The Vanished Glass Installation at Montreal Dorval Airport—An Interview with Eric Wesselow

Email by Jason Peter Brown on July 10, 2007

The Vanished Glass Installation at Montreal Dorval Airport—An Interview with Eric Wesselow Image

Canada Panel (one of ten) by Eric Wesselow, 1960

This is a reprinting of an article by Jean-Pierre Leger that originally appeared in the Fall 1998 edition of The Flat Glass Journal. It follows the unusual story of stained glass panels that were made by Eric Wesselow for the Dorval airport near Montreal, including an update from 2003.

In 1995, I had a meeting with Eric Wesselow in order to hear the whole story about his glasswork, which had been reinstalled at Montreal's Dorval Airport. At that time I thought that with that installation the upsetting story about the 35 years existence of this work of art in glass had finally ended. There was enough material for a novel, if one realizes the amazing circumstances. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. The saga keeps on. But before we get into this incredible story, let me introduce the artist.

With Eric Wesselow, it is impossible to hold on to one and only one subject. Informing the journalist, which on the occasion I was, Wesselow took out tons of books and papers, documents to peruse at any cost. There was an ongoing conversation, highlighted by, "Oh, Mr. Leger, have you read this about my work, have you seen the photos of that synagogue, of my acrylic mural at the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa, have you read my keynote address, 'Thinking Hands', given in 1993 at Corning?" etc. etc…

Now I can understand why he normally refuses to meet journalists: there would be no time left for his work! Obviously, work more than anything else is important to him. At 84 (87 now in 1998), his illuminated tables, on which he alone executes his work, are waiting for him impatiently. That is where his glass is created.

The whole idea of Wesselow's work appeared to me with a clarity, almost trite to affirm: "Hands, heart and mind are one." However, just leaning over one's worktable can't lead to such a revelation. Surely, for his architectural work he prepares marquettes (which, by the way, as such are worth a fortune); but, once bent over his illuminated table, he discards his marquette, letting himself be guided completely by the material, composing with it. Observing it, is a moment of real grace. That also is why he always works alone: such a work could not be handed to a technician, however proficient.

With such a man, how can one hold on to a single subject, someone who has painted famous people like Pope Pius XII and Albert Schweitzer, who introduced acrylic painting in Canada, who is a founding member of the Canadian Watercolour Society (SCA), who in 1962 had an exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, when his famous Wesselow System of Coloured Glass was introduced, about which some 600 articles have been published around the globe. Moreover, he speaks many languages, has two master degrees, he is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, gives guest lectures on philology and communication at McGill and Concordia Universities…and much more. But then, have I mentioned that he is also a member of our association?

What, actually, did I want to talk about? Oh yes, that was the reason for our meeting.

Dorval is the beginning of a new period for stained glass in North America. It represents the first important work made without lead. "Why persist on leaded glass, if it is not necessary," Wesselow says.

As a painter, foremost with watercolour, the presence of lead appeared to him immediately a constraint. Evidently, transparency is gone where glass is covered with a network of black and opaque lines. This is when he was dissatisfied, at the end of the 1950's, he tried testing with chemists epoxies, which allowed him to use all the space in the window for his glass. The work at Dorval Airport represents the first large glass installation, achieved with this method.

At about the same time, one night Wesselow woke up, having realized a way of sandwiching layers of coloured glass without bonding. That became the famous Wesselow System, which was patented a little later.

The original work at Dorval, commissioned by the Department of Transport consisted of 30 panels. They were installed on the second floor of the airport at the Kebek restaurant in 1960. The 10 large "Canada" panels (each panel 2 ft. 6 in. x 5 ft.) were on one side of the installation (toward the hallway), the other side (in the restaurant) consisted of 20 "Abstractions on Flight" panels, both sides illuminated with a lighting system installed between them.

Following the 1965 bankruptcy of the restaurant, the glass panels were condemned to be behind walls and, incredible as it may seem, the 20 abstract panels disappeared!

With pressure from people, aware of the importance of this work, one tried to find them. Years of beating about the bush, correspondence with the Department of Transport, with the responsible firm of architects and the Member of Parliament, eventually brought the 10 "Canada" panels back to light. Those responsible apologized profusely, but none explaining what had happened. During all this, Wesselow remained polite, almost accepting the fate of his work.

Finally, in 1985, it was decided to install the 10 "Canada" panels at the original site, against a dark room and without any backlighting. One simply failed to consult the artist at that particular time. I trust he prefers to forget the whole episode.

In 1995, after 35 years, his work was decently reinstalled in the departure lounge on the first floor as part of the renovations of the entire interior of the airport. I had the occasion to see the panels then and they deeply moved me. The 10 panels, enjoy their natural light. We could see the watercolour painter behind the artist in glass. Wesselow was satisfied. He was grateful to the architects of the Airport of Montreal who cared to consult him on the occasion. Also, in the chapel of the Airport were installed nine of the smaller panels, part of his original 20 panels "Abstractions on Flight". In the meantime all remaining panels have been found, including the one bearing Wesselow's signature.

"I feared they have been stolen," I said.

"Works of art don't get stolen like cars," Wesselow answered, "for most people, art has little value."

In 1997, believe it or not the "Canada" panels where taken out once more. As it was decided that the Dorval airport would again be the major airport for international flights from Montreal, the building had to be enlarged. And the beautiful illuminated place for the panels was to be an area for fast food restaurants. Wesselow was informed once they were removed. A little later, I accompanied Eric and his wife Thea to the Airport where the director of communication was proud to show us where Eric's work was to be reinstalled in the windows by the American departures. We were then informed that the panels should be installed by March 1998.

And now, in August 1998, we discovered that, that installation is not planned for the near future, the administration lacking the necessary funds for an installation. And they do not see when it will be possible.

So, the story seems never to end, and we are again confronted with the same situation: a work of art of that importance, evaluated for at least $300,000 remains in storage as there is no money available to spend for it. I wrote to the administration of the Airport of Montreal reminding them that those panels are part of our heritage and that they must be reinstalled as soon as possible.

March 2003 Update: Funds were found to install the panels once again. However, when they were retrieved from storage one panel had disappeared. The remaining panels are hanging in public view at Dorval Airport.