Gay glass artist Bruce St. John Maher dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday June 14, 2023
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Bruce St. John Maher. Photo: Courtesy Robert W. Ferren II
Bruce St. John Maher. Photo: Courtesy Robert W. Ferren II

Bruce St. John Maher, a gay man and glass artist, died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Monte Rio on April 9, Easter Sunday. He was 70.

Mr. Maher had suffered from several health issues over the years, including malignant hypertension, severe persistent asthma with acute exacerbation, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with exacerbation, stated Robert W. Ferren II, Mr. Maher's friend and executor of his estate. Mr. Maher also had bladder and lung cancer that were in remission, Ferren stated.

During his life, Mr. Maher accomplished many things, Ferren wrote in an obituary, and fought injustices, mostly in Sonoma County, where he resided for many years.

"I am honored to have called Bruce St. John Maher a friend," Ferren stated. "Never could someone have been more humble. I am not alone in saying that I will miss him dearly."

Mr. Maher was born October 31,1952 in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Virginia Rose Harrington of Duluth, Minnesota, and Edward Urban Stephan Maher of Providence, Rhode Island.

Ferren wrote that Mr. Maher didn't have the greatest childhood. Even though his family was wealthy, he suffered a tortured upbringing. Mr. Maher's father was a hotel manager and his parents moved from hotel to hotel with Mr. Maher often locked in a closet for hours at a time because his mother lacked the capacity to look after him, Ferren wrote.

As Mr. Maher approached adolescence his mother began to suspect that he was gay, and he was subjected to gay conversion treatments and treated with male hormones and electrical aversion techniques. This not only pushed Mr. Maher into earlier puberty, but it left him with permanent lung and heart damage, the obituary stated.

Mr. Maher ran away many times in his youth but finally made his lasting escape in 1965 at the age of 13, arriving in San Francisco, where he was embraced by the Beat community, the obituary stated. The hormone treatments had left him with a full beard and a deep voice, and he was able to pass as a grown man. Ferren wrote that Mr. Maher even lived with gay poet Alan Ginsberg for a time. According to the obituary, Mr. Maher also lived with Ram Dass and Wavy Gravy, with whom he would be bitten by the country bug.

Glass art

Mr. Maher was a master glass artist. According to the obituary, Mr. Maher found his passion for the glass arts in San Francisco while walking down Haight Street in 1965 when he spotted a beautiful, but badly damaged, stained glass window. He had learned about stained glass and miniature arts from his grandparents, Edward and Helen Maher, renowned jewelers and enamelists for over 60 years in Providence. He resolved to repair the window and he did the job remarkably well so that the commission helped him start his first glass studio on Haight Street.

From 1970 to 1982, Mr. Maher expanded his knowledge as head of the restoration department at San Francisco Stained Glass. His amazing painting, repair, and exquisite window compositions were soon in high demand throughout the Bay Area and beyond, the obituary stated. When doing his stained glass repair, Mr. Maher studied the techniques and process that were used in the glass manufacturing at the time each piece was created. He learned the techniques of all the old masters, becoming an expert in Medieval Church stained glass, as well as 17th century Dutch Wedding windows.

According to the obituary, Mr. Maher was commissioned to work for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., conservator of the Axt Collection of Alta Dena, California, and many wealthy collectors. His works have been on display in the Corning Glass Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum at the Smithsonian Institute and even the Louvre.

Gay activism

During his time in San Francisco Mr. Maher became a prominent gay activist and worked on Harvey Milk's supervisor campaigns, Ferren stated. Milk would go on to win a supervisor seat in 1977, making him the first openly gay elected official in California. He and then-mayor George Moscone were assassinated in November 1978 by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White.

"They were good friends," Ferren wrote in an email.

With the late lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, Mr. Maher helped to start the first gay support groups at Bishops Coffee House in Berkeley, according to the obituary. At the start of the AIDS pandemic, Mr. Maher was among the first to help care for those suffering from the disease when its mode of transmission was still unclear and the health care professionals and family members were afraid to be in proximity.

Mr. Maher saw the suffering of gays living in rural areas, many of whom were starving, and he helped to found the Billy Club of Saratoga Springs, the obituary stated. Throughout his life Mr. Maher was a champion for gay rights and same-sex marriage, organizing many protests. In his later years he would hold Sunday Suppers for his many food insecure friends at his home in Monte Rio.

In 1982 Mr. Maher moved to Laytonville in Mendocino County and formed a gay collective called Rattlesnake Creek with his friends, the brothers Dio and Victor Galloti, the latter becoming his lover. The various houses they built by hand had to be reached by cable car across a steep ravine. This experiment in rural living lasted many years, during which time Mr. Maher began his love affair for making glass beads and faceting semi-precious stones. Later, Mr. Maher would befriend the miners at Bonanza and Dust Devil mines in extreme Northern California and he helped to pioneer the recognition of the Oregon Sunstone as a unique precious stone, according to the obituary.

The collective experience came to an end in 1990 when one of the members set fire to the main house, Ferren stated. That's when Mr. Maher moved to Monte Rio and purchased an old house that had once been a brothel frequented by many high society figures. Mr. Maher and Victor Galloti restored the house to glory and built the perfect studio for him to continue his art.

Later years

Mr. Maher's later years in Monte Rio were spent with some heartache, as Victor Galloti had contracted HIV; Mr. Maher cared for him tirelessly until he died on April 15, 1992, Ferren stated.

Mr. Maher championed water rights in the Russian River.

In addition to Ferren, Mr. Maher is survived by his sister, Fran Maher; brother, Stephen Maher; and many beloved friends he called family.

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