Let’s get this over with: Tom Holdman, whose exquisite stained-glass windows are attracting international attention, has a profound stutter.
Words randomly stick in his throat. His mouth seizes, his head leans back, eyes closed with the effort, until he can finally form the word.
This might seem an insensitive way to begin, but the stutter is central to Holdman’s story. It was the source of much childhood anxiety — enduring taunts from his peers and navigating school hallways with wires attached to his head — but it also led him to his art, and at the age of 47, he has emerged triumphant, passionate and fulfilled.
“I have always had a slow tongue, a stutter, so I needed to look for other ways to speak with people,” he says. “I found that through art I could express myself.”
That proved to be a powerful tool for a man who wanted to express himself so badly that he learned sign language for a time, only to abandon it in a burn-the-boats, no-turning-back-now decision. Ultimately, it was the art that offered true release.
“When I get a visual idea, it enters my heart and now is part of my soul,” he says. “I need to bring it to life more than I need air.”
After years of creating stained-glass windows for LDS temples, libraries, government offices, businesses, hospitals and airports, he stumbled upon the idea for Roots of Knowledge.
He was wandering the BYU campus “pondering our existence” when he noticed students with their heads bowed to smartphones. He was struck by the impact of that technology — and then beyond it, to man’s breakthroughs in knowledge as he marched through the centuries.
Could Holdman capture that in his art? He made sketches on a scroll and showed it to Matt Holland, the president of Utah Valley University, hoping for a sponsor. Holland not only caught the vision of the idea, he thought it should be bigger.
The Roots of Knowledge, unveiled Nov. 18, is Holdman’s Sistine Chapel, his Mount Rushmore, his Brooklyn Bridge. It was 12 years in the making — almost one-quarter of Holdman’s life — and cost $3 million.
Along the way it gathered up artists like a snowball rolling down a hill — more than 80 in all, plus the contributions of some 350 UVU students and various UVU scholars. It was a massive undertaking that required sketching, glass making, designing, soldering, wrapping, painting, cementing, polishing, working glass — cutting, shaping, sculpting, beveling and poring over history books to find events and people to depict in glass.
The Guardian, the British newspaper, called it “one of the most spectacular stained glass windows in the past century.” It is 10 feet high and 200 feet long, consisting of 80 different windows and 60,000 pieces of glass, some smaller than a quarter of an inch. Every cut of glass tells a story (an app is being created that will enable visitors to place their phone over sections of the window for an explanation). It would take hours, if not days, to study this mix of history and pop culture.
There is Sir Isaac Newton, Harriet Tubman, Louie Armstrong, the Berlin Wall, the invention of the chocolate cookie and the ballpoint pen, Stonehenge, Darwin, the Millennium Falcon and USS Enterprise, Alice in Wonderland, Walter Cronkite, Gandhi, Mr. Bean, Joan of Arc, the Depression, World War II, Alfred Hitchcock (holding a knife behind his back).
After someone told him it was like playing Where’s Waldo, Holdman put Waldo in there, too, looking over the shoulder of an Iran hostage. There are real objects encased in glass — a meteorite, a Depression-era $1,000 bill and a 5-cent bill, gemstones, petrified wood, two coins that are nearly 3,000 years old. The Sears Tower is made of englassed computer circuit boards. Clouds are shaped to reflect the graph of the tumbling stock market during the Depression. And so it goes.
“It’s a look at our history, but in a positive way,” says Holdman. “For instance, I show the Berlin Wall as it's being torn down. It shows what people can overcome.”
Roots was exhibited in New York, Oxford and London in October. A week before Roots was unveiled and permanently installed at UVU, Holdman and his band of artists were working frantically to finish the project. As Holdman put it, in mixed metaphors, “We are hiking our artistic Everest. We have run a marathon and we see the finish line.”
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Holdman was raised in Orem. His father, Floyd, was a freelance cartoonist and photographer whose work appeared in National Geographic and Time magazine. Holdman served as his father’s “pack mule” on assignments, many of which were out in the wild. He learned much about art at his father’s knee and was inspired to pursue it as a vocation; the stutter and a perceptive teacher gave him another push in the same direction.
In his formative years, Holdman was sent to therapists and doctors to cure the stutter. During one three-day stretch, wires were attached to his head to monitor brain waves. Nothing worked. He was teased by classmates, and one day he snapped and attacked one of his tormentors, breaking the latter’s arm.
During a game of red rover one day at recess, he was unable to call out a name, which led to much laughter and more teasing. He ran away to a corner of the playground to hide his shame. A teacher — he remembers her only as Mrs. Wilcox — followed and handed him a box of colored pencils. “There are other ways to communicate,” she said. She told him to draw, which is what he did, and when other kids praised his work he found gratification. Mrs. Wilcox kept track of him for years and continued to encourage his work.
Embarrassed by his stutter, Holdman began to learn sign language in high school, thinking he could circumvent his speech problem.
“Actually, I could fake that I didn’t know how to speak,” he recalls. “Then I asked myself, ‘Tom, are you going to let this slow you down or make it a strength?’ I had to decide. At that moment I needed to hurdle this business of how other people feel about me. We all have struggles and challenges, and they make us stronger.”
As a student at Orem High, he was introduced to stained glass and was immediately smitten.
“It’s a partnership of three — the artist, the glass and the light," he explains. "You are only one-third of that partnership. I loved how the light interacted with the glass. It’s hundreds of pieces of art as it is affected by the sun. That captivated me.”
Setting art aside, he served a two-year LDS Church mission in Dallas. He noticed the stutter was worse when he knocked on doors, but he found his tongue once he was in the house discussing his faith.
“Ministers tried to heal me,” he says, smiling. “(The stutter) actually made some people kinder. They’d say, ‘It’s OK, take your time. Come in so you can slow down a little bit.’”
He thought he would illustrate children’s books when he returned home in 1991, but after weeks of prayer and contemplation, he turned to glass. He applied to BYU to study art but was rejected, so he created his own study abroad program. He embarked on a trip to Europe to study some of the world’s finest and oldest art glass. He flew to Paris accompanied by his brother Willie, rented a car and toured France, Germany, Austria, Italy and Czechoslovakia, living on baguettes and cheese and sleeping in his rental car.
“I saw these glass works and how they were affected by light, and that changed me forever,” he says. ‘What you dream you can conceive.”
In Prague, he stood for several hours staring at Mucha’s famed art glass window in the national cathedral. “You can see I adopted a style from that,” he says.
The trip ended badly for the brothers when all of their belongings — including passports and airline tickets — were stolen. They wound up sleeping under a staircase near the train station until they could find a way home.
Holdman took an art glass course at UVU (he was the only student). He made windows for class credit and then sold them on the side. His parents agreed to let him convert their garage into a glass studio, and then he began knocking on doors to find commissions. He found several small projects and then he found a bigger job one day as he was driving past the Orem Library, which was under construction.
“It had large windows and they were screaming for stained glass,” he says. He told the head librarian he wanted to create art glass windows that illustrated children’s stories; she said there was no money for such a thing. He leaned in and said, “What if it were free?”
Says Holdman, “My father liked to say, ‘The reason there are starving artists is that they spend 90 percent of their time doing art and only 10 percent trying to sell their art. It should be 80 percent trying to sell and promote and only 20 percent doing it.’ He said you need to commit to it and have no way out.”
Just as he would for the Roots project years later, Holdman raised private donations for the library windows, which led to something bigger. The library windows were seen by an LDS Church official, and he asked Holdman to submit a proposal for a window in the Palmyra Temple. He won the bid and since then his stained-glass windows have been installed in 50 LDS temples (two more are in the works), and he has completed work for a wide variety of public and private commissions, about 1,000 in all.
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Holdman, who has three children with his wife, Gayle, has managed to build a 25-year career making his windows, but it has not been all light and art. There have been dark moments. Last March he was arrested for driving under the influence and speeding.
"My father passed away in my arms from cancer, and I didn't handle it well," he says. "I don't drink alcohol for religious and cultural reasons as a practice. But in this situation of despair, I lost self-control and drank alcohol. This has been a problem on two other occasions in the past where I turned to alcohol in stressful situations."
According to Holdman, blood tests revealed that he was under the legal limit, and his speech impediment raised suspicion and complicated matters in his interaction with police. While the case is still pending, Holdman has been receiving treatment and says, "I am optimistic about dealing with this weakness."
Meanwhile, the artist continues to work out of Holdman’s Studios at Thanksgiving Point (Alan and Karen Ashton, the founders of Thanksgiving Point, are two of his biggest benefactors). The studio was headquarters for the Roots project, where Holdman gathered a large team of artists that was headed by Cameron Oscarson, Trevor Petersen and Nick Lawyer.
“With all my ideas and concepts, I realized there was no way I could be a lone wolf artist,” says Holdman.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on this,” says Oscarson, who gave up an architectural engineering career to join his former Boy Scout leader in the Roots venture.
A week after the unveiling of Roots, Holdman was ready for more.
“I have another idea that is even bigger than Roots,” he says.