Piecing together a portrait

Monday, May 16, 2005

For months, stained glass artist Wilma Stratton has been working on what she calls her "labor of love."

Stratton has spent hours in her home studio cutting almost 500 pieces of glass and arranging them into a portrait of a place in Bollinger County called The Cat Ranch. On the glass, a man leans against a large gateway with the words "Cat Ranch" over it and a log cabin sits in the background set against a backdrop of green flora and blue sky.

The man in the glass in Tom Runnels, an artist, sculptor and author who has work displayed throughout the South, Midwest, East Coast and in South America, Japan and Australia.

But the work isn't being done for him. Runnels died of brain cancer in 2000. Stratton has dedicated her time to produce a work to memorialize the late Runnels, a work she presented to his wife, Sandy, on Sunday in front of the members of the Cat Ranch Art Guild, an artists' group that was created in Tom Runnels' memory.

Stratton's affiliation with the Runnels family is close, as her husband, Earl, was related to Tom (Tom's mother and Earl's grandfather were brother and sister) and was a close childhood friend.

The thing that characterized Tom Runnels most was his independent spirit, Earl Stratton said.

"He was a real good guy and happy-go-lucky in a way," he said. "He did what he wanted to, not because somebody else wanted him to."

Runnels was a country boy at heart, loving nothing more than to hunt and fish and, of course, spend time working with his hands. When he died, he was buried on his own land behind the cabin he built and beside his hunting dog and his cat.

Since they were best friends throughout their childhood, Earl Stratton has a multitude of stories to illustrate Runnels' character. Once, he said, Tom was painting letters on a man's work truck. When a friend asked Runnels to go fishing in the middle of the day, he abruptly quit and informed the truck owner he would have to wait until the next day for the job to be finished.

"That's just what kind of guy he was," Earl Stratton said. " If you had something to hunt and fish, that's basically what he liked to do. He could tell you the kind of fish that were in any fishing hole around."

Earl Stratton said the tribute was fitting because it depicted Tom's log cabin studio -- a place he built with his own labor where he created he art he loved -- through art. The cabin was the place where Runnels spent many hours sculpting and drawing, and will soon be a permanent gallery displaying his work.

The work was delicate, Wilma Stratton said, with 90 tiny pieces of glass in the log cabin alone.

"Some of the pieces were so tiny they would get stuck under my fingernails," she said. But she didn't mind the trouble because she had known Runnels since she was a teenager.

And besides, making painted glass works is just something she loves to do. It's a craft she has practiced for 27 years -- self-taught.

"I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning that if I had lessons I wouldn't have made," Wilma Stratton said. "I'm still learning."

She may be learning, but now her work looks professional.

Panes with vibrant colors hang in frames throughout the Strattons' home. There's a maiden with a white flower in her brown hair, a beautiful red rose and a bright white dove set against the blue sky.

Wilma Stratton has also constructed a whole miniature village out of stained glass and adorned her cat's house with colorful pieces.

Many of the works Wilma makes are under contract, but she's no stranger to giving away her pieces. She has made hundreds of works, including many donated to churches, so donating the memorial to Sandy is natural for her.

Before long, Wilma's labor of love will be hanging over a window in Tom's cabin with the Bollinger County sunshine filtering through the colored panes, maybe even looking out at the place where Tom is buried on the Cat Ranch he loved so much.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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