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September 16, 2004

Work of Art – Grad’s Stained Glass Towers Over Greensburg’s Campus

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, humankind is depicted as shackled in darkness, with perceptions of the outside world limited to shadowy reflections on the cave wall cast by a dim fire.

When some cave dwellers escape, they learn that the outside world is bright and filled with life and ideas inaccessible from the cave’s confines. Returning to the cave and sharing their knowledge with those confined to the cave becomes a metaphor for the origin of education.

Plato’s allegory is the main inspiration for “Upward to the Light,” a spectacular stained glass mural now adorning the front entrance of Pitt-Greensburg’s Millstein Library and visible from much of the campus.

The 14 ft.-wide by 32 ft.-high mural was designed and executed by UPG alumnus Terry Bengel, a self-employed leaded-glass artist.

“I’d been thinking about this project for six years,” Bengel says.

“The first thing to consider about the space is its verticality. I saw in Plato’s allegory the captives of an underground chamber moving upward toward the light and enlightenment, in the form of discovering water and vegetation. I also saw the roots of this community moving from an industrial area and looking forward and upward to a new technology economy, which is why the rounded cave and the fire are suggestive of a coke oven.”

Bengel also incorporated elements of Westmoreland County into the design, such as a stream that resembles nearby Loyahanna Creek.

The “Upward to the Light” mural consists of more than 1,000 colored glass pieces, with the largest piece about 18 inches high and the smallest less than 2 inches, “leaded” together in 18 panels. The panels are soldered and overlaid on aluminum channels left over from the windows previously in the space, Bengel says.

About 5 percent of the pieces are mirrors, which give the mural a shimmering, kinetic impression as a viewer gets closer to the mural or moves parallel to it.

While using mirrors in this art form is not unique, Bengel says he has been experimenting with them for years to create special effects. One of his two other pieces on the Greensburg campus, “Neujahr 1989,” is mostly mirrors, he says. “Neujahr 1989,” a celebration of the unification of Germany in leaded glass, mirror and wood, was inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 18 ft. by 7 ft. mural hangs on the second floor of the library.

(The other Bengel piece on campus is the stained glass replica of the University seal displayed in a window of the Chambers Hall Student Center dining hall.)

“The campus community has always been very supportive of my work,” Bengel says. “For ‘Upward to the Light’ I got permission for the design from President [Frank] Cassell, the UPG advisory board, the Millstein family and [the Office of Facilities Management] in Pittsburgh.”

Following design approvals, Bengel worked for three months creating the final artwork, before it was fully installed Aug. 1. “The process involves several steps,” he says. “I made a full-size drawing in actual dimensions of the piece, called a cartoon, and then made copies using tracing paper. One of the copies is done on heavy pattern paper, where each separate colored piece is numbered.”

During this phase, Bengel used the campus gymnasium to spread out the full-size sketch, with the gym’s balcony for viewing from a suitable distance to get the correct perspective.

Using sheet glass from Youghiogheny Glass in nearby Connellsville, Bengel cut the glass pieces precisely to match the numbers. “The [glass supplier] offers about 100 colors, so it’s a broad palate to work with,” he says. “The second work drawing is framed off with wood on a work table and the window is built ‘jig-saw’ fashion, weaving glass with H-shaped lengths of lead called ‘cames.’ Then the panels are mounted within the framework and lead joints are soldered on both sides of the panels. It’s the same Gothic process that’s been used for centuries.”

Bengel learned his trade under the tutelage of the late Pitt-Greensburg professor emeritus Paul Chew, who was the founding director of the Westmoreland Museum of Art.

A 1980 graduate of UPG, Bengel earned a B.A. in humanities/fine arts summa cum laude. In 1983, he became the first American stained glass craftsman to be accepted as a professional observer at the Research Laboratory of the National Historic Monuments Commission, an arm of the French government.

In that capacity he was involved in the restoration of windows at the Cathedral of Troyes, Bourges and Sainte Chapelle, Paris.

Bengel has shown his work at a number of exhibitions, including one-man shows at Seton Hill College (1991) and the Art Place Gallery, Bear Rocks, Pa. (1979).

“Most of my work is commissioned by churches, which, of course, means a religious theme,” he says. “It’s great to work in a secular field and produce public art like ‘Upward to the Light.’ I particularly enjoy the feeling that my art has an impact on the campus community.”

UPG President Cassell said the mural is a wonderful addition to the campus that rings true to its educational mission. “‘Upward to the Light’ not only enhances the beauty of the campus but also enriches the aesthetic life of the region,” Cassell said. “Terry Bengel’s theme, The Allegory of the Cave, is filled with significant messages, such as the important of education, the need to seek understanding and the responsibility to bring enlightenment to others.”

Bengel declined to say what the project cost, but says he donated about 30 percent of the cost. “My real motivation is the loyalty I feel toward the college.”

The Greensburg native also was happy for the opportunity to express local civic pride. “My family has lived in this area for 200 years, so, yes, I’m proud of it!”

Gifts to the “Upward to the Light” project may be made payable to the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and may be sent to Holly DiBiasi, 106 Lynch Hall, 1150 Mount Pleasant Road, Greensburg PA 15601.

-Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 2

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