Art is a sometimes fragile endeavor, but Kasota’s Mark Hall has fashioned a durable business out of experimenting with glass and iron, crafting commissioned artwork and teaching others.
If people are lucky, they’ll land in a job at least once in their life that they enjoy doing. One that they head to each day eager for what awaits them and ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.
Owner of Hallmark Glass in Kasota, Mark Hall knows all about facing adversity and challenges in his profession of fabrication, design and installation of art glass and specialty forged iron. To say it’s been an interesting ride of 35 years would be an understatement, but Hall will also tell you that he can’t imagine himself doing anything else.
“Sometimes you have to have faith that the universe will provide and what happens is I have become different than everyone else,” Hall says. “People may call me an artist, but what I really, truly am is a craftsman.”
Some would say that glass craftsmanship is a niche so unique that surely you’d have to have your eye on it since you were old enough to understand the beauty of stained glass but that wasn’t exactly the case for Hall.
“When I was 20, I had no idea that I was going to do glass for all of my career,” Hall confides as he sips tea out of a handmade blown glass tumbler. “Without me knowing it, my brother got a tax identification number to do a glass business and it was in partnership with me. He informed me of this and I said, ‘what the heck are you talking about? What’s our business? What are we even doing?’ I knew nothing about stained glass.”
A Newport, Minnesota native, Hall knew he had a decision to make. At the same time he was approached by his brother, Hall had another job offer to go to Florida to work in the marinas installing equipment. In the midst of a decision that would change the course of his life, a friend of his stopped by for a visit, telling Hall that he was about to hike to the Grand Teton Mountains.
“I was just joking around when I said, ‘can I come along?’ but my friend said, ‘sure!’” Hall says. “I was working as a handyman and told them that I had some things that I needed to iron out because I didn’t know what to do. I thought, ‘gee, maybe I should go hitchhiking out west.’”
On the way to Wyoming, Hall made it his mission to familiarize himself with stained glass and made stops at major art studios, visiting with craftsmen who explained to him the intensity of the job.
“I got to the bottom of what it would be like to be a stained glass worker,” he says. “Not the fun part; the real part about all of the time it takes. When you make new installations on a church, you have to go there and come all the way back. Sometimes it’s a whole church and sometimes it’s taking out the old panes, putting in new frames, installing thermo panes and then the stained glass. Sometimes you’re at the church for weeks. So, I had to decide what it was that I wanted to do. I didn’t trust myself at 20 years old to go to Fort Lauderdale. I didn’t know if I could do that.”
The defining moment for Hall came in Durango, Colorado. He was at a church when he saw a brightly colored piece of stained glass that depicted Jesus walking in stride. The stained glass was so ornately beautiful that it appeared as if Jesus was coming right out of the window.
“That picture really did it,” Hall says. “I had been leaning in that direction, but that window certainly cemented it.”
Hall returned to Minnesota where he agreed to be in partnership with his brother. However, now that he decided to go into the stained glass business, just one thing was missing: Hall still had to learn how to execute his newly formed career path.
“Well, I had to be instructed on how to do it, but I’m a quick learner,” Hall says. “I’ve been fortunate that my education has come from the field. The best way to learn about it is to go to a specialized workshop or seminar. My first window was a mermaid leaning on a shell. It was complex, but not very big. It had 42 pieces in one square foot. The next thing I worked on was a series of windows that were four feet by eight feet. Why? I mean, I’ve never done little things. I fell into work with bigger scaled projects right away.”
Shortly after he learned the craft, the Hall brothers’ business ran its course and Hall moved on, spending the next eight years working with various glass studios. It was during that time that he met his mentor and fellow glass craftsman, Warren Olson, an American who was educated in Europe.
“I got laid off from another job and I heard that he was hiring,” Hall recalls fondly, a smile lighting up his face. “Warren said to me, ‘I know that you know how to make stained glass windows, but I want you to forget all of that. I want to show you a new way to make stained glass window art and that’s the way we’re going to do it.”
Under Olson’s guidance, Hall learned the more than 400-year-old way Germans made stained glass windows, a design concept that makes windows stronger and better, says Hall.
“Knowing both methods, I’ll never go back to the way most people make stained glass windows today,” he says. “Here I am now, on a beaten path. I’m a stained glass guy making stained glass completely different than most people. Talk about the road less traveled – I’m way out in left field somewhere.”
After honing in on his skills while studying in New York, Germany and Washington, Hall went on his own way and laid roots in Kasota, where he has owned and operated Hallmark Glass since 1988. He’s quick to credit Olson with teaching him more about life than just how to make a sturdy stained glass window. He says his mentor has taught him about attitudes in life, which has become especially handy for someone who relies solely on commission from glass work as the family’s only income.
“I asked Warren to give me advice and he said, ‘be careful because you have to know what you want to do, because it could change and soon you’re a businessman in a Rotary club and you’re jet setting around,’” Hall remembers. “I thought that was very good advice. What I’ve always wanted was to stay on the bench and make stuff.”
Since a priority in Hall’s life was to continue to make pieces of glasswork, he knew that in order to do that, he needed to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. Hall says he had to train himself to be OK with not having a steady income and to wait for commissioned work to come in.
“I custom make whatever you want me to,” he says. “I found that works really well for me. If you ask me about marketing, I’m dead in the water. I’m the worst person for marketing. Word of mouth was huge. I relied on it.”
The life of a craftsman isn’t always easy when you work on commission; it’s common to have months when you’re more than making ends meet and other months where you’re just getting by. Hall says he experienced the latter after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America.
“It’s like the dime turned,” he remembers. “All of a sudden there wasn’t money anymore. It just dried up. And who needs stained glass anyway? You don’t need it to survive. I’d be in the middle of talking about a restoration with a church and they would say, ‘let’s stop that project. We’ll have to continue that at a later date. Our funds are gone.’ It really had an effect on me.”
With a wife and two daughters to support, Hall did the one thing that he knew would work.
“Well, it sounds a little overly simple, but you don’t need to make money if you don’t spend money,” Hall confides. “That’s the secret right there. All of a sudden, if I was having a really good year, what we would do is put that money aside instead of saying, ‘oh, we can get a new car!’ Instead, we would live on the money that we had previously put away until my next job came in. You just have to be real steady.”
Hall and his wife own their Kasota home, as well as their cars and the building that houses Hallmark Glass, all of which has helped during times when work hasn’t been as steady as Hall would like.
“We might not have much money, but we don’t have any debt,” he says. “You just need however much money to spend on insurance and food, and so I grow a lot of my own food – I also just like to know where it comes from.”
Hall isn’t in stained glass for the money. In fact, he’ll be the first to tell you that you won’t get rich on the trade.
“I don’t believe that success is about being judged on the money that you make,” Hall says. “If I can keep doing glass, that’s my mark of success. I come over to the shop and I do what I want to do. How good is that? Sometimes I have to pinch myself because I have it so nice. I don’t have to get up unless I wake up. That was extremely important to me – that I don’t have any alarm clock telling me what to do.”
From large stained glass windows to bowls, vases, lamps, bird baths, statues, jewelry and fused railings, Hall has made it all. He encourages customers to come to him with whatever visions they have in mind and says he’s always up for a challenge.
“My approach comes from my clients unless I’m making something for myself,” he says. “My job is to make what they want. I like creating my client’s ideas. I try to pull it out of people unless they don’t want me to. My best work has come from collaboration.”
Now that Hall has been making stained glass windows and collaborating with client’s visions for more than three decades, he says that his priorities have begun to change ever so slightly.
“I kind of switched around so that glass isn’t my main focus right now,” he says. “It’s about my family.”
Hall enjoys spending time with his wife Leslie and their two adult daughters and five grandchildren. He says it’s Leslie who’s kept him grounded over the course of his career. And since they’re celebrating their 35 wedding anniversary later this year that means Leslie has been around since nearly the beginning of Hall’s fateful trek to the Grand Tetons.
“Leslie is the greatest,” Hall says. “You have to have someone on board with you – you have to be a team. You can’t do it by yourself. If it weren’t for Leslie, I wouldn’t be here right now, seriously. She’s a really big part of everything.”
Though Hall doesn’t have plans to retire anytime soon, he said he’s more than happy to pass the torch to someone who has the same passion that he has. After all, no one knows the importance of learning this unique trade hands-on more than him.
“I feel like a dinosaur sometimes,” he admits. “Now you can go to big box stores for everything, even stained glass, but I have a lot of knowledge I can share with people about it. All you need is one person who cares.”
The Importance of Giving Back
Throughout the years, Hall has worked hard to share his knowledge with school children around the area. On numerous occasions he has helped elementary school students make stained glass windows that are as unique as the students making them.
“The kids cut out designs on linoleum blocks with their art teacher so they look like big stamps,” explains Hall. “Then, I come in right after and give each student pieces of glass with the edges rounded off so they don’t get hurt. They use glass paint on the linoleum which is then transferred onto the glass.”
It doesn’t stop there, though. Hall brings the pieces of glass back to his shop and fires them in his kiln. The heating process fuses the paint to the glass, giving the illusion of stained glass. The individual pieces of glass now adorn the entrance of an elementary school in North Mankato. Hall has done the same with students in Montgomery, St. Peter and the Minnesota New Country School.
“Giving back is what it’s all about,” he says on the experience of being able to share his art with younger generations. “Especially as I get older. It’s kind of like passing the hammer.”
Blacksmith Shop to Hallmark Glass
With a deed that dates back to the incorporation of Kasota in 1855, the Hallmark Glass building was originally a blacksmith shop and the first structure in town. Though the first building burned down, a second blacksmith shop was erected in its place, which is today’s Hallmark Glass.
“Way back when the town began, people wanted the blacksmith shop to be the center of the village,” Hall says. “St. Peter was supposed to be the capital of Minnesota, so when Kasota originated, they thought it would be a metropolis. If you notice, that’s why the streets are so wide – we were supposed to be a big city.”
Hall has owned the building since 1988. Prior to his ownership, it was used primarily as storage. Situated diagonally from his home, the blacksmith shop turned Hallmark Glass is now where Hall’s visions, and the visions of his clients, come to life.
If you’re a stained glass and glass blowing professional like Hall, you can purchase the equipment you need from specialty shops. Or, even better, you can make it.
Since the beginning of his career, Hall has crafted specialized equipment called a kiln and a glory hole to make his custom stained glass and blown glass works of art. Stained glass is made by breaking glass sheets into a sand-like texture called fret. The fret is placed between panes of glass and then heated in a kiln, creating stained glass. The glory hole, which heats to 2,300 degrees, is used to reheat pieces of glass in between steps of working with it.
“If you want something really bad, there’s two ways to get it. One is to get money and buy it and the other is to figure out how to make it,” Hall says.
By embarking on a kiln and glory hole scavenger hunt, as he calls it, Hall has saved himself thousands of dollars by researching and learning how to make the equipment necessary for his trade.
“I made my kiln and I’ve had it for all of my career,” he says. “It’s lasted me a lifetime so far. You just have to have the desire for it to happen. If you want it bad enough, you’ll figure out how to do it – you’ll build it.”