Stephen Bélanger–Taylor, the artist who created Messiah's famous East Window, passed away this summer. One of the Staff at the Diocesan Centre was sharp enough to notice and to pass this obituary on to me. It came just in time to help inspire my Dedication Day sermon:
Stephen Bélanger –Taylor died unexpectedly at this home outside Geraldine, New Zealand in mid July. He had been diagnosed with cancer last Fall, but after chemo and radiation treatments, was declared disease –free about 2 weeks before he died. His death was a result of a seizure he had in the night. The irony…..
As many of you may know, Stephen’s wife Denise is a glass blower. They built a beautiful hot and cold glass studio on their country property on the south island of New Zealand. Their two sons, Michael and Kevin live on the north island. Michael and his wife Donnelle have a son and they have just had twins, so Denise has some very concrete and life affirming diversions for the moment.
Born and raised in Britain, Stephen’s art education began at 15 when he won a scholarship to Wimbledon School of Art where he was introduced to stained glass and learned the skill of restoration. He then won a place at the Royal College of Art in London where he continued his study and apprenticeship of stained glass and glass painting.
He immigrated to Canada in 1968 after receiving a stained glass commission at St. James Cathedral in Toronto through Yvonne Williams’ Toronto stained glass studio. As we know, he went on to develop a significant career in Canada doing numerous liturgical and residential stained glass commissions throughout Ontario.
He took the tradition skill of glass painting to a new and contemporary level with the use of double and triple matt layers. His line work was definitive, simple, and elegant. His bold colour sense and organically abstracted landscape shapes blended to create windows with very strong presence.
A strong presence was also a trait of his personality. My first meeting with Stephen was in a studio he was using in downtown Toronto. He was working on a large painted liturgical commission. I was meeting with him to talk about the possibility of apprenticing with him. At this point I had been doing stained glass as a hobby, with no formal art training at all. I walked into a darkened room. The only light was what was coming through the painted glass on an incredibly large easel. Stephen was in front of the panel with a brush and mull stick in hand. It was a rather medieval scene. In lieu of a regular introduction, his first words were “So you want to do stained glass do you?” “Are you a masochist?’ That cackle laugh of his followed the question. He proceeded to give me a reading list 2 pages long, most of which were published in England and dealt with the esoteric, philosophical, artistic and technical aspects of the art of stained glass. I knew then that this was the teacher for me.
The depth of training he had had was of a level that hardly existed in Canada. His standards of professionalism around his work were very high. He was openly very critical of what he considered mediocre work presented as something more. He was often seen as arrogant and intimidating. In fact he was a shy man, with bold opinions, based on a standard of excellence that he had been trained for, an accomplished stained glass designer, an amazing builder and innovator in the technical construction of glass furnaces, a generous, gifted teacher, and a dedicated artist in the way he lived his life, a committed father and partner.
Some of his most notable works can be seen in Toronto at Church of the Holy Trinity (4 south windows), Church of the Messiah (East window), St. Luke’s Thornhill (South altar window), St. Michael’s All Angels (Etobicoke), and Picton Town Hall.
Along with his commission work, Stephen also taught and influenced many students at Humber and Georgian Colleges, lecturing at U of T and conducting private apprenticeship courses.
After spending time in New Zealand in the 1980’s and 90’s, Stephen established what would be a long creative working relationship with New Zealand artist Beverly Shore Bennett. He collaborated with her on many commission throughout New Zealand. This eventually led to the Belanger-Taylor family moving to New Zealand in 1995 where Stephen continued his glass career with much success.
The Window he created is probably my favourite piece of art in the whole church. It was created from the broken pieces of glass collected after the fire here in 1976. When I first saw it I thought of the Burning Bush motif, and I still that is one possible reading of the window, but actually he intended to express something about how God's Holy Spirit encounters humanity and we respond to that grace with praise.