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A West Linn stained glass artist captures beauty with colors

by: VERN UYETAKE, This stained glass window Stephenson reproduced from a window from Canterbury Cathedral in England.

After more than 30 years as an artist in stained glass, Nancy Heldt Stephenson felt that a break was in order.

'I took a hiatus last year,' said Stephenson, a resident of West Linn. 'The muses had left. They were on vacation.'

But she couldn't stay away long.

Recently, Stephenson attended a dinner party at which her friend and admirer Margaret Proctor raved to other guests about her love for Stephenson's work.

'Now I'm getting inspired again,' Stephenson said.

The muses are back, and Proctor certainly must be one of them.

'Nancy is a very gentle soul,' Proctor said. 'What always amazes me is that this restrained, lovely person has such an explosion of talent that rushes out of her fingers. These marvelous flowing pieces evolve. People don't realize the depth to this woman.

'Nancy is far from a traditional stained glass artist. She is not of the arts and crafts school of stained glass. She has great knowledge ingrained from hands-on work for a long period of time.'

Inspired on Sundays

Stephenson's work is on display at churches, synagogues, hospitals, businesses and private homes on the West Coast, Portland, Minnesota's Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and in Tualatin at Legacy Meridian Park Hospital, where her windows are in the chapel and meditation room.

Her work has also commanded prestigious prizes both in Europe and America. Her work titled 'Creation Continued' received the first prize for color at La Galerie du Vitrail at Chartes in France, while 'Rebirth' was awarded first prize for composition at the Stained Glass Association of America Show at Jekyll Island, Ga.

The profusion of color and beauty that pours out of Stephenson's work comes out of a deeply spiritual sensibility. She can use a verse of scripture to inspire a piece of art, often allowing the viewer to develop a whole new way of reading The Bible.

Actually, it was a church that inspired Stephenson's career as an artist in the first place.

'I moved to St. Paul in 1970 and the Lutheran church I went to had magnificent stained glass windows,' Stephenson said. 'The nave was so elaborate. It was reminiscent of medieval glass. There were glorious windows of the Resurrection and the Good Shepherd.

'I spent many a Sunday staring at them.'

Still, Stephenson had not developed her artistic gifts to that point, beyond painting backdrops for her high school plays and proms. In St. Paul there were simply no classes or college courses on stained glass art, and besides she was married and had a couple of children.

'I wrote to all the stained glass studios,' Stephenson said. 'I got no responses.'

Then Stephenson went through some life changes. In the 1970s she trained as a secretary and did some drafting work. But her love for stained glass work never waned.

'I told God, 'I think you want me in stained glass, but no doors have opened for me.''

A colored career

A door opened in the form of a tiny newspaper ad for a stained glass worker. It was apprentice work, cementing, 'all grunt work.' But it was an opening and the beginning of her career as an artist.

Steadily she picked up the skills necessary to make stained glass: cutting patterns, cutting glass, selecting glass, painting glass, silver staining, enamel painting.

As much as gaining her skills, Stephenson's road to being an artist required a simple ability to hang in there. Once, after moving to Seattle, she said she felt compelled to take a job as a secretary.

'I worked for a month,' Stephenson said, 'and I said, 'I can't do this the rest of my life.''

Even her travels were devoted to developing her art. She toured great cathedrals in England (Ripon, York, Canterbury, Beverly Minster), Spain (Granada, Seville, Cordoba) and France (Laon, Chartes, Amiens, Rheims, Notre Dame, St. Chapelle).

'They were awesome,' Stephenson said. 'Not just the stained glass, the buildings, too. They were incredibly gorgeous and all different, built by people 1,000 years ago.'

Stephenson's work inspires the same feeling of awe for her clients, whether it be her free-form art based on Scripture or the more traditional stained glass window approach, as shown by her windows of Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi, which are in St. Mark's Anglican Cathedral in Portland.

But current market conditions for a genuine stained glass artist are trying at times, and that is largely why Stephenson went on hiatus, she said.

'Like many things, it's the Chinese imports,' Stephenson said. 'They can make a Victorian design for $200, and they're pretty good. If I did that I would probably make a quarter an hour.'

Stephenson says she takes time with each of her unique designs.

'This isn't my hobby,' Stephenson said. 'Hobbyists don't create their own designs. They're not artists. They're crafts people. Most of the American public is not knowledgeable in the difference between art and crafts. They're happy with the hobbyists.'

But Stephenson's period of discouragement was brief. From her home studio in West Linn, where she has lived for the past 10 years with her husband John, the art is getting ready to 'explode' again.

And as Margaret Proctor said, 'Nancy is a treasure,' and her art is treasured by many in the local community.