Rob Cooper’s legs were rotating his bike’s pedals during a night ride through his neighborhood in the Jackson metro a few years ago when a direct message pinged from his phone, pulling the stained-glass artist’s gaze and, for a moment, blowing his mind as he saw the name of who sent it: Neil Gaiman.
As a teenager, Cooper fell in love with the best-selling British author’s works, including “The Sandman,” a comic-book series from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint that will soon be a Netflix show, and the Nebula, Hugo and Bram Stoker Award-winning “American Gods” novel. As a father, Cooper read Gaiman’s books to his own children before bed.
Pausing, Cooper read the message: “Rob, I love your work. Can you make a window for me in the U.K.?”
‘What About Neil Gaiman?’
Cooper joined Pearl River Glass Studio in Jackson’s Midtown neighborhood as an intern in 1994, growing in his talent and eventually achieving his current position as head glass painter. The artist splits his time between studio work and his own commissions and interests.
As a personal project, Cooper assembled a list of his favorite authors and began creating portraits of them, starting with Eudora Welty for “local fame” as well as Daphne du Maurier and Franz Kafka. The pursuit threaded together his passion for books and literature with his artistic prowess.
“(The series was) a way for me to just make something that I wanted to make—in a way that I didn’t have anybody telling me how to do it,” Cooper said.
Before long, the artist’s friend Laurel Wing Caston, an art collector, said, “Hey, what about Neil Gaiman?”
The author had already been on Cooper’s list of around 100 writers, but Caston’s suggestion “lit a fire” under Cooper and served as a catalyst, leading him to move Gaiman to the top and next in line for a portrait.
Completing Gaiman’s portrait in 2020, Cooper mailed it to Caston. “It turned out great,” Cooper said.
The artist also posted a photo of the portrait on Instagram. Recounting his admiration for Gaiman, he shared a memory of getting laid off as a teenager for reading too much of Gaiman’s “The Sandman” while on the job.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Gaiman was in the process of remodeling a house in the United Kingdom when he came across the image of his visage in stained glass. He reviewed Cooper’s work on the platform and decided to reach out via direct message.
“I was floored and just said, ‘Of course,’” Cooper recalled.
Harry Clarke ‘Sets the Bar’
Excitement over the commission lasted for months, Cooper said. Next came the long process of zeroing in on the style and details.
“He didn’t give me much to go on, other than it was for a house he’s getting remodeled in the U.K.,” Cooper explained. “I was thinking he’s going to have all these ideas for the window, being this amazing storyteller.”
In an early exchange, Gaiman shared an image of a window by renowned early 20th-century Irish stained-glass artist and illustrator Harry Clarke, who is incidentally Cooper’s favorite artist in the medium. “His work is super, super detailed as well, so that’s where I set the tone,” he said.
Clarke’s works served as a springboard for inspiration.
“I think that’s what set the bar high for myself,” Cooper said. “I’m thinking of Neil Gaiman, and I’m also thinking of Harry Clarke, two of my heroes. That pushed me to make it over the top.”
Cooper nudged Gaiman for details their email conversations, honing in on the imagery. Since Gaiman is such an advocate for literacy and libraries, as well as a voracious reader and lover of literature, Cooper tossed out the idea of a gigantic library scene, for starters. Gaiman referenced a library in the Sandman comics, in the main character’s castle.
“He was offering me the chance to play in his creation,” Cooper said.
Small drawings earned positive feedback. “He gave me complete freedom, really,” Cooper said. “He did not want to tie me down in any way. He apparently looked through my work on Instagram, and decided he liked it enough to trust me to do whatever I wanted to do, which was pretty overwhelming.”
Aspiring to create his most ambitious window to date, Cooper took a several-months break from the studio to devote more time into the effort.
“Everything I’ve learned in more than 25 years working at Pearl River Glass, I somehow fit in this one window,” he said.
The window, over 3 feet tall and jam-packed with details, had to be planned and hand-drawn, full-size, on paper in advance. “When you’re working with glass, improvisation is not the same as with painting,” the artist explained.
Cooper spent a month on the drawing before translating the approved design into glass.
“Andy’s got this amazing selection of glass from all over the world,” he said of Pearl River Glass owner Andy Young, who gave Cooper the OK to use anything available at the studio for the commission. “This is the one that I pulled out the Cadillac glass and didn’t hold back.”
‘Anything Goes in the Land of Dreams’
In Gaiman’s “The Sandman,” the main character Dream, also known as Sandman or Morpheus, lives in a castle with a library at its heart. The Library of the Dreaming is full of books that great authors have imagined but never brought into existence.
“They’re only dreamed of, so it’s a really fun concept, which allowed my imagination just to go wild,” Cooper said.
The resulting window art is a labyrinthic treat in blues and golds, with teases of infinity everywhere the gaze lands. Lucien the Librarian is on the spiral staircase, with Matthew the Raven on a railing nearby—characters from Gaiman’s comics.
“What’s neat is that Neil Gaiman’s home actually has a spiral staircase with a bookshelf under it, which I didn’t know exactly was the case,” Cooper said. “It ended up tying into the architecture of the house in a really interesting way.”
Cooper based the window’s layout on the Siena Cathedral in Italy, which helped him “get something epic,” he said.
A sculpted, sleeping head of Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote a story about an infinite library, rests atop a column. A lute player detailed in Cooper’s window comes straight from a panel in the last window Clarke ever made—the window Gaiman shared that was his favorite.
“I referenced a lot of different things,” Cooper said of the Easter eggs included in the final product such as Buddha and Aladdin’s lamp that reward a closer look. “Glinda from the ‘Oz’ books is in the library, studying. Because so many characters come through the stories, I thought that would be really fun—and odd—but anything goes in the Land of Dreams.”
One night, Cooper had stayed until after midnight at the studio adding final touches to the window when he emailed Gaiman an image of the finished work. The author responded, noting its details, faces, references and worlds within worlds.
“It’s a stained-glass window that’s bigger on the inside, which is utterly fitting,” Gaiman replied in a nod to “Doctor Who,” a long-running television franchise for which Gaiman has written multiple episodes.
‘Full Circle,’ Meeting Gaiman in Person
This past May, a year after shipping the window to Gaiman’s home in London, Cooper met the author of myths and fantasy tales in person. A friend’s invitation to visit Austin, Texas, coincided with the author’s tour stop there. Caston, who had commissioned the Gaiman portrait window and had since moved to the city, attended the show, too.
“That was full circle,” Cooper said. “I got to go backstage to meet him,” as did his whole family. “It was neat that we all got to see him.” Wendy Eddleman, Cooper’s wife and a fellow artist, as well as their children Lucie, 21, and Theo, 16, all had a symbolic hand in the project, wrapping copper foil around a few pieces.
“I told him this was the most amazing thing I’ve ever had the pleasure of making in stained glass,” Cooper said, thanking Gaiman one more time for the chance to create it.
Friend, photographer and fellow Gaiman fan Roy Adkins helped Cooper create a poster depicting the window’s design—both for a personal record of the artwork and at the urging of friends who wanted a copy.
When Gaiman promoted the posters, scores of orders rolled in.
“I’ve never felt more challenged,” Cooper said of the “dream opportunity.” The window represented a personal artistic peak, and its creation parallelled the rest of the family’s artistic direction. During the journey, Edelman revisited Gaiman’s literature and comics, and their children gravitated toward Pearl River Glass Studio, too, where they now all work.
See part of Cooper’s process in this video from the Mississippi Museum of Art’s “Makers in Their Spaces” series. Purchase copies of the poster depicting Neil Gaiman’s commission through Cooper’s online store or at Pearl River Glass Studio (142 Millsaps Ave., Jackson). For more information on the studio, visit pearlriverglass.com.