Splendor in the glass
Exhibit shines light on Palo Alto stained-glass artist who conquered gender barriers
Stained-glass artist Judy Miller had a determination that took her places -- distances so far that her work is said to be in more than a thousand homes on four continents.
The late Palo Alto artist not only was hired for commission work in houses worldwide, she also taught stained glass to artists from as far as India, according to her son, Fred Miller. Middle Eastern embroiderers continue to order books of her designs as templates for needlework, he said.
That international recognition is a far cry from the world of the single mother raising two sons who couldn't find an instructor to teach a woman the art of stained glass.
Born in 1934 in Santa Maria, Calif., and a Palo Alto denizen from 1960 until her death last September, Miller is now being honored in a retrospective exhibit of her stained-glass pieces showing through July 31 at the Sheridan Apartments in Palo Alto.
Although the exhibit is small, it's providing an opportunity for people to remember Miller and her work.
It was a 1960s trip to Europe viewing the vibrant stained-glass windows of cathedrals that spurred Miller to bring the art form into her own home, said Jean Slocum, a 40-year friend of Miller's who organized the exhibit to pay tribute to the artist.
"She came back and just couldn't get those things out of her mind. She said she just felt alive and vigorous because of the play of light," Slocum said, adding that the windows infused Miller with "a spiritual feeling."
As Miller wrote in a 1987 article for Professional Stained Glass magazine, stained glass didn't have to be restricted to churches: "As the environment of medieval cathedrals was magically transformed by the magnificent stained-glass windows, present-day homes and workplaces can use the rays of the sun to bring beauty to many areas of our living spaces."
Finding it too costly to hire someone to implement the colorful windows in her Palo Alto hills home, Miller decided to learn the art herself, but struggled to locate an instructor. In the early 1970s, stained glass was still considered a craft for men because of its dependence on skills such as welding and woodwork, Fred said.
But Miller's unbreakable resolve always pushed her past gender barriers, according to her friends.
"She would hear someone say, 'A woman can't do that,'" Slocum said. "She would thumb her nose at them and say, 'I can do this.'"
Former Palo Alto resident Ome Stark met Miller weekly with the "Thursday Club," a tight-knit group of nine women who gathered for stained-glass projects and other activities. Stark recalled Miller as an elegant, luminous woman who pursued everything to which she set her mind.
"She could do anything," Stark said. "It never entered her head that 'Maybe I shouldn't try this particular thing.'"
When coyotes patrolling the woods around Miller's home threatened the five peacocks she affectionately kept in a backyard aviary, Miller bought a .38-caliber pistol and taught herself how to shoot, Slocum said.
This spirit of independence, as well as an environment of constant learning, permeated Miller's life.
"Anyone willing to read, study and experiment can learn to do just about anything," Miller told the Palo Alto Times in 1975.
Despite art-world gender mores, Miller eventually tracked down a teacher at Franciscan Glass in Mountain View. Within a year of taking one six-week course in stained-glass fabrication in 1973, she began teaching her own classes, and what was at first a hobby for Miller became a living, according to her son.
Local electronics companies, residences and public groups, including the town of Los Altos Hills, began hiring Miller for commissions to beautify their buildings. She expanded her business by publishing nearly 100 stained-glass how-to books and pattern series, which provided templates for artists to create their own works. She distributed many books through her own Judy Miller Publications company, Fred reported, adding that the company still runs strong today.
Gene Mayo, owner of the San Carlos-based art shop Stained Glass Images, produced patterns and attended nationwide trade shows with Miller after meeting her in 1978.
Mayo called Miller a "pioneer" in the stained-glass field because she was one of the first to put out pattern books in the late 1970s. He also deemed her "an experimenter" whose talent for pinpointing designs to suit individuals made her an in-demand commission artist.
"She had a real knack for drawing," Mayo said. "Any design -- she could do it. ... She could take anything simple and just turn it into something really gorgeous."
The makeover Miller gave her own home presents one of the most stunning glimpses into the depth of her talent, Slocum said. In one example, Miller transformed an ordinary bathroom into a garden paradise by mounting rocks along the walls and installing stained glass depicting pastel pink and lavender flowers on windows, mirrors and even a wastebasket. Arranging plants around the bathtub also added a 3-D element that brought the art to life.
Besides residential art, Miller also left her prismatic legacy in numerous stand-alone works, some of which hang freely along the sliding glass doors of her Sheridan Apartments exhibit.
In one piece, "Conservatory Through a Fish-eye Lens," a large, round wood frame borders a depiction a greenhouse ceiling, with intricate, spiky leaves encompassing pale, pink flowers underneath a dome-like grid. Slocum said Miller pored over the work for seven months.
The current Palo Alto exhibit displays a range of subjects and styles portrayed by Miller. A four-panel screen illustrating a vivid array of flowers shows Miller's representational side; the Picasso-esque face weaving shards of blue, green and purple glass shows a taste for the abstract; while the game board and coffee tables demonstrate Miller's aspiration to also create functional works.
A common character in Miller's art was birds, Slocum added, because Miller had a special affinity for the way "they were free" and "take flight."
The exhibit, located in a relaxed apartment complex common room, lies in the heart of a community Miller loved and actively supported, Fred Miller said. Miller devoted time and money to many local causes throughout her life, including education, wildlife charities and women's rights.
As Ome Stark, who called Miller a "dear friend," said, "Nobody was more 'Palo Alto' than Judy."
What: Retrospective exhibit featuring Palo Alto artist Judy Miller's stained-glass works. Also showing acrylic paintings by Szn Kraft, oil paintings and drawings by Cherryl Pape and photographs by Jean Slocum
Where: Sheridan Apartments common room, 360 Sheridan Ave., Palo Alto
When: Through July 31 on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., or by arrangement with Jean Slocum.
Info: Call Jean Slocum at 650-473-1179.