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They see the world through rose-colored glass

by Lee Adams

Looking through the simple mirrored prism of one of Karen Barkley and Karen Lewit’s stained glass kaleidoscopes opens up another world, one in which the viewer can get lost for hours. With each minute turn of the wheel a new pattern of shimmering colors emerges, drawing you deeper and deeper into a fairytale land, a trip through the galaxy or a wormhole into a new time-space continuum.

‘“I’ll pick up one of my kaleidoscopes and realize 20 minutes has gone by,’” Lewit says. ‘“Some of them remind me of the Melrose window,’” she says, referring to the Scottish Parish Church. ‘“It’s breathtaking.’”

Lewit moved to Greensboro five years ago with her husband, Dr. Eliot J. Lewit, who runs the Lewit Headache and Neck Pain Clinic off of Horse Pen Creek Road. She’d worked with stained glass for 15 years in their home state of Wisconsin, an area where the art form is prevalent. Her interest in kaleidoscopes grew along with her passion for stained glass and before long she was turning what once was a child’s toy into an art form.

‘“The fascination is seeing how far you can take this toy,’” she says.

And she has taken it pretty far. Two of her kaleidoscopes won first place in the Wisconsin West 19 juried art show, which contained 292 works of a variety of mediums. One of the judges told Lewit she didn’t see a kaleidoscope as art at first, but kept being drawn back to it and eventually had to give it it’s rightful due.

But after moving to Greensboro Lewit was having withdrawals, she says, with no community of stained glass artists to be found. So her husband suggested she take a pottery class at the Greensboro Cultural Center, another art form that had long interested her. As she began to learn pottery making she wanted to see if she could combine it with stained glass and soon began making kaleidoscopes with clay bases and prism housings.

‘“Clay is such a North Carolina material,’” Lewit says, and she wanted to see if she could bring some of her ‘“Yankee influence’” to the south by combining the materials. And the south has been pretty receptive. Two of her kaleidoscopes were selected for display at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville during the Brewster Society stained glass association’s national convention in 2003.

Karen Barkley has also long enjoyed kaleidoscopes. ‘“I find [looking through kaleidoscopes] is very calming, mesmerizing.’”

Barkley was a member of Lewit’s pottery class and she wanted to learn the art of stained glass. So the two began helping each other and soon formed a friendship that still has them whispering and laughing together like a couple of schoolgirls. Both Karens work for Dr. Lewit at the clinic, and when they’re not at work the two are either teaching classes at the Cultural Center or brainstorming on projects in Lewis’ basement studio.

The two now have several of their works sitting along the tops of filing cabinets in the reception area of the clinic. They used to put a few in the waiting room for patients to enjoy, but the adults kept breaking them. Once Lewit saw a woman toss one to a man sitting across from her. But who can resist when looking through one makes you feel like a child again?

In fact Lewit says that you have to play with the kaleidoscopes to truly enjoy them, and despite the repairs and losses she still invites people to pick them up and take a look. ‘“The beauty is truly within,’” she says.

‘“A tube is a tube is a tube,’” Lewit says, ‘“but the artistry you put into it makes the difference.’”

One kaleidoscope she calls Sweet Dreams is decorated with pieces of a sugar bowl Lewit’s cat knocked off a table. Intermingled are trinkets, coins, costume jewels and glass beads. Two wheels in front of the prism are made from stained glass and glass beads. This is the one that reminds Lewit of the Melrose window. Looking inside, it does indeed look like the window of a majestic cathedral and a ray of light bursts through like a sunset on a fairytale palace.

Others also have two wheels that can be rotated independently, some have only one, and one has a large round crystal hanging in front of it. Each kaleidoscope is completely different on the inside and the same two patterns are never found.

‘“There isn’t one kaleidoscope that is identical to another kaleidoscope that I’ve made,’” Lewit says.

Lewit and Barkley have been commissioned for several pieces around town, like the stained glass doors for Cheesecake by Alex on South Elm Street. They hope to have a shop in the future for teaching stained glass and doing commissioned work. But the enjoyment of their craft and the freedom to be creative is what’s most important right now. Lewit stopped doing work for galleries because of the pressure to produce.

But they still teach through Art Alliance at the Cultural Center, and that’s what keeps them fresh.

‘“I like to teach (stained glass art), no secrets barred,’” says Lewit of sharing her talents and ideas.

‘“I get engrossed in it and it takes me to another dimension,’” she says. ‘“It’s truly a passion.’”

For more information contact Karen Lewit and Karen Barkley at kaleidoscopestainedglass@yahoo.com

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