The mysticism of light
In the studio with stained-glass artist Elizabeth Devereaux
If all goes well, parishioners at Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco will be worshipping again in their 133-year-old church by the end of this month.
When they return for the grand opening of their newly renovated building, they will find that, among the many improvements made to the venerable structure, one stands out in radiant color: a magnificent new 19-foot-high stained-glass window behind the altar.
The creator of that window is Chico artist Elizabeth Devereaux, owner of Devereaux Architectural Glass. In her 45 years of making stained-glass art, she has designed and fabricated more than 200 such windows and become one of the most widely known and celebrated artists in her field. Her work can be found across the country, in churches, mortuaries, libraries and corporate office buildings as well as private residences. It has appeared in numerous exhibitions, been written up in newspapers and magazines, and received many awards of merit.
The Noe Valley Ministry project is one of two she worked on simultaneously in recent months. The other was a series of four panels, each about 5 feet square, commissioned by Hillside Mortuary and Memorial Park in Culver City.
The most prominent example of her work in Chico is found on the second floor of City Hall, where much of the east wall is a stained-glass image of mountains and a stream. She also designed the in-ground fountain and other elements of the new City Plaza.
She works out of an industrial building off Meyers Street in south Chico. There is an office and design studio in front and an expansive, open fabrication area behind them. This room is filled with the tools of the trade: large work tables, kilns, a bevel grinder and polisher, and so forth. Much of its north wall has been replaced by floor-to-ceiling windows with adjustable shelves so that works in progress can be viewed in the proper light.
The word “architectural” in the name of Devereaux’s business is significant. The kind of large, even monumental work she does, usually in tandem with a practicing architect, must not only satisfy the esthetic desires of her customers, it must also be strong enough to withstand the elements, from high winds and rain to dry rot and mold and, in some cases, earthquakes. And any new window installed in an existing building must be adapted to the material at hand, whether stone, masonry or wood, and the condition of the structure.
It is one of the most demanding of all art forms. It is also one of the most beautiful because of the way it uses translucence to translate the white light of the sun into brilliantly colorful images. That is why it has been so popular over the centuries, especially in houses of worship, where it has been thought of as “the mysticism of light.”
Colored glass has been used to beautify windows since at least the time of Christ. Early Roman Catholic churches used their windows to tell the story of Jesus’ life and miracles to their mostly illiterate parishioners. Stained glass was also widely used in Muslim mosques to enhance the geometrical designs characteristic of Islamic art and architecture.
Use of stained glass in windows increased during the Romanesque period, but it reached its peak during the era of the great medieval Gothic cathedrals. The Church was the richest patron of the arts. It was building new cathedrals at a quick pace, and it spent lavishly on windows because they more than any other physical feature gave parishioners a feeling of holiness.
Mobile glass studios emerged, crisscrossing Europe and spreading the art form to Germany, Switzerland and Britain even as they shared techniques and came up with new colors and styles.
Stained glass continued to flourish and evolve through the Renaissance period, but it diminished considerably after the Reformation. Protestants were hostile to elaborate art and ornamentation in their churches.
However, as more and more secular institutions turned to stained glass to enliven their buildings, it continued to be a significant art form. And as the 20th century progressed, it moved away from the kind of literal storytelling found in medieval churches and toward abstract but symbolic explorations of form and color.
Elizabeth Devereaux grew up in a Catholic family and attended Dominican College in San Rafael, including a study-abroad year spent at the University of Vienna. Following graduation, she attended the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste in Munich, with further studies in religion and the arts at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. She also did further graduate work in industrial design at Long Beach State to familiarize herself with materials, construction and architecture.
Marriage and the birth of two children side-tracked her briefly, as did uncertainty about what kind of art she wanted to do. By 1969, however, she’d decided on stained glass, learned the craft and started her company. It was rough going at first, and she spent 15 years doing smaller projects, residences and such. She wanted to do larger pieces that took advantage of her deep knowledge of the Catholic Church, but as she says, “It’s hard to get into the church world if you have no experience.”
Her entry into that world eventually came through her involvement in the Catholic reform movement that emerged following the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Contacts there led to commissions, and her career began to take off.
She and her husband split up when their kids were 9 and 11. She was living in Marin County at the time. On a later visit to Harbin Hot Springs, a retreat center near Middletown, she met a man during an aikido class who was to become her second husband. He’s Nick Malone, a Chico psychotherapist. In 1989, Devereaux moved to Chico to join him; they’ve been together for 27 years.
She credits him lavishly for supporting her work. Every new commission requires her to be gone for days at a time, she says, and he accepts that as part of the deal. He knows she wouldn’t be who she is without her art and business.
She’s now 72, but her face is unlined and she looks 15 years younger, despite her shock of white hair. That youthfulness carries over into her work, which she approaches with unflagging enthusiasm, in the root sense of that word, “to be filled up with God.” Every window, she says, is designed to evoke nothing less than “the presence of the holy in our worship spaces,” and it’s her job to make that happen.
She has accumulated a body of work that demonstrates her approach to window art. Architects across the country are familiar with it and often include her in their lists of prospective artists they give to members of building committees.
Each new commission goes through a three-part process. First comes listening to the stories of the community, as told by its members during meetings at which Devereaux takes notes but says little, other than to ask: “What makes this church unique? What do you love about this church? Is there any of my work that strikes you?”
That’s followed by doing extensive research into the history of the place, region and site. Once that’s completed, she creates a design that “reflects and integrates the story into the architecture and art of the site.”
Then she begins to build the window. She maps it out by drawing a full-size sketch, or “cartoon,” from which she will make sectional patterns, similar to sewing patterns, that will be used in cutting the glass pieces. Then she orders the glass. She uses only hand-blown glass from Fremont Antique Glass, in Seattle. The colors are approximate, and she often tweaks them in her shop, but the glass has a textured translucence that can’t be found in machine-made glass.
She uses many pieces of beveled glass in her pieces. Each bevel must go through five stages of grinding and polishing before it’s ready for use, but by then it adds a sparkling, crystalline quality to the image.
She’s also fond of using 24-carat gold luster, which she buys in tiny bottles that cost a thousand dollars each. When applied and baked onto the glass, the luster adds a rich golden color to the image. Historically, stained-glass windows have shown their beauty only during daytime, disappearing into darkness at sunset. Devereaux’s gold-lustered windows, in contrast, glow indoors at night with a kind of amber richness even in the softest interior light.
For 18 years she’s relied on fellow artist Owen Gabbert to partner with her in building these windows. He has his own stained-glass-art business, she explains, but is happy to help her, for which she is grateful.
Her son, Christopher Tallant, also works in the studio. He moved to Chico a couple of years ago, and has quickly been learning not only how the business operates, but also how to make the windows.
Noe Valley Ministry has been an integral part of its neighborhood for more than three decades, ever since it began to reach beyond the walls of its home on Sanchez Street to serve a larger worshipping community, work for social justice, foster and appreciate the arts and help congregants work on personal and spiritual challenges.
For the past 3 1/2 years the congregation has been worshipping in the chapel at nearby St. Luke’s Hospital, waiting for a $3.5 million renovation of the church to be completed. All that remains is to finish installing an elevator.
“Yes, we’re very antsy to get back in the church,” Noe Valley Ministry’s treasurer, Cindy Cake, said in a phone interview.
The architect on the project is San Francisco-based John Goldman. His specialty is churches, he says, and he’s known Devereaux and appreciated her work for about 35 years, long enough to become good friends. They’d worked on smaller projects previously, but this was their first major enterprise together.
He appreciates that she incorporated existing elements into her design, including a cross by the noted artist Ruth Asawa and a labyrinth on the floor of the Fellowship Hall next to the worship space. The parts fit together beautifully, he says.
In the beginning, Devereaux met with the congregation and the building committee several times. Cake, who is on the building committee, says Devereaux was always willing to modify the design if the group wanted changes.
Originally church members didn’t intend to do the window. They had enough money to commission some drawings, but not the window itself. But when they saw Devereaux’s illustrations, they were so thrilled they decided they’d find the money somewhere and commissioned the window.
“We felt like she really got it, was really tuned into it,” Cake said. The huge new window behind the altar, she adds, “is gorgeous.”
Once again Elizabeth Devereaux has evoked “the presence of the holy in a worship space” by summoning sunlight to shine through a window of colored glass, beautifying the world.