Down the street from gas stations, liquor stores with barred windows and defunct shop fronts lies a little gem on the corner of North and Rockwell. A small studio with colored glass glinting from every window shines, even gray skies outside cannot dim the bright art within.
The artist, a jovial, fast-talking Chicagoan, opens the door to his combination studio, workshop and apartment. Inside the front show room hang colored glass pieces of all shapes and sizes. One large piece depicts a grand flower vase with blooms of every shade spilling out, across from it a woman poised over a lute, and across from her a wall of small ceramic tiles adorned with flags from every country nestled beside a glass sign for The Beatles’ Lonely Hearts Club Band. An affectionate cat roams between glass creations. “This is Franz,” says the artist as he looks to the cat walking among sheets of intricately painted glass, “he’s kind of like the mascot, he loves people, even if they don’t love him.”
The artist is Sean Michael Felix, 53, of Illumination Art and Design located on the border of Wicker Park and Humboldt Park. He has been painting since he was in his 20s but moved to his current area four years ago to change up his clientele. “I like this neighborhood. I like the cultural clash of people,” he says.
Stained glass may look more at home at the apex of a grand European cathedral with kings and queens residing within than in a shop window in Wicker Park, but Felix has made a living out of renovating old ideas and making them new again.
Felix was born and raised in the south suburbs of Chicago in areas like Chicago Heights and Dalton. In the past several years he moved his studio and home up into the city because he figured his art worked better for a city audience than a suburban one. His appreciation for stained glass began early on when he first saw the glass in the Navy Pier museum, home to pieces of stained glass both contemporary and ancient. “Ah, I can do that,” said Felix when he first saw the stained glass on display.
But he did not start off crafting and painting glass. He began in 1980 as a sign painter. He went from wood, to carved wood signs, to sketching, then on to painting glass. Now he paints glass, etches, does gold leaf designs and sand blasts for his pieces. “Back in the 80s and 90s sign painters seemed to be self-sufficient,” says Felix, “I liked that kind of freedom.” With competition from factory made glass art that is cheaper and faster, Felix’s eye for artistic design is what sets him apart. But it does not make it easier. “I didn’t want to work 9 to 5, that’s not my thing. So now I work 24 hours a day just trying to keep this kind of thing a float,” says Felix.
“It’s a very labor-intensive process, it’s an expensive process. I mean, I can’t even afford my own work,” says Felix. Many of Felix’s works are prices between $1,200 and $10,000 with custom pieces often costing more. He says it is difficult to give an accurate price range though since all of the pieces he makes are so different, “One thing I like about my job is that no two jobs are ever the same,” says Felix.
From hand cutting the glass, to mixing his own paints, from hand painting the glass and firing it multiple times to make it scratch-proof to assembling it and applying any 24 karat gold leaf. This process can take close to 60 hours of constant work over a two-month time frame. With so much time and effort put into these works it is easy to understand the price range. But he does sell smaller ceramic tiles with less gold and detail that are in a more affordable price range, most under $100.
“I’m definitely not a minimalist,” he says. His work is more than art and more than design. It is a combination of old world technique and contemporary technology. Some of the techniques he uses are almost lost to the ages like gold leaf detailing and blending his paints with essential oils like clove and lavender. But some are more updated, like plotting his designs on the computer. “What I personally like is the florid, fussy, gold, shiny things, that’s my thing,” says Felix. His designs, both florid and stark, are on display all over the city, from glass floral gardens in private homes in the northern suburbs, to the spa in Trump Tower to bars like Halligan Bar and Hook and Ladder, both in Lincoln Park.
Felix isn’t completely on his own though, his son Sean Michael Felix II, 32, helps him with assembling the cut pieces of glass. Sean contributes by forming the metal work crucial to a sturdy stained glass work, Felix says his son is much more meticulous than himself and that is necessary for this type of delicate work. “You know me,” Felix says, “I’d rather be the fartist that paints this and that.”
Even for a painter passionate about the tradition of stained glass painting and design, there is room for contemporary interpretations. Although Felix enjoys taking on any artistic endeavor that a client brings to him whether it is religiously themed or not, Felix says, “I would like to make stained glass more of a non denominational artsy type thing” as well as the traditional church style glass pieces.
Felix describes his work as architectural art glass, not just stained glass, because of the varied methods he uses when creating his works. He also mounts and back lights some of his pieces to let light shine through even on Chicago’s cloudy days.
“If I could do old world stuff but have a new technology to make it not quite so labor intensive then I’m all for that,” says Felix. He employs design computer programs like Adobe Illustrator to make his delicate, and often times tedious, work more efficient. “If Michelangelo had an overhead projector, he’d use it,” Felix jokes.
Royalty may be rare in his part of Chicago, but with new projects on the horizon, a thriving Facebook fan page, a collection of dedicated customers and an upcoming gallery show in October for Chicago Artists Month, Illumination Art and Design’s future is bright.