Elizabeth Mears began her love affair with stained glass while decorating her son's nursery in the late 1970s. She bought a sun catcher for the window and liked the way the light reflected in the room.

Her husband told her, "If other people can make this, so can you," and showed her how to cut and solder pieces of glass.

Today, Mears has her own studio at the home she and her husband built themselves in Fairfax Station. She teaches stained glass crafting through the county and has designed two stained glass windows for St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Burke.

"Glass really brings light to life. Colors and textures reflect that light and transmit it," Mears said. "Cutting, fusing, glass blowing, painting: It's a constantly evolving medium."

Mears is a member of the National Capital Stained Glass Guild, one of eight groups within the nonprofit, cooperative arts organization called Artisans United. Other members include the Embroiders Guild of America, High Country Basketry Guild, Potomac Craftsmen, Quilters Unlimited, Northern Virginia Handcrafters Guild and Northern Virginia and Mount Vernon Porcelain Artists.

The groups share resources and display space that they could not afford to maintain alone. Artists in different media exchange ideas and communicate with one another through the organization.

"When I'm isolated and working strictly by myself, I get tunnel vision," Mears said. "It's very stimulating to be around other artists who are actively creating. We feed on each other's creativity."

Artisans United had been searching for a permanent home when the Fairfax County Council of the Arts moved to its present location at the Fred M. Packard Center in Annandale. The council agreed to give the organization gallery and office space free of charge. In exchange, Artisans United must tell the council how it plans to use the "rent money" saved.

"We now have a place where our feet are on concrete not just on paper," said Artisans United President Judy Kramer. "We're now a tangible entity."

In December 1988, the Craft Gallery of Artisans United opened in the lobby of the center, with Mears acting as gallery director. Member artists now exhibit and sell their work while educating the community about quality, handmade crafts.

"Everyone feels the atmosphere the minute they walk through that door," said Toni McMahon, president of the Fairfax County Council of the Arts. "To see arts and crafts from Fairfax County sets the tone for the rest of the building."

The gallery is staffed by members, who must agree to work 12 to 16 hours during a two-month period. There is a 25 percent commission fee charged by Artisans United for pieces purchased from the gallery.

Crafts submitted by artists must be at least "50 percent original in concept," Kramer said.

A review board monitors the quality of new works for display in the gallery to ensure that standards remain high. New shows open in the gallery bimonthly.

"Each organization has a wide variety of skill levels," Kramer said. "Not every artist is going to feel comfortable 'coming out of the artistic closet.' The coming of age for an artist is when they can let go and sell."

Spring classes sponsored by Artisans United included basketmaking, sculpting, watercolor painting, photography, quilting, smocking and knitting. This fall, Mears plans to teach a two-day stained glass workshop.

"The gallery is a learning environment where people can come {to} learn many of the crafts themselves," Mears said. "While they're learning, they can go into the display space and see what professionals are making and have something to aspire to."

Artisans United participated in Fairfax City's "Spotlight Outreach in the Schools," sponsoring arts and crafts demonstrations in eight city schools. The group also gives demonstrations in area senior centers.

The organization provides publicity, news releases and fliers for its member groups and publishes a bimonthly newsletter.

Three times a year, one group is showcased in a special gallery exhibition featuring an open house and demonstrations by member artists.

During June and July, works by the Northern Virginia and Mount Vernon Porcelain Artists were showcased.

"Here nestled in the forest is a hub of artists. It's a chance for the Annandale community and others to see what's here," Kramer said. "It's like a hidden jewel in the middle of the woods."