A heart in green glass emerges within minutes as Thomas Arico cuts the pattern using a hand tool. Next, he smooths edges to apply copper foil, a step before soldering around the shape.
Arico, 85, has perfected his stained glass handiwork for 50 years to create suncatchers, lamps, ornaments and other pieces. These days, he sells some of that artwork at two holiday craft fairs a year, including Dec. 2-3 at Ridgeline High School. Mostly, he enjoys giving them as gifts.
He recently made and donated 70 star-shaped ornaments in red, white and blue. They’ll adorn a patriotic-themed Christmas tree being raffled for the Cancer and Community Charities craft fair Friday and Saturday at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds.
Arico also made the stained glass topper, and the tree with other decor and gifts is valued at $2,000.
“It gives me something to do; I enjoy giving people gifts,” said Arico, who moved to Coeur d’Alene 23 years ago after retiring. He worked nearly 30 years as a systems analyst for the city of Phoenix.
A volunteer with the charities group, also called 3Cs, met Arico on a bowling team and asked the artisan if he’d make tree decorations. The group has 500 members and donates to more than 25 Kootenai County organizations such as Hospice of North Idaho and the Walden House.
In his downstairs studio, Arico has a box holding more than 100 blue-and-green star ornaments for a delivery he plans closer to Christmas.
“For the Coeur d’Alene Police Department, I’m going to give each of the officers and staff a stained glass star. Somebody gave me the glass for free, so I used that to make all of these.
“I think they do a lot for us, for the whole country.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Arico said he was a twin and that his parents were originally from Italy. He moved to Phoenix after other family relocated there.
He fell into doing stained glass for a hobby and some part-time side work while in Phoenix. The craft helped him get through a tough transition.
“When I was getting divorced, instead of going crazy or killing myself, I took a (stained glass) class,” Arico said. “It was for about four Saturdays. You know what? I couldn’t cut a piece of glass to save my soul, and now I look at anything and say, ‘piece of cake.’
“A guy in the class and I, we had a part-time business out of his garage, and we did beautiful projects together. We did one atrium with 18 panels of roses all connected together, and the atrium had a fountain in the center of the room. We did a lot of nice work.”
He has two sons in Phoenix, and daughter Diane Freeman who lives in Liberty Lake. She said her father mastered the craft long ago, and family members often receive his handiwork as gifts.
But her father also got paid for his skills.
“He’d make lamps for restaurants, and different businesses hired him,” Freeman said.
“He’s had a lot of projects, and he just likes to give. That’s what keeps him busy. His work is beautiful, and he still has it after 50 years. He still does take special orders.”
Arico’s home today displays some of his pieces from over the years. They include lamps, a Mickey Mouse image and several intricate kachinas, which are the ancestral spirits of the Hopi and other Pueblo Indians. One image that Arico made is called “eagle dancer,” which has small feather tips in different colors.
“With the kachinas, I used to sell half a dozen of those a year in Arizona,” he said.
“People will say, ‘how do you cut those little pieces?’ Very carefully.”
In his studio, he uses a light table to check on the shades of glass. “If I want to find out the true color of glass, I turn that on.”
A couple of companies sell the type of glass he uses, such as a piece he called “bullseye glass” and estimated its cost at about $30.
For two upcoming craft shows in Liberty Lake and Post Falls, where he plans to be a vendor, Arico has multiple pieces prepared, including at least one Tiffany-style lamp.
Other items he has prepared to sell include butterflies, birds, flowers, snowmen, apples, horses and star ornaments. He said the larger, stand-alone pieces are typically $40 to $50, and smaller ones can be $20 to $25.
“Whatever profit I make at the shows, I use to buy my materials, so it pays for my materials. Glass is expensive now, and so is solder.
“I’ve told my daughter that this is the last year I’m going to have these school showings. I quit bowling two or three weeks ago, and I bowled for years. I just got too old.”
But he shrugs, without dismissing, about whether he’ll keep tinkering. His studio’s tidy storage bins still hold glass pieces in varying colors, along with patterns and tools at the ready.
“When I get bored, I’ll come down here and work.”