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Play of Light

County Health Official Has Sun-Drenched Sideline

Photos by Nora Edinger Howard Gamble, more commonly known as head of the Ohio County Health Department, is also the artist responsible for colorful stained glass panels sold at his Wheeling Stained Glass booth at Artworks Around Town in Centre Market.

WHEELING — When a suited-and-tied Howard Gamble zipped into Artworks Around Town on a recent afternoon, he had a bag of lunch crooked in one arm and was busy both texting and rummaging for change to feed a Centre Market meter.

He didn’t want a ticket. He also didn’t want COVID running wild through the schools, where cases were suddenly up post-Thanksgiving. He was already arranging an evening vaccine clinic at a school as he nearly sprinted back out to his vehicle, coins in hand.

It was a busy day. One of hundreds of busy days for the county’s top public health official since COVID began. But, the moment he returned to the gallery space dedicated to the display of his stained glass, Gamble suddenly transformed into the chillaxed artist he said he’d be full-time if such a thing were financially possible.

“It is the light affecting the final product and what’s getting through onto the wall and the floor,” he said of why he loves glass as medium. “With beveled pieces you see rainbows. With other pieces, you can wash a room with red and green and blue.”

He went on to talk about texture and every artist’s battle between creating and selling into a market in which it’s difficult to even get someone to stand still long enough to look at a work. He shrugged at that latter thing. He’s creating, regardless.

“It’s a nice distraction,” he said of his art, taking another quick peek at his phone before continuing the interview.

A SINGLE CLASS

“I took a class at Oglebay, and I never went away,” Gamble said of his start in stained glass about 20 years ago. He took so many classes, in fact, he’s now an instructor at the Stifel Fine Arts Center.

Gamble is also producing a great deal of art, much of which is sold through Artworks Around Town. Some pieces don’t make it quite that far, he acknowledged, explaining they are purchased as soon as he posts them on his Facebook page.

COVID has affected his one-man supply chain, however. “When you don’t have a pandemic, I get to do an awful lot — teaching or the works that hang here or commission works.” Right now, what’s displayed in the Artworks gallery is nearly all of his stock.

And, smaller scale repairs — no big church windows, as he doesn’t have the massive studio it takes to disassemble large panels for re-leading — are literally off the table until COVID is over, he noted.

“I was having to tell people it’s going to be months, not weeks,” he said of declining such work. “They’re kind of disappointed.”

LOCAL LOGISTICS

While COVID has slowed his production, Gamble said his supplies are so local there isn’t any problem on that end. Nearly all of his glass comes from plants in Paden City and Connellsville, Pa.

“It’s very nice to be in this area,” said Gamble, who grew up in Webster County. “You can drive over and actually touch the stained glass instead of looking at it online.”

There have also been local assists when it comes to creating the literal support needed to make a large work function as a free-standing piece of art, rather than being set into a window frame. Gamble recalled a time a local hardware dealer introduced him to wire more commonly used for fencing in order to stabilize a large, circular piece that brings to mind lying on the ground and looking up into a tree canopy.

“You have a lot of pieces coming together — the weight of the glass, the solder, the metal that wraps around it,” he said, noting he now often adds flat copper wire under the leading that connects glass pieces.

Gamble said he learned about how critical such reinforcement is the hard way, when he did a set of windows large enough for his parents’ French doors. “When I took it out and picked up the first one, it bent right in half.”

CREATING,

COLLABORATING

When Gamble is at full production, he does commissioned pieces. “They’re about having a desire to have a piece of stained glass, but they have a specific place for it,” he said of a typical commission destined for either installation over a certain window or to become a window itself.

“Commissioned pieces are unique,” he added. “(But) I think I enjoy it more making a piece without any pressure.”

Inspiration for the latter can come from anywhere — old patterns, new patterns or just from nature, he said. When he noticed a line of birds on a wire he wound up doing a reverse image of what he saw — creating a line of colorful birds against white sky.

He also recently finished a rose window that’s about 4 feet tall — a size he said is pretty much the outer limit for what can support itself without a frame (and fit into a would-be buyer’s vehicle.)

“Making a big piece is wonderful. You come back and forth, working on it. It takes me a while,” Gamble said, noting he recently collaborated with Artworks photographer Larry Travis to create a stained glass version of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.

Most sales are local given the potential size and fragility of his work, but Gamble said one Louisiana man who was visiting the city managed to ship a larger piece to that state thanks to Spry’s Mail Center Plus.

He also recently became aware that Congressman David McKinley, R-W.Va., was gifted a couple of his pieces that now hang in his office in Washington, D.C.

Gamble’s son, who attends school in the Capitol and happened to see one during a visit, snapped a quick photo with his phone. “Is this yours?” the son asked. It was, and Gamble — the artist and public official — was dually delighted. “Those are the most public pieces that I know of.”

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