Raising his stained glass masterpieces up to be photographed on the rooftop of his Chicago studio, Ben Houtkamp shares his artistic practice in the best light. Inspired by video games and Happy Meals, they're a fresh take on a traditional craft that's been around for hundreds of years.
Incredibly, stained glass has only been a recent focus for Ben but it's something that does run in the family. He grew up in Rockford, Illinois and moved to Chicago, the Windy City, when he was eighteen years old. His father, Frank, is a stained glass artist and has worked with the medium since long before he was born. "I grew up watching him work and hanging out at his studio," Ben tells Creative Boom. "I've always been an artist but I didn't really consider working with glass until 2019. My dad taught me thoroughly even though I lack his masterful patience. The process is fairly simple but it can be difficult to hold oneself to a high standard when it comes to the technical details. These details have an enormous effect on the visual result though so I was taught to always be thoughtful and patient. I didn't expect to devote so much of myself to this medium but it's been really rewarding so far."
Speaking of his colourful creations, Ben believes his biggest style inspiration lies in the depths of childhood nostalgia. "I find that my formative memories are fleeting and I try to reappropriate those vague images into something new and intricate," he says. "Colouring books, video game imagery, candy packaging, Pokemon cards, cigarette packaging and Happy Meal toys tend to recur in my Google image search."
A glass panel will usually take Ben a few days or a week to assemble. "I get tired of the process quickly so sometimes they drag on for way too long," he adds. Once each piece is complete, he shares it from the roof of his studio building on Chicago's west side. He's subsequently built up quite the following on Instagram where fans enjoy seeing his latest creations. "Depending on the time of day, the camera's usually pointing south or west toward Oak Park," he says. "It can be a chore to chase the sun for proper glass illumination but rewarding when it happens."
In many of his works, a recurring theme is an eye motif, something that began during a former series titled Faces. "I've always loved cartoons and cubism and I felt that it was important to work that into my glass art. Sometimes I make a design that feels too 'traditional' or something and giving it googly eyes is a foolproof remedy."
Ben says he loves working with leaded glass because it's a chance to combine something historical and architectural with new technology and style. "My design process starts on the iPad or sometimes in Adobe Illustrator. By the time I'm actually cutting glass and building the panel, all of the creative decision-making is done. I enjoy the concept of slowly reworking my computer-assisted artwork into this ancient process."