The two of them were really old, at least in my twenty something eyes, with their dusty glass shades and tarnished bases. Most of the time, they were just part of the scenery, like extras in a movie, expensive furnishings that hinted of an eccentric insurance magnate’s love of the desert, and his wife’s journey into evangelism. Before my two-year stint at Death Valley’s Scotty’s Castle between 1981 and 1983, I’d never even heard of stained glass. My primary duty at the Castle was giving 30- to 60-minute tours, five to eight per day. The tours involved regaling up to 25 visitors at a time with Death Valley Scotty tales and the real stories behind the half-finished Spanish-style mansion in the middle of nowhere.
While I was conducting my 1,000th tour (I admit on autopilot), I finally noticed the two antique lamps. They were a pair of authentic Tiffany table lamps, circa 1900, which provided ambiance in the Castle’s Upper Music Room. They had dome-shaped shades 20 inches in diameter or so which were crafted with hundreds of small pieces of opaque yellow and green glass, individually wrapped in copper tape and then soldered together. The shades were situated on sturdy bronze bases, and had the imprint of Tiffany Studios New York on an inside solder seam. I recall thinking that I bet I could learn how to make one, that it might take me 10 years, but why not try?
One morning, as I was preparing for another tour, a starling flew into the Upper Music Room. I heard the unmistakable clink of bird claws on glass as the starling scrambled for footing on one of the lamps. I saw my young life flash before my eyes. The lamp was irreplaceable, and as a seasonal park ranger, there was no way I’d ever be able to pay for it. Amazingly the lamp remained solidly on the table and the starling flew back outside. I was left with the uncanny feeling that I was quietly and insistently being called to become a stained glass artist.
Turns out I was right. Over the next 30 years, as I learned and taught the art and craft of stained glass, I sometimes wondered, why me? What makes the circumstances of this avocation so eerie is that the lamps weren’t even supposed to be there. They were placed in the Upper Music Room on a Park Service employee’s whim two years before my Castle stint, and were put into storage shortly after I left. To this day it remains a mystery, this “call to glass.” We usually think of callings as something religious or related to service of some sort, like being called to serve a church’s congregation, or walking away from an affluent lifestyle to join the Peace Corps. One thing I know for sure is that those two Tiffany Laburnum lamps started me on an artistic journey I never would have chosen. Apparently it chose me.
Freddi Steele is an affiliate member of the SGAA.