Islander illuminates Ellsworth House with glass art

Stained glass artist Tom Randall sits at his work bench at home in the Ellsworth House apartments on Mercer Island, Nov. 14. -
Stained glass artist Tom Randall sits at his work bench at home in the Ellsworth House apartments on Mercer Island, Nov. 14.
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Walking into Tom Randall’s apartment is like stepping into a life-size kaleidoscope. Detailed stained glass mosaics, patterns and pictures illuminate his windows. They hang from every one of his walls, rest on wooden shelves and wrap around light bulbs, clock faces and stovetops.

The colors are vibrant; the images, serene and exotic. Some are abstract. Others are simple. A glass carving of Thumper, the Disney rabbit, is Randall’s favorite. Or is it the bashful Japanese geisha? Or the intricate depiction of a lakeside picnic? It’s hard for him to choose.

Randall has buried himself in stained glass for more than 20 years, since he first entered retirement in 1988. He loves all aspects of the craft: choosing a pattern; measuring the frame; improvising the colors; cutting, soldering and gluing; hanging the finished work. The 86-year-old has spent hundreds of hours working with glass — months-worth, if you were to add up the time. And he hasn’t tired of it yet.

“I keep telling myself I’m going to quit,” the Ellsworth House resident says. “But I still haven’t yet.”

As Randall tells me this, his eyes skipping over brilliant shards of glass, he explains that the hobby has become increasingly expensive these days. He has already had to economize, buying cheaper materials online rather than from custom stores. Yet saying goodbye to a 20-year hobby is harder than he thought.

“A spool of solder used to be $7, and now it’s $20. The glass is becoming pricey too,” Randall says. “The problem is, when I start a project, I never have all the colors, so I go out and buy more glass. And then I have a lot left over, so I start a new project.”

If it were up to those who know Randall, they wouldn’t let him quit. A handful of residents and visitors have commissioned work from Randall. His son and daughter, their homes filled with stained glass, are two of his biggest fans. And there are others.

“It’s wonderful what he does. What an artist! His work is just beautiful,” says Mary Karaniewski, a 14-year resident of Ellsworth House.

“He likes to make everyone gifts,” adds resident Phyllis Presbrey. “He gave me a little glass animal to hang on my door.”

Randall’s work is not only in high demand at Ellsworth House. After seeing Randall’s glass for the first time, a member of the Mercer Island Arts Council has been urging him to submit his work for exhibit. Yet the artist is not drawn by the public limelight or by the notion of money.

“I’ve been asked to display my work at the community center and the church that owns Ellsworth House wants me to give them pieces to sell by auction,” Randall says. “But I don’t need the attention or money. I just enjoy giving my glass as gifts.”

The residents of Ellsworth House, Randall says, are the only audience he needs.

More than two dozen glass images brighten the retirement home’s fourth-floor hallway, an opalescent angel illuminating its single window. Downstairs, in the community room, Randall has hung a Chinese design in the window facing east, “to catch the morning sunrise.” It was a gift, he says, for the building’s Asian residents.

“It’s a Chinese character that means 'good fortune,'” the artist explains. “Everyone says they like it, so I’m pretty happy with that.”

Right now, Randall is working on a glass mosaic. He says it may be his last. His fingers are calloused. His Wizard glass grinder rattles with age. There is hardly a bare space left in his apartment. But there, on the corner of his desk, sits a small pile of tempting, leftover glass.

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