McMahon's first solo exhibition arrives after decades of working with glass


November 24, 2022

Lizzie Thompson / Petersburg Pilot

The 11 stained glass windows newly installed at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church are some of the most recent of Debi McMahon's glass art installations that can be found all around Petersburg.

Local artist Debi McMahon's first solo art exhibit will open at 5:30 p.m. this Friday at the Firelight Gallery, celebrating forty-five years of playing with glass with forty-five recent works. The show will be up through Wednesday, November 30th.

McMahon's love of glass began in 1977 when she "had a premature baby, Karine, and after a couple of months of caring for her thought, 'I've got to get out of here. I've got to have some kind of break!'" she says. "So I went to Community Schools and asked 'What's available?' And it was either bookkeeping or a week-long stained glass class. I thought, 'Okay, it's numbers or band-aids,' and I went for the glass. And I just loved it so much! When it was over I went to the professor and said, 'Hey, I really want to get started on this. I really want to keep on going.' He paused and looked at me and said, 'Debi, I'm sorry, but you are the worst in my class.' I was taken aback. What do you say when you've just been told that you're at the bottom of the pile? So, I just said, 'Well, I can't get any worse!' So I took a pair of pliers and put bandaids on the ends, bought a glass cutter and some glass, and then I practiced and practiced and practiced. And I still practice. I haven't reached that top point where I think, 'Oh, you are just so good.'"

Her daughter Ruby Shumway has been witness to much of her mother's artistic journey. "She started with mosaics, then moved into copper-foil and soldering or lead. For a while she made glass beads, then there was a sandblasting phase. And now she's doing fused glass in a kiln she bought for her studio. It's been really great to watch her follow her curiosity and experiment."

Debi says she loves glass - the feel of it, the musical sound of its breaking, the gritty little crunch of the glass nippers she uses to nibble off the edges of a square quickly transforming it into a circle, the raspy whine of the glass cutter as she deftly scribes a straight line making it look easy despite the slippery surface, the crisp little snick the glass makes when she snaps it in half, even the race car sound of the grinder she uses to smooth sharp edges and to create intricate shapes. "I just love everything about it," she smiles.

Her daughter Mamie Nilsen remembers, "When we were kids her workspace was in this tiny room, really just a cubby hole in the back of the house, and there was a line we couldn't cross because she didn't want us to get glass in our feet. It's incredible the amount of art that came out of that space! And I think it's pretty cool that after her teacher told her she wasn't any good at working in glass and shouldn't pursue it, she just thought, 'meh, I'm not going to listen to you,' and kept practicing."

In 2012 her husband, Dan McMahon, and Rick Wikan built a studio on the front of their house. It has lots of windows and Dan made the railing on the porch removable to accommodate the delivery of large crates. Debi and Brenna came up with the name Salmonberry Studio. It's a warm space full of natural light and large work surfaces surrounded by vertical racks that store sheets of glass on end and cubbies full of rolled up vellum scrolls with drawings that map out her designs for future projects. Shelves contain boxes of cut pieces for works in progress, jars full of colorful glass shards crowd the counter, and finished pieces glow in the windows. A couple of display racks are full of fused glass ornaments, "Sometimes when I'm working on a big project it gets to a point where I feel like I could scream, then I shift gears and do something fun. While I was working on a commission for the Catholic church - eleven stained glass windows - I started making ornaments. They're fun. One day I was hungry and started making food ornaments, like hamburgers and mugs of rootbeer," she laughs, "I call those my meat and potatoes because I sell them at Oktoberfest and the Christmas Bazaar, then use the money for groceries."

For the McMahon family the exhibit provides a happy excuse for a family reunion; all five of her children will be at the opening. Brenna, who came down from Anchorage, said, "It's the first time all five of us siblings have been together in years! We're really proud of her. This is her first show ever and, honestly, I haven't seen a lot of the pieces, so I'm pretty excited. And my dad's work is in the show, too. He makes her frames in his little wood shop in the basement. It's always been a beautiful thing to watch my parents collaborate. They're a really great team."

Ruby remembers, "She welcomed us into her studio from a very young age. It was actually really therapeutic, breaking glass and playing with shapes and colors. I'm a very sciency person and my mom's very artsy. I'm very structured and wanted what I made to be perfect, but she could crack that open by just encouraging me to play. She taught me to see beauty in the chaos. It makes me appreciate her brain even more that she can find the beauty in all things."

Brenna adds, "Mom's always encouraged us to be as creative as we wanted. I mean, she would give us suggestions, but she never directed us. It's just something she loves to share with us, especially if we were using up some of her scraps," she laughs. "There are pieces we kids made all around the house and, still, everytime we come home there will be some point when we go in [the studio] and play with glass with Mom."

Mike McMahon, her son, says, "I'm not sure how she had the time. It really wasn't until I was older that I appreciated the artistry of it, the way she combines colors. It's been cool to see how her art has evolved and her own style has emerged. I think my favorite piece is the one at the [Sing Lee Alley] bookstore. It's of a fisherman holding a fish. She included us in a lot of it. I'd sit in there and grind her glass for her, though I'm sure she could have done it faster herself."

"I love to have my kids in the studio with me – they inspire me. They're really my biggest fans," McMahon says.

"And I love to work with other artists! They have such great ideas," she says. "In fact, there will be some really neat crab plates in the show that I made with metal artist Debbie Drllevich, a halibut window designed by [painter] Lou Grauel, and a very cool piece that Lynn Burke designed of a crab's underside, its belly, it's really cute!"

"Rae Muñoz and I made twenty-three windows in collaboration. I'd take a window up to Juneau on the ferry and while Ruby had her braces tightened I'd take my little cart over to the gallery, drop off the window, they'd write me a check, and that's how I paid for her braces!"

Pilot Photo

Debi McMahon holds a drawing on vellum up to a salvaged door soon to house one of her next intricate stained glass windows. Her art studio on South Nordic Drive is a wonderland of glass projects in progress.

Debi has created many commissioned windows for private homes all over the Lower Forty-eight, Alaska, and Canada. Public installations of her unique works can be found locally at Petersburg Parks and Recreation, the firehall, the Clausen Museum, St. Catherine's Catholic Church, and the Middle School's entry. The Chamber of Commerce and the Petersburg Public Library display stained glass windows made in collaboration with Polly Lee and St. Paul's Episcopal Church has windows designed by Kelly Peterson that they worked on together, "Kelly foil wrapped hundred of pieces."

McMahon spends hours in her studio and can lose track of time when she's working, "Sometimes I'm in here for ten hours a day. If Dan is gone, I'll be in here all the time! It's my happy place. There are nights when Dan will come in and say, 'So, what's for dinner?' and I'll say, 'Um, I was thinking wine and popcorn?'" she laughs. "But really, he's very supportive. He helps me all the time."

The work of creating a window is done on a flat surface against a white background, so there is a special moment when the piece is installed where it was meant to be, "... and I can finally step back and see the piece from a distance. It's a wonderful thing to see it all at once and think, 'Whoa, that's not bad!' It's just thrilling."


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