Creating Art from Glass and Light
Updated: Oct 3, 2019
Local artist Sam “Webb” Holcomb builds stunning, interactive art pieces from colored glass and LED lighting.
By Maureen Kingsley
As you approach the El Segundo home of Sam “Webb” Holcomb (pictured below) from the street, his magical corner lot will immediately catch your eye. Twinkling colored glass, unusually patterned brick walkways, a roiling marble birdbath, and plenty of well-tended plants make for an inviting, unique front yard full of interesting details. He and his wife, local optometrist Eileen Bell, share an artistic, creative sensibility that is reflected in their property, both indoors and out.
What’s extra-incredible about Webb and Eileen’s yard is that Webb, a retired computer scientist, constructed with his own hands all of the glass decorations and mosaic handcut brickwork that populate it. On closer inspection, the winding brickwork reveals symbols of Eastern spiritualism and other intricate designs that are thematically present in much of his glass work, too.
“The brick walkways, which I began in 2005 and worked on over many years, are what led to my interest in glass work,” Webb explains. He found as he cut brick for both his backyard addition and later his front yard that he loved making patterns and piecing materials together. Webb enrolled in a class on basic stained-glass technique in 2014, and a new passion was born: creating intricate, colorful, framed glass artworks, many of which are backlit with LED lights placed strategically, in ways that highlight and complement the glass pieces and the subjects themselves.
Webb’s home studio, which Eileen points out with a good-natured laugh used to be the living room, is both a work space and a gallery: many of his finished pieces, including those depicting musicians Prince (pictured on cover and above), Bob Marley, and Mick Jagger, hang on the walls, creating a shrine of sorts to genius, creativity, history, and pop culture. With the flip of a switch and the manipulation of a dimmer, both installed with care by Webb once the glasswork and framing is complete, each piece lights up from behind, lending the artworks a certain soul and vitality reflective of their subjects.
Mainly self-taught and building on the stained-glass skills he learned in class, Webb follows a series of steps for every remarkable piece he creates. He first hand-draws a pattern, which is typically inspired by a photograph, often of a musician, an athlete, or a spiritual figure, and spends time numbering each piece of the pattern in order to track the position of the pieces once they are cut. Webb then traces those pieces onto Mylar, cuts them out, and pastes them to the actual glass he’s chosen. Webb organically chooses his glass colors as he makes his way through this process, making choices that create light and shadows to lend life to the finished piece.
From there, Webb moves to his backyard workshop, where he carefully and safely cuts and wet-saws the glass into its shapes. Those glass shapes are then ground and the pattern pieces removed, then placed by Webb onto the hand-drawn pattern back indoors.
The cut and ground glass pieces are next “wrapped in copper foil,” Webb explains, which helps fuse the segments of glass together sturdily during the soldering process, which comes afterward. Soldering without overheating the glass is a challenge, Webb says, but one that he’s figured out through trial and error over time, which is how he has approached various difficulties that have presented themselves over the years that he’s built these extraordinary pieces.
After the front and back of the piece is soldered, Webb carefully washes, dries, and polishes it, then treats it with an acidic patina before polishing it yet again. (As with Webb’s yard and interior of his home, the attention to detail he pays his glass artworks is high, which results in finished pieces that appear flawless from any angle.)
Webb builds his frames—which are two inches deep, to accommodate his glasswork and the lighting—from raw lumber, planing, cutting, and staining them all himself. He applies a sheet of Plexiglas within the frame and behind the glasswork, which diffuses and softens the lighting that is added next.
“I like to play with the LED lighting,” Webb shares, demonstrating how cool LEDs and warm LEDs create different effects when shone through various hues of glass. “I like to have lots of control over the light, too,” he adds, which is why he includes a dimmer switch as part of the lighting setup.
The end result is an interactive art piece, which the owner can turn “on” or “off,” and for which the brightness can be adjusted to suit one’s tastes or mood.
From left to right: "Miles," "Ella," "Momma Buddha," and "Ali," by Webb Holcomb
A Labor of Love
As you would expect, these fully handcrafted, complex pieces of art take time to make and perfect. A work consisting of around 200 pieces of glass, Webb says, will take about one month from start to finish, including building the frame and installing the lighting. A larger piece, such as “Ali” (pictured) made up of 500 glass pieces or more, will occupy two months of Webb’s time. He loves all of it, though, and seems to relish the very involved process and the labor involved. “You find a way to do it,” he says, cheerfully, of any idea he has in mind. Webb is both an artist and a problem solver, a creative and an engineer.
Eileen offers inspiration, support, and encouragement for her husband’s passion. “Look at the eyes,” she says, gesturing to “Ali,” “Miles [Davis],” and “Prince” (all pictured) on the walls of Webb’s studio. “Webb has the strongest talent for the expression of his subjects through their eyes.” Indeed, the optometrist speaks the truth about the eyes in Webb’s works. He evokes emotion very effectively in the faces of his art subjects, which is then deepened and intensified as the LED lights are switched on.
Webb creates his beautiful glass artworks for the sheer joy of it, but he does also maintain a small business, SWArtGlass, for his pieces. He is humble and modest but welcomes inquiries about his pieces and process, and he appreciates any public interest. If you’d like to learn more, contact Webb by e-mail at email@example.com.
This story appears in the October 2019 issue.
All photos by Eileen Bell and Webb Holcomb