MIDDLETOWN, Ohio -- Jay Moorman seems like your average businessman, working in what many consider a struggling Butler and Warren County town.
But the 66-year-old and his wife Linda are using their business to open doors--and colorful windows--between different religions and communities across the globe.
Moorman owns the oldest continually operating stained glass studio in America. It's 175 years old this year, and it's located in Middletown, Ohio.
"We do exactly what they did centuries ago--the same way. We've got a little bit better tools, but basically it's the same thing," he said.
The three-story operation, called BeauVerre-Riordan Stained Glass Studios, is the heart of downtown Middletown. But the work made inside goes to clients in places as far as Ireland and Jordan, and also all over the United States.
Moorman is an artist, making intricate stained glass windows and doors that can cost as much $50,000. His latest work is on a $60 million Chicago home.
"It’s painting with the glass and the light makes it change every day," he said. "In oil painting, it's the same every day, every night. With stained glass, it changes every day and from morning to night, you have a different picture."
They’re the stained glass pieces you see inside churches and mosques.
Some glass has so much texture, it's intentionally worked into the art. Moorman uses a piece of drapery glass to convey folds in a religious figure's cloak.
"But it’s a bear to cut because it’s not smooth,“ Moorman said.
He said his studio’s responsible for the stained glass artwork in at least 1,000 religious centers in the Tri-State, including St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in West Chester, Holy Trinity Church in Dayton, St. Barbara in Erlanger and the Islamic Center on Tylersville Road.
“It’s inspiring. I mean, the churches started getting stained glass because it just made it feel more warm and fuzzy," he said. "Also, that was how they taught the peasants who were illiterate. They couldn’t read the bible so they would come to the church and ask questions.”
Religions that are sometimes so defined by their differences are connected by the similarities in Moorman's artwork
“They might call their higher power something else but they all have the same goal and they’ve all been different to work for.”
Moorman and his nine employees research the religious figures from each denomination before starting a new project with a client.
They’ve got hundreds, possibly even thousands of books that they’ve acquired since the studio was founded in 1838.
“It was just all the symbolism and research that we do on the different churches and windows that makes each one special, but I don’t really feel that each denomination is different. I think they’re so similar except the symbolism changes,“ he said.
Each piece of art starts out as small scaled drawing, before he draws it full size.
That pattern is used to cut the glass and he then simulates what it will look like in the sunlight with the flip of a switch on a light table.
Every piece of glass is carefully selected for texture, color and imperfection.
“Nothing in nature is perfect, so there may be even a brown spot on a leaf. You pay attention. You don’t paint or cut each leaf that’s green and that’s the way it is," said Moorman.
He said he has 50,000 pounds of this glass in his studio, and like a collector of baseball cards, he said each piece is different.
“It looks all together different with the sun coming through, but the cutability is phenomenal. It cuts like butter compared to some of the other glass.” he said.
He’s purchased entire studios--just to get the glass inside.
“All of this glass is not made anymore," he said, while referencing his collection of "special" glass. "This is when Tiffany made glass. He was the son of a jeweler. He had unlimited resources ... the glass he made, the colors, the textures, everything had a purpose.”
But Moorman wasn’t always able to buy out $60,000 studios for his business that’s now worth millions.
In fact, just like the town he grew up in, Moorman was struggling, too.
“The way my studio started was I worked in my basement for five years, and then Linda got pregnant and asked me to get the led out of the house so I moved to the garage,” he said.
During the week, he worked a full time job. He inspected aircraft parts for General Electric. But every other moment, he worked on his art.
“Linda always said she was a glass widow because I would come home from work and go down in the basement and that might be Friday evening and she wouldn’t see me until Monday morning when I was going to work,” he said.
He would take odd jobs that paid in scrap glass just to spend time living out his passion
"I worked with an older man in Cincinnati," he said. "After I worked
eight hours, he'd take a bench brush and sweep the glass shards into a box. It wasn't about the money. It wasn't about the glass. It was more about the knowledge that I learned."
He eventually opened his own studio in 1983 before merging with the historical Riordan studios 12 years ago when that studio's owner became ill.
"The glass today doesn’t measure up to the glass in the past. It was about quality. It wasn’t about money. Some of the archives that we have and different pieces from Riordan, they’re invaluable."
He bought the downtown building from the city for just $100 and got a $300,000 loan.
"When I took the building we were alone. The was nothing and then it took me four or five years to get my building and my business established. “
And in that time, he’s tried to re-establish his city, too. He's shining light on the town through his stained glass.
He’s attracted several businesses to the building since the merge, including a frame shop, a graphic artist, a dance attire studio, a woman's boutique and the restaurant Stained 1054 Bistro that he just opened last April. His stained glass lines the eatery walls.
“If you can go and have a steak with crab meat and a glass of wine and tour the oldest studio in the United States, wow. I mean that’s like cracker barrel on crack."
It's a bridge between the city of Middletown and the business that’s colored much of this country for more than a century.