For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re highlighting some of the people and brands you should know about all year long.
It's a Tuesday morning in April at the Pasadena, California, Stained Glass Supplies store, and artist Janel Foo is ensconced amidst aisles filled with hundreds of sheets of glass in different colors and textures. There's already a bevy of activity in the beloved store that first opened in 1977 in nearby Eagle Rock. A handful of artisans are at work in another area where various workstations are strewn with glass pieces and metal frames waiting to become whatever its maker dreams of next: a window, decorative lampshade, sun catcher, or perhaps even an ancient ship.
The cacophony of sounds — artists chatting amongst each other while cutting and shaping glass and soldering panels — is the norm at Stained Glass Supplies, especially when classes are in session. It's a scene that reveals the charm of this tight-knit community; it's the soundtrack of creativity in action; and it's where Foo, who years back was a student and later an instructor, is now at its helm as the new owner. It's been quite an eventful journey for her to get here.
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Foo is known for her magical and ultramodern — but always in style — stained glass works featuring imaginative geometric designs with various shapes dancing about, intersecting and overlapping each other in stunning color palettes you'd want to decorate your whole world in. Ah, and when the light shines through them with their colorful shadows reflecting off surfaces, the depth of their beauty feels otherworldly. How she came to become a stained glass artist over eight years ago is the classic story of "the class that changed my life."
Foo had studied apparel design and merchandising in undergrad, and she went on to work as a wardrobe stylist in Los Angeles. However, she decided to try a different career path in her 30s after having that moment of "I don't want to do this anymore — I need to find myself," she says while seated in her store's back office. Here, boxes of donated glass from Judson Studios were recently dropped off for the community to use.
At the time, Foo was also running an e-commerce store for independent jewelry designers called Fancy Affair with one of her friends. "It didn't really take off that much, but it furthered my interest in jewelry, and I wanted to learn the process," Foo shares. She went all in, quitting her wardrobe job and becoming a full-time student in the jewelry certificate design program at Pasadena Community College in 2013. "One of the required courses was a craft course, and we got to learn all kinds of crafts, like woodworking and enameling. It was really cool ... and we had a stained glass project," she says. "I thought, we're going to learn to do stained glass?! How do you even begin to do that?"
Intimidated by the process at first, the instructor guided them through the various steps: "The leading technique ... I learned to design or develop 'a cartoon' as they call it in the biz, cut the glass by hand, lead the panel (fit each glass piece into a lead channel), solder the lead joints, and cement the panel." Foo admits that blood can be involved in the process of learning to master stained glass and that "it's definitely a labor of love; it's very time-consuming." A small piece, maybe the size of standard letter-size paper, can take two to three full eight-hour days to complete.
Foo remembers hearing about how past students loved the process so much that they continued doing stained glass, and she initially thought they were crazy to pursue the art form. But once Foo scored and cut her first piece of glass, she felt immediately drawn to it too. "This is so satisfying, this is so awesome — this is it. I don't want to do anything else. I just fell in love ... doing something with your hands and getting to draw, design, and then also craft it." Her first piece was a 16-inch-by-16-inch geometric leaded panel using the Fibonacci sequence. "The end result is just so satisfying," she says. "It's so beautiful. Holding it up to the light."
After finishing the jewelry program, Foo became a regular at the Stained Glass Supplies store, then owned by Ron Forgey, whom she describes as "super nice with a really dry sense of humor." She took classes there for about four months, starting in early 2014. "I learned the copper foil method (aka the Tiffany method)," she explains. "I learned to use patterns and develop my own, cut the glass by hand, copper foil, solder, and polish the piece."
The artist then continued practicing on her own and returned to freelancing as a wardrobe stylist. "When I first started, I wanted to do three-dimensional objects, like terrariums, and went on to do sun catchers and panels," Foo says. A year later, she launched Janel Foo Glassworks, producing work out of her garage in Highland Park. "When I launched my website and I started to get more sales, it kind of took over, and I was able to quit doing wardrobe styling."
Foo calls what followed "luck." Numerous outlets started featuring her work, including the Los Angeles Times, marthastewart.com, and T Magazine, and West Elm and Nordstrom reached out to collaborate with her. "It happened all at once. Things just kept falling on my lap, and I was so grateful," she says of all the press coverage.
The fourth-generation Chinese American's activism would also put her in the national spotlight when she launched Create to Stop Hate in 2021, organizing Asian American makers across the country to fundraise for Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate via a series of online auctions to fight the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes and harassment. "It was so awesome to get to know all these other AAPI creatives," Foo says of the experience. "It opened up such a huge world I didn't know existed." Her efforts brought together 226 artists, makers, and entrepreneurs (including SoCal entrepreneur Leanna Lin of Leanna Lin's Wonderland) to raise more than $46,000 to support Stop AAPI Hate.
Foo even appeared on the 2021 Discovery+ TV competition show for artisans, Meet Your Makers Showdown, which she would end up winning. "That was crazy. The most stressful, the most pressure I've ever felt in my entire life. Ten cameras on you while you're trying to do your craft. I'd say I would never do it again, but it was also one of the best experiences I've ever had in my life," Foo explains. "Now I understand why when I watch these reality shows, people are like, 'Why are you crying?' But I get it ... and I talked about my miscarriage and broke down." On the show, she created a labyrinth piece that represented her journey after her loss in 2020. "My whole message was healing through art because I just buried myself in stained glass after that — it's so healing."
In 2022, during her pregnancy with her now 1-year-old son, Foo unfortunately developed carpal tunnel, which slowed down her stained glass production — "it was too painful" — and she had to pause making any new work for the past year. "It was hard to not be making anything, but at the same time, it was kind of like a nice break because I had just been going and going and going and going," she explains. But another door opened to remain active in the stained glass community when Foo heard that the owner of Stained Glass Supplies would be retiring.
The business is now her main focus since taking over in September, and Foo is excited to expand the store's offerings. "One of the hard parts of taking over this business is just wanting to change it and modernize it but not do too much too fast," she notes. "It's just kind of cleaning up and putting a woman's touch on everything because now it's an all-women-run store. So we like things to look nice, organized." They will also soon be launching an online shop, which will allow customers to explore their inventory of over 500 types of glass.
In the future, she also looks forward to making Stained Glass Supplies a destination that's not only for artisans. "It would be nice for this to also be a place where you don't do stained glass but maybe you want to pick up a stained glass gift." Here's hoping Foo's works will be part of the inventory as well.