North Shore Artist Now Living His Dream

James Erickson stands next to one of the damaged windows from Kauai's Christ Memorial Church as he sorts through pictures of some of his latest projects. Photo by Vini Silva.

North Shore artist James Erickson feels lucky to count himself among the “top 10 percent of all artists on the planet” who can actually make a living solely by doing what they most love.

His hobby-turned-career is stained glass windows, on which he works for long hours every day in his little shack-studio that sits just outside his home.

The home is clearly an artists’ residence, colored in pastel shades inspired by Frida Kahlo, thanks to his wife Margo Goodwill, herself a painter of fine art. (Her work is on display through the fall at Uahi Island Grill in Kailua at 131 Hekili St., #102.)

Forty years ago, Erickson was a proverbial struggling artist, selling his pre-made stained glass windows wherever he could, but he now works solely on commissioned pieces, and he’s found his calling, if you will, with liturgical restoration.

“Putting stained glass windows in galleries (isn’t very practical) because you need to find someone who has a hole in their wall big enough to fit it, or who wants to hang it in front of an existing window,” said Erickson. “Most people, if they have money to afford something like that, would want you to design and build a window for the sides of their front door or the transom. And they want something personal – their favorite flower or colors.

“In the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, I did sculptures and all kinds of artsy things with glass and I sold stuff in galleries and at art fairs, but when I moved to Hawaii (20-something years ago), there was really no market for that, especially when it comes to hanging stained glass in windows.

“Where I lived in Northern California you’d have a neighbor right next door, so you’d want a stained glass window to keep it obscured. In Hawaii, most people’s view is so beautiful, you don’t want to block it.”

His current months-long project is restoring two windows from Christ Memorial Episcopal Church on Kauai (made in England in 1929) that were badly damaged by vandals. He’s done work on windows at Bishop Museum, extensive maintenance on windows at the Cathedral of St. Andrews, and numerous projects over the years for the Catholic Church of Hawaii.

His latest original window depicts famed Kalau-papa saints Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, the latter of whom was canonized Oct. 21 by the Vatican. An occasional commissioned piece, as well as ongoing reparations and maintenance work, keep Erickson pretty busy.

“I live near the ocean, so every day I think maybe I’ll go for a swim if I get this part finished,” said Erickson. “The end of the day comes … nope, not today. I haven’t been in the ocean in months, but I am not unhappy.”

In fact, Erickson said he loves what he does even more than he did when he first got started all those years ago.

“All of my work is referrals, and I have wonderful clients,” he said. “I also get to do some pretty neat adventure stuff.”

The adventures include exploring Bishop Muse-um’s storage area that houses stunning, undated stained glass windows, donated, he guesses, by some very wealthy island resident a century or so ago.

He is hands-on with his work from start to finish, meaning that for his Kauai windows, he flew out and removed the windows, built a special wood crate to have them shipped to his studio, and when he completes the project in the next month or two, he’ll fly back to Kauai and reinstall them.

“If it weren’t for the restoration work for Hawaii’s churches, I’d be in trouble – I’d be pushing a shopping cart with my belongings in it,” Erickson chuckled, before adding reflectively: “People ask, ‘Are you making money?’ I’m not,” he said. “I have a piddly bank account, but just to be able to work in your studio every day, pay your bills and have a house and a car is really the cream of the crop.”