we head straight to our queen-size beds.

Maybe it’s the ducks that awaken me at dawn the next morning. Maybe it’s simply the smell of orange nut muffins. Barney, before moving to the Northern Neck, was the manager of a kitchen store where master chefs gave lessons. She clearly absorbed a lot, and in my opinion could earn a good living just baking her orange nut muffins or chocolate croissants.

I walk to the deck to watch the sun rise over Morattico Creek -- which looks to me like a river. When she hears Kathy stirring, Barney starts whipping up strawberry crepes and sausage for our breakfast.

We are hard at work soon after. The sides of each piece of glass must now be removed from the puzzle and edged with copper foil that is sticky on one side. Then the pieces are shoehorned back into the puzzle, with horseshoe nails reinserted along the sides. After all the pieces are foiled, we take a section of thick lead-and-tin wire solder and melt it with a soldering iron along each seam. Then we go over it again with the solder, building a decorative bead on each seam, on each side of the glass. Barney makes us each a frame from the metal of our choice, to give the pieces strength.

After a seafood dinner at McPatty’s in the town of Kilmarnock, we spend the evening reading and talking to Bob. He began his career at NASA as a master glass blower of specialty scientific glass. But one day he made a blown-glass model of a spaceship for fun, and his job took a dramatic turn.

Much of the rest of his career at NASA was spent making art. One piece is in the National Air and Space Museum, another at Dulles airport. Carl Sagan received one of Bob’s glass works. One was given to John Glenn as a trophy, and a picture of Glenn holding it hangs in the living room.

Another piece in a trophy case is inscribed to President Reagan. How does Bob manage to have in his possession a piece clearly intended for the President?

“Well, that’s a weather satellite I made for him, but by the time of the presentation, it was clear the satellite didn’t work. I had to rush into production to make him something else.”

Before we head home the following morning, Kathy and I put the finishing touches on our own masterpieces, burnishing the beading and the frame with a chemical solution.

“Even if you decide never to do stained glass again,” says Barney, “at least you’ll know what goes into it, appreciate it more and be able to differentiate good stained glass from poor.”

And she’s right. Only I do want to make something else with my very own hands, using my opposable thumbs for something more than gripping fork and knife.


Copyright: 2002 The Washington Post Company