Passion is elusive.
People fret over not being able to claim it as the motivating factor in their careers – passion for the almighty dollar apparently doesn't count. What's surprising is how the lucky few that have truly answered their calling discovered what makes them tick; often they'll tell you it was quietly lurking as something unspectacular – no bright lights, no parting clouds.
For artist Michael Willard, who owns the Stained Glass Works store at 1739 Centre St. in West Roxbury, it was hiding in a house in Jamaica Plain. Up until that point he wasn't using his penchant for visual art for much while on the job.
"I was working as a vocational rehabilitation counselor," he said during a recent phone interview. "Basically I was spending my time negotiating between folks collecting workman's compensation and their employers, helping integrate people back into the work force. It requires effort on both sides, motivating employees to get working again and persuading employers to make job modifications to accommodate ongoing physical issues. My background had nothing to do with art," he added, noting that he'd grown up and attended college in Kansas before relocating to Minnesota.
Willard's vocational rehab gig eventually landed him in Boston. When he moved into his new Jamaica Plain home, he discovered some stained glass windows that needed repair. While most people would have made some phone calls, Willard took a class.
"The short version is, I took the class, fell in love with it, quit my job and… here we are," he said. "Obviously there were steps along the way. I worked for a business in Needham that mainly did restorative projects. I eventually taught my own class in Brookline when I'd set up a studio there; it was through the Adult Education program."
It was through stained glass that Willard fully realized the roots of his creative enthusiasm and got a better feel for what it was he'd enjoyed about photography, something he'd dabbled in previously.
"It's so calming, building something piece by piece," he said. "I was always interested in puzzles and the way you start at a corner and move one piece at a time – I enjoy the attention to detail. I discovered that, as was also the case with my photography, it was the interplay between light and color that fascinated me. Even better, the result was something more permanent than a photograph."
That permanency is a large part of what keeps Willard enthralled with his craft. The restoration and maintenance of history makes his work an important facet of a much bigger picture. The Boston area, with so many Victorian homes dating back 100 to 150 years or more, is rife with opportunities for him to preserve a unique aspect of its architectural beauty. Currently he's embarking on a project at the old Cambridge Baptist Church (Zero Garden Street) which involves both paint and glass.
"I just purchased a new kiln for that job," he said. "When you have paint on glass, you have to fuse the two together. It's a special glass-paint that actually melts into the glass at a certain temperature. It'll last for over 100 years."
While there are other supply outlets in Peabody, Mansfield and Avon, being a dual restoration and supply shop in Boston gives Willard a leg-up on restoration work in areas like Newton, Brookline and Dorchester. He may be highly specialized, but since opening in 1998 the central location has kept him very busy.
"The store's purpose is two-fold; we repair old windows, but we sell glass and supplies also," he said. "It solves a huge problem for regional artists that hesitate to buy glass online because they can't discern the level of transparency and color saturation – their order arrives and turns out not to be what they expected. Here they can come in and hopefully get exactly what they need. Between the work inside and outside of the shop, my schedule is very full. It's my day off and I spent the morning traveling around to four different sites with new restoration jobs, now I'm here in my studio catching up on a few things."
Willard is so in-demand that he's unable to make time for teaching classes right now. It's something he'd like to return to down the line, however.
"This is physically demanding work, believe it or not," he said. "You're on your feet for long stretches of time or you're bent over a table... I'll get back to teaching when I'm too feeble to manage the workload I'm doing now."