Made in Sarasota

By staff March 1, 2007

Mark Woodmansee stands amid the workbenches of his Aurora Art Glass studio, looking up at a nearly six-foot-square glass mosaic destined for the ceiling of Todd Johnston Homes’ $3.9-million-plus Mandalay model in The Lake Club at Lakewood Ranch.

A delicate wonder of ripe purple grapes and fresh green vines against a swirling “sunset sky” background of blue and lavender, the large-scale ceiling fixture will hang above the bar in the family room of the model mansion. It was made of high-quality mouth-blown art glass with as many as seven variations in color in each piece, not the machine-made glass that is typical in ready-made pieces, and it took Woodmansee’s three-person team of fabricators five weeks, or 200 man-hours, to complete.

It’s not uncommon for custom creations such as these to cost as much as $40,000, and business is thriving for Woodmansee, who does strictly custom glass work—entry doors, sidelights, transoms, skylights, domes and mirrors—all over the west coast of Florida for churches, restaurants and other commercial buildings, but mostly residential installations for individual homeowners and luxury builders.

After 35 years in the business, 26 of them here in Sarasota, Woodmansee still loves his medium. “Glass is magical,” he says. “It has personality; depending on the amount of ultraviolet and infrared light, the mood of the glass will change. You’ll pass by it, and it will look completely different.”

The artist, who moved to Sarasota in 1980 from Kokomo, Ind., gained his fascination with glass at a young age. His grandfather lived across the alley from the Kokomo Opalescent Glass factory, which had been in continuous operation since 1888, making it the oldest manufacturer of opalescent and cathedral stained glass in the world. As a child, Woodmansee would roam that alley looking for discarded chunks of colored glass, which he cleaned up and sold to neighborhood kids for pennies. “In that sense,” he says, “I’ve been in this business for 50 years.”

While studying business at Indiana University in Bloomington, he ran a business salvaging materials—chandeliers, marble fireplaces, staircases and stained-glass windows—from Victorian-era homes doomed to the wrecking ball. He took the chipped and cracked windows for repair to a glass master in nearby Terre Haute, who taught Woodmansee to repair them himself. Thus, his career was born.

When Woodmansee moved to Sarasota, he had trouble getting his glass art business off the ground, so he went to work framing houses for Lee Wetherington. When he discussed his craftsman’s background with Wetherington, the homebuilder put him to work creating art glass for several of his custom homes. Wetherington is still a valued customer, as are several others of the area’s most opulent custom homebuilders.

Homeowners who see his work at model openings and Parades of Homes seek him out, too. Judie and Bob Gustafson asked Woodmansee to create a glass double entry door for their St. Armands home. They were dream-come-true clients, he says, because they told him, “We’re not afraid of color.” That’s a rare opportunity for glass artists, he says; most clients today prefer clear glass with perhaps a small burst of color.

The set of double doors with curved transom is filled with vivid oranges, blues, greens and purples—two statuesque blue herons amidst a tropical tangle of hibiscus, birds of paradise and palms, with the flash of a bright blue butterfly and five dragonflies—“hidden details that make it fun,” Woodmansee says. The Gustafsons are thrilled. “It is especially brilliant with the afternoon sun on it,” Judie says.

For his own home on south Siesta Key, Woodmansee created transoms with delicate purple irises in beveled glass that throws refracted light across the water-facing master bedroom. Two living room transoms are bolder, with heliconia, orchids, birds of paradise, hibiscus and anthuriums made out of hundreds of pieces of brightly colored glass.

Woodmansee also does art glass restoration. When rock musician Dickie Betts had a house fire at his home on Sarasota Bay, a seven-foot-tall by three-foot-wide jewel-toned piece of art glass that had served as a divider between the entry and living room was nearly destroyed. Working from photographs and the original pattern (or cartoon, in art glass parlance), Woodmansee carefully restored the intricate bougainvillea pattern and made it look brand-new.

“I’m in constant evolution,” the glass artist says as he shows off several custom mirrors he recently created that have met with great success. What’s next? “I’ll let you know when it comes to me.”

Mark Woodmansee can be reached at his Osprey studio, Aurora Art Glass, (941) 966-3630.

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