Marietta Burke

Occupation: Artist, Stained Glass Architect, Owner of Belle le Verre
Resides: Newton
Age: 36
Family: Husband Joel; children Wesley, David, and Charlotte


How would you describe your occupation?
I would say artist and stained glass architect. I went to school for architecture, so I like to throw that in.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Catawba, a very small town. My grandfather was a farmer. Both of my parents worked in local factories. I have a sister who is 11 years older and a brother who's 4 years older, and they both still live in the area. It was great. We were just right down the street from my grandfather's cattle farm. It was a real country childhood.

Where did you go to school?
I went to high school at Bunker Hill and then went to UNC Charlotte. I originally wanted to be a nurse anesthetist. I did some internships and one was in the emergency room. That’s where I realized, “This is a really hard job." There's a lot of baggage that goes along with seeing children come in and they don't walk out. It's not something you want to deal with on a daily basis.

I took a little bit of time off from school and reevaluated what I wanted to do. I thought, "Let's try architecture." It's a pretty rigorous process to get into school. You have to do this giant application with essays, and I had to submit a portfolio with five pieces in it. We had to bring in an example of our work, and other students mostly had a lot of paintings and sketches because that was their art medium. I took a stained glass piece. No one had ever taken a stained glass piece for architecture school, and I had been doing stained glass forever. They were super interested in it, so basically stained glass got me into architecture school.

It makes a lot of sense because stained glass seems so architectural.
It is. Every architect loves Frank Lloyd Wright, and he’s like the stained glass grandfather. If you look at his pieces, they're so architectural and so symmetrical. Most people who come in here want butterflies, hummingbirds, things like that. Sometimes I get my Frank Lloyd Wright clients, and I really have to take my time on those pieces to make sure they are perfect.

What inspired you to take up stained glass in high school?
Oh, I love Victorian houses. I mean, any story that has an old Victorian scary house in it, I would read it and love it. My husband and I searched for a Victorian house. We went all over the state looking for one because he can work from anywhere, and really so can I. But we just couldn't find one. They were either really, really expensive, or someone had over-improved it to the point where you could never recoup that money. Or it was falling apart.

Stained glass doesn't seem like an easy thing to do. How did you learn the craft?
It's very difficult. I learned from books and instructional videos. We’re not talking about YouTube, because the internet didn't exist. I watched a lot of VHS tapes. I ordered the glass, ordered the supplies and then just set up a little place in the basement at my parents’ house and made a mess.

When my husband and I got married, he really encouraged me to do more. I was just making little gifts, and there's only so much you can learn on your own. There was an awesome stained glass store in Cornelius, and the owner was teaching classes. I took classes with him for about a year. He was a retired engineer, so our backgrounds hooked up well together. We spoke the same language. He said, "I use AutoCAD to lay out my stuff," and I told him, "I know AutoCAD!" I could send him all my drawings in AutoCAD and he could look at them and say, "You're going to have a really hard time here, here, and here." He would fix them for me, and eventually I learned that on my own.

Do you make the glass, or just cut the glass?
Everybody asks, "Do you make the glass?" I don't. It would take a warehouse to do that, with huge ovens and things. I buy sheets of glass from glass manufacturers in the USA. Glass comes in every imaginable color. There are some that are hard to match, like browns and grays. You can get Kokomo, the oldest glass manufacturer in the US, to make a custom sheet of glass but it costs thousands. I've never had anybody do it.

What's it like cutting the glass for the shapes you need? That seems intimidating, because it’s so central to making sure the design’s right.
Glass is always going to break at some point. I put my pattern piece on it and I cut it by hand. I have a glass saw, but I don't use it unless it's an angle, or something I absolutely can't cut by hand. I made an interpretation of “Starry Night” by van Gogh for an art exhibit at the United Arts Council a couple years ago. I didn't have a saw at that point, and it was some of the hardest glass to cut because it had ridges. I don't even know how I did it. I had to have it done in three or four days, and this was more like a two-month piece so I was working all hours trying to get it finished for the art opening. It's about hand pressure, too. When students take classes from me, they don't understand they have to keep that pressure constant. You have to go end-to-end on the glass, you can't stop in the middle. You just have to keep trying.

Walk us through your creative process.
When a client comes in, they come in with ideas and pictures. I tell them they can bring a picture of anything they want. It doesn't have to be a stained glass window, because I can draw it. If they don't bring something, I'll try to find pictures and we’ll go from there.

I always do a hand sketch, and then I put it in AutoCAD just to make sure I'm not off. I can use rulers all day, but it's never going to be perfectly straight. I print it and make two copies. I cut the pieces from that, and then I lay the pieces on top of the glass. It’s a pattern, kind of like sewing.

A lot of times I see something I want to make without a client in mind. I can see anything and think, "Oh, I want to make that." For Christmas I made some Leg Lamp ornaments [from the movie “A Christmas Story”]. What says Christmas better than a Leg Lamp? Those sold like crazy.

Where do your clients come from?
About 80-90% of my business is on Etsy online. My clients around here usually want more custom work. I have custom clients online, too. I just shipped a big window, 40 by 50 inches, to a farm in Florida. It was a Celtic knot.

Wasn’t your camper stained glass featured recently in Country Living Magazine?
It was in the April 2018 issue Country Living and April 2017 issue of Our State Magazine. It’s one of my most popular designs and comes in a variety of colors!

You’ve talked about the glass, so now let’s talk about the metal. What’s the process there?
It's two different processes. One is copper foil, where you take every individual piece of glass and wrap it with copper foil tape, paint Flux over it, and then solder over that. That's an easier way because it hides your mistakes if the pieces are not perfectly cut. Then there’s lead, and with lead you have to be pretty spot on. That's what you would use for an exterior window on a house, because you would never put  copper foil on the outside. It wouldn't be strong enough, and it wouldn’t hold up in the elements.

You started out making gifts for people. When did you officially go into business?
My husband loved this building. The lady who owned it had a For Rent sign in the window. He called her and she said, "Sure, I'll sell it." So he said, "Well, why don't you put your stained glass business in there?” And that's how it all got started.

I really didn't expect it to be a thriving business, but it is. I'm booked up for three or four months at a time, and it’s not all one piece. It's more like 10 different pieces. It's been good.

My husband uses the upstairs of this building. He is a graphic artist, and he designs muscle car and motorcycle T-shirts. He liked to draw cars when he was a little boy, and he gets to do that all day long now.

What do you love most about what you do?
I love the freedom of it. I get to be creative and I don't have to answer to anybody. I have my own space. I get to do what I like.

Let's talk a little bit about living in Newton.
When we were first married, we were living in Terrell. We looked for years for a “forever” house, but we're both real, real picky. I said, "There's a really awesome neighborhood in Newton that I've always loved. Let's look in there." So we drove through and saw a house for sale, and I knew we’d like it just from looking at it. It's like a contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright style house. It needed to be updated, and we've done a lot of work to it. We love our neighborhood. Love it.

What do you love most about it?
It’s quiet. All our neighbors are retired. Really great people. The houses don't turn over very often. We don't get a lot of new neighbors.

What has it been like raising a family in Newton?
It's been great. It's a great community. You don't have to worry about anything. It's a very safe place, full of great people. We have a really good arts community with the theater and other things. I've done some acting at The Green Room; it's such a wonderful outlet. I'm on the board of Newton Conover Auditorium, and we have a new Executive Director. She's got some really great ideas for the auditorium. It's just wonderful to have all these things in our community, to have options for the children to enrich their lives.

What has been your experience as a business owner in Downtown Newton?
It's been really nice. There's a lot of support from Downtown Development and the events they have. I’m interested in the Streetscape. I've just seen the artists’ rendering and it looks really nice. I'm excited for that because Newton needs a little bit of oomph. The Folk Art Festival is wonderful. I've been to festivals in Savannah, Charleston, and Winter Park exhibiting my stuff, but I've done the best out here in Newton. It's a great festival. I love it.

If you met someone who was considering moving here, what would you tell them?
I would say it's definitely a place to consider. It's an up and coming area. A lot of great things are on the rise. I would say it's a hidden piece of hometown Americana, because you still have your town parades and town festivals. It's not a big city where you don't know your neighbors or know people walking down the street. I see people I know everywhere and they say, "I saw you in that play” or “You’re the person who makes the stained glass.” It's just a super friendly place to live, and I think everybody should consider moving here because it's a wonderful place with so many opportunities already here and on the rise.

In addition to your business and your family, you also perform in the local theater?
I have. I've been everything from Velma Von Tussle in “Hairspray” to a character in an Agatha Christie play. I did it in high school, so when the kids were a little bit older I thought, "Oh, this would be fun."

What do you like best about theater?
Somebody not treating me like I'm somebody's mom! It’s something I can do for me. I love being character roles and having fun developing those. You want to be the comic relief.

When you think back on the whole time you've been making stained glass, what is your absolute favorite piece you've made, and why?
There is a favorite piece. It was for a family who lost their young daughter unexpectedly. I made an angel in her image. It had her hair and a dress with butterflies coming up from the background, and each of the colors meant something. Her dress was yellow because she brought joy to others and the butterflies were red for love, blue for faith. I wrote her family a note with it that said, "I used all these colors to represent her qualities as this is what she left with the world." It was such a great piece. It's beautiful. People have been asking me to remake it, but it’s a very, very personal piece to that family. That was my favorite and I hope they cherish it forever.

Is there anything else you want to share?
I love being an artist in this community. I think it's important to be downtown. I know they're trying to make the town more arts centered, and I think it’s good that I'm here and can show that artists can make it as a viable business and support themselves here. I love Newton. I always have. It's just a great area. It’s that old hometown you see in movies. You see “The Andy Griffith Show” and you think, "Gosh, those places still exist?" And they do. It's right outside my door. It's a wonderful place.

Interviewed June 22, 2018