photos by Hillary Ehlen
With an undergrad degree in English Literature and a Juris Doctor degree, Nick Walberg might seem an unlikely candidate for an emerging stained glass artist. Walberg came across the field of stained glass by chance and, after seven years of the craft, has become an admirable artist in his own right.
By day, Walberg works alongside Michael Orchard at Michael Orchard Studio, working on stained glass commissions for churches, residential and commercial builds, as well as stained glass and antique lighting repairs. But after hours, he is making a name for himself under the name Walberg Glass & Light with modern interpretations of the age-old art.
Learning from Experience
Experience is the best teacher. And lucky for Walberg, ‘experience’ goes by the names Michael Orchard and Ron Brauckmuller.
Walberg’s introduction to the field of glass was by pure happenstance. He was at a dinner with his husband Chad’s best friend from college where someone mentioned that the friend’s father, Michael Orchard, was looking for help at his glass business. “He was looking for someone to grout windows, and I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew he worked in a stained glass studio and I went for it,” shared Walberg.
Seven years later, Walberg still works alongside Orchard and calls himself an apprentice, even though it’s clear he is well past that title. “I got so lucky,” he reminisced while sharing how he stumbled upon this trade. “It’s been a paid gig the whole way, I make a decent wage while I get paid to learn. I still learn every day. I just feel like I got lucky.”
Walberg repeatedly emphasizes his admiration and thankfulness to his mentors Orchard and Brauckmuller. Owner of Michael Orchard Studio, the company’s namesake came to Fargo by way of Omaha and has created thousands of windows all across North Dakota and Minnesota since 1985. Brauckmuller is a retired farmer who worked in stained glass alongside Orchard for a dozen or so years before he truly retired. Walberg described Brauckmuller as an excellent craftsman, who did perfect work—and fast.
Most people have seen stained glass before, whether it be in churches or historic homes or even in lighting fixtures. While this is an art form we are all familiar with, how many people know what goes into the final product? In the basement of his historic home, Walberg demonstrated the process; tracing, cutting and bending his way into crafting pieces of art.
The first step of the process is to design the pattern, which Walberg notes is his favorite part, saying, “The tough part about stained glass is that the fun and creative side that I love is right up front. Then the rest is just working. The fun stuff is the very first thing and then three months later you get to actually see what you’ve made.” As a self-proclaimed “old millennial,” Walberg states that he is still learning all things computer, so he prefers doing his design work by hand.
Once he has the design measured and to scale on paper, the next step is to cut the glass, a method that has been the same for a hundred years. This step involves carefully dragging the glass/tile cutter along the lines of the pattern and hearing the glass sing in a delicate crackle. Once a nice clean score is made, breaking pliers snap the glass into the desired line. While this has been the method for as long as stained glass has been around, glass remains a finicky material. Walberg notes, “I break so much glass. That’s just part of the job.”
Once the glass pieces are cut to the desired shape, it’s time to lead the window. With a compound that’s 50 percent lead and 50 percent antimony, Walberg uses this pliable, yet strong material to hold the carefully formed pieces of glass together. In this step, Walberg notes, “You always have to be thinking one step ahead of where the next piece is going to go […] If you like puzzles, this can be fun.”
As he shuffled through a bin of glass pieces, picking which unique piece he wanted to use in which spots, he noted that a lot of the pieces he uses on personal projects are scraps from his day job. “We always have to order it in, because no one here is making sheets of glass. Glass is expensive, so we try to recycle when we can,” he said.
Bringing Stained Glass to the Area
You can count on one hand the number of stained glass artists practicing here in town. This sparse art is often associated with liturgical settings, but Walberg wants to bring the craft into more residential spaces in Fargo.
“I’d love to do more residential work. I want to show people how they can get stained glass into their modern home,” said Walberg. “Especially in newer homes, I see lots of fixed windows, which would be perfect for stained glass!” Walberg emphasizes that stained glass can be showcased in a variety of ways. From being installed into a window frame to displayed hanging in front of a window, even to being its own framed piece of art.
Discussing one of his own home fixtures, Walberg adds, “You can hang stained glass in front of a fixed window […] I’m trying to get people thinking about. It doesn’t have to be a fixed thing that you install.”
Art for the Home
Walking through Walberg’s Moorhead home to get to his basement studio, you see pieces of local artwork on almost every wall. Walberg’s husband, Chad Johnson, has been on the board of directors for The Rourke Art Gallery and Museum for five years now and the couple is heavily invested in the local arts scene. Walberg noted, “I don’t know if we’ve had anything on the walls that aren’t local. That’s kind of what we like to spend money on; local art.”
From working after-hours on museum exhibition pieces to working on custom church installations at work, Walberg stays busy. He shared, “Sometimes I have really awesome ideas that I want to do around the house. And I work all day and my hands hurt and the last thing I want to do is come home and cut more glass, but it’s a good problem to have. I like how I spend my days.”
On display in The FMVA BIG Art Show at the Hjemkomst Center is one of Walberg’s recent pieces, “Mood Follows Action.” This piece was inspired by podcaster Rich Roll’s signature sentiment that once you take positive action, the mood will follow.
This piece showcases Walberg’s ability to work with organic lines, as well as geometric ones that he often lends himself to. While he remains humble about his skill—even calling it a ‘craft’ rather than an art—he finds himself on display at local exhibits like this often. The upcoming 60th Annual Midwestern Invitational Exhibition of Fine Art at the Rourke will feature a new piece of his, “Slipping Away.”