Tailgate: Barbara and Don McKee, Artist and Engineer
Partners in life and business, the McKees have created intricate enhancements to their antique home.
Barbara, in 1975, you launched your own stained-glass business, which was very successful for the next 32 years. Tell me about that.
Barbara: In the 1970s in Boulder, Colo., glass was all the rage. I joined the Boulder Arts and Crafts Co-op and displayed my stained glass there. Right away, both our mothers went to buy something so that I wouldn’t be disappointed. But everything had already sold!
By 1978, Don, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot and a mechanical engineer, left his job and started working with you. Why?
Barbara: Don is also an artist, and we enjoy working together; as the business grew, it just made sense for Don to leave. In the summer and at Christmas, there were so many tourists here that our stained glass quickly sold out at the co-op. After Christmas, we would take our glass to the ski areas and sell it there. We were also commissioned to do work—everything from small pieces to one Don did at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel that was 11 ft. wide. We had this rhythm all year long, and it worked incredibly well.
What made you decide to stop making glass?
Don: It got to the point where the popularity of stained glass faded. If we were to put a stained-glass window in the co-op now, it would not sell as fast.
Barbara: And I had grown tired of creating stained glass. It had become a chore, not something I enjoyed anymore.
Since then, you’ve collaborated on some unique renovations to your home. These projects go way beyond basic home improvement. What drives that creativity?
Don: I regard our house as an art project, and that changes the complexion of the renovations. We’re being creative, and that makes it OK that it’s a little excessive in places.
You two have been working happily together for over 40 years. What do you like most about that?
Barbara: The laughter. We just get such a kick out of all of this.
Don: The laughter is certainly there, and the sense of sharing the satisfaction when something is done. Like anything, it’s nice to share things, and it’s nice to have the satisfaction of a completed project that you’re happy with. But to be able to share that satisfaction is pretty wonderful.
What do you like least?
Barbara: In relation to working together …
Don: … there are always the frustrations of …
Barbara: … communicating.
Don: Yeah, communicating. You have different perceptions of what the priority is.
Barbara: Priorities are probably the biggest difficulty.
You’ve said that into some personal project budgets you include some therapy sessions. Were you being serious?
Don: Absolutely. We think it’s vital.
Barbara: When you’ve talked and talked and tried to figure something out, and neither person wants to give up, you find a guide who takes about five minutes to say, “So what does this really mean to you?” And, by golly, it straightens it right out.
What advice would you give craftspeople interested in starting a business?
Barbara: Figure out if you want to make enough money to support yourself with the items you create, or if your goal is to run a business. A lot of people think, “Oh, this is going great. Now let’s move into a big building and do more.” But it becomes a nightmare. You end up running a business, and my guess is that most craftspeople don’t really want to do that. I certainly didn’t. I had an employee once for a short time. It didn’t work for me. I felt like I was working for him, teaching him what needed to be done. I’m glad it’s now just Don and me. I like working at home. You can write off the square footage of your studio and conserve money in other ways.
Do you think there is a future for the craftsperson?
Don: A few people are starting to figure out that things done in the virtual world don’t mean a whole lot in a personal way. I have this thing about hands and what marvelous things they are. Doing things with your hands really matters. And I think there are people out there who appreciate craftsmanship and are willing to pay for it. If you had asked me a few years ago if craftsmanship was sufficiently respected, I would have said no. Now I believe that people are learning that making things with your hands is really noble work. The computer of the human mind controls the hands—and does an awful lot more than any electronic gizmo can.
Illustration: Jacqueline Rogers