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Traditional art form breathes fresh air into diverse projects

People often associate stained glass with colorful church windows, but it's much more than that. Stained glass pieces can adorn almost anything, even Marilyn Monroe.

Linda Roach bought a life-sized fiberglass mannequin of the famed film star at the Galt flea market, despite the bright yellow hair, bad makeup and nails. She has spent two months giving her an extreme makeover, placing at least 10,000 pieces of iridescent white opal glass on the seated figure to duplicate the dress Monroe wore in the 1955 epic "The Seven Year Itch."

The 48-year-old Cressey woman figures she has at least another month to go to make Marilyn presentable, or even ravishing, using hobby knives to tediously clean glue from the grout surrounding the tiny glass tiles.

"I tend to take on projects bigger than myself," Roach said. "I like taking something odd and making something beautiful out of it. I love glass, doing something different."

Roach said everybody thinks working with glass is hard but it's not. Working with tiny pieces is very relaxing. She plans on entering the finished Marilyn Monroe at a June art and wine festival at Lake Arrowhead in Southern California.

Roach and a number of others take classes in stained glass from Resse Bigelow who has a studio on Broadway in downtown Atwater. Bigelow said stained glass is more than just "old school" church windows and entryway doors.

Stained glass can be glued to just about any type of medium, adorning statues, pots, concrete, frames, patio tables and stepping stones, clocks, even Marilyn Monroe figures, Bigelow said.

Mosaic is an ancient and contemporary art form that uses individual pieces of materials placed together to create a unified whole. Materials commonly used are glass, ceramics, marble, pebbles, mirror, shells and china.

Roach's fellow classmate Pam Raymond is working on a 13-inch terra cotta pot. It's ribbed at the top with three rows of half-inch tile squares in red, green, blue, yellow and orange. The bottom is festooned with blue, purple, green and orange tiles depicting starfish, fish and seashells.

"I needed a hobby," Raymond said. "I thought it would be cheaper than bingo but it's not. It's a very tedious, slow process, waiting for the glue to set."

Raymond's pot will be part of the St. Luke's Episcopal Church silent auction today; she said it's conservatively valued at $100 and should fetch more than that in the bidding.

A retired medical records clerk, Raymond started work with stained glass mosaics seven years ago. She has created a white snowy owl and roosters on trays.

"I'm always looking for different things for mosaics," Raymond said. "It's something I enjoy doing. I just do it because I like it."

Conceding stained glass work means "lots of cleaning and shining," she said her next project will be a frog. Many of the things she creates are given to family or friends.

Roach, who lives in Cressey with her husband, 7-year-old son and 31-year-old daughter, made a coffee table and giant clock with stained glass pieces. She took an old "clawfoot" dining room table, cut down the legs, routed out the center and fashioned a unique patio table.

"I've got 14 projects going at the same time," Roach chuckled. "I've been doing stained glass for about three years. My husband and son are patient with me when I get up at 3 in the morning to play with Marilyn. One piece of glass gets cut into a kajillion pieces. Part of my garage has been turned into a studio. I'm working on a lamp and stepping stones now."

Roach said she sees a piece of glass and derives immense satisfaction turning it into something appealing. The hobby's not without its slight risks -- she said she's constantly cutting herself and has to keep bandages handy.

Bigelow teaches noncredit and community services classes offered by Merced College. She has about 40 people enrolled in classes meeting three times a week and said more students are welcome. The classes are free to students; they just pay the material costs.

The owner of Resse's Riginals Stained Glass Studio, Bigelow has been doing stained glass work for 26 years and started teaching 16 years ago.

While there are predesigned kits available, Bigelow focuses exclusively on her own original and custom designs. She does commissioned art pieces and said her work has gone to Michigan, Louisiana, North Carolina and other parts of the United States.

Bigelow has done memorial benches, statues and many types of animals, including turtles, cows, frogs, horses and rabbits.

"I have created hundreds of items and always sell what I have made," Bigelow said. "I haven't kept anything. I thrive on artwork and design; when it's done it's very rewarding.

Marilyn Monroe may have passed from the scene more than four decades ago but her sequined likeness lives on, thanks to the creativity of a stained glass aficionado.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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