Editor’s Note: Rachel is a Project Manager on the Faith+Lead team, and an artist who, in the last few years, has gotten into working with stained glass as a medium. We wanted to talk with her about how her art and faith interact.
F+L: When did you first get interested in stained glass?
RP: It was probably in 2018. I was on a first date to the Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida. Which holds the largest collection of Tiffany lamps and panels. At the time, I wasn’t thinking I was going to be a stained glass artist or anything, but I was like a kid in a candy shop. I thought, this is amazing! The piece that really stood out at the time was a Tiffany four-panel window of the seasons. It was just stunning to see.
But it wasn’t until the pandemic happened and shut down my usual avenue of creativity (photography) that I decided to give it a try.
F+L: Did the churches you grew up in have much stained glass?
RP: Not a lot. I mean, we had one tiny window in our church that said, “God is love.” It was very simple, not a high liturgical church at all.
F+L: So your interest wasn’t informed by deep nostalgia or anything?
RP: No, it just started as an alternative to photography.
F+L: How did you get started? What was your first step? Because I’d have no idea where to start.
RP: Well, the first step was I needed to get supplies. And actually I was still living in Florida, but was visiting Minneapolis and found someone selling all of their supplies for relatively cheap, I mean, basically free. And so, in childlike wonder, I was like, okay, let’s do this.
I went to Goodwill, got a suitcase, and schlepped all this glass. I checked in at the airport with an eighty pound bag of supplies. And brought it all home to Florida just in time. There was this element of needing to, I guess. I had to start from a place of foolishness, a sense of foolish learning, in order to try something new and be okay with being bad at it.
When I got home, I unpacked everything. I didn’t know what these tools were. I was using them wrong. I was just guessing. I didn’t even YouTube how to use them. So my first piece was awful. The cuts were jagged, the solder was rugged.
But when I first held it to the light, I might as well have been holding up a bunch of colorful diamonds. It was so cool that I was able to create something like this. And the process was really significant for me. It felt symbolic. I found myself really connecting with God while I was creating. I even wrote a short poem about it.
I am broken,
chosen, and picked
up by the artist.
My sharp edges
cut his hands, yet
he still put me
and held me
in the light.
The idea of God taking our fragmented pieces and soldering them, grinding them down. It takes incredible patience. It’s beautiful to me.
F+L: I wanted to go back to when you were talking about foolish learning and just being bad at something. I feel like there’s real freedom in that.
RP: There is!
F+L: When you’re first trying something, even if it’s terrible, you still feel like, “oh, I did it.”
RP: Yeah. You do. You think, this isn’t perfect, but I made something.
It does something in your brain when you do something you don’t normally do, it makes a new neural pathway. Which can help you see things differently and become more passionate about continuing to do so. I think in church, even as church leaders, we should remember that it’s okay to look silly and have that foolishness in our attempts at creativity. It’s a statement of faith. Foolishness to the Greeks, and all that.
You’re stepping out into something unknown and new to you, but you’re also stepping into the creativity that God has given you and that God has.
F+L: Talking about what creativity does for your brain, and the different kinds of connections it helps to make, I couldn’t help but wonder what this means to you after being in a car accident this fall that caused injury/change to the way your brain works?
RP: It has changed. Yeah.
F+L: How does it feel to be hoping for a certain kind of change, a change you want to bring about through your attempts at creativity, and then instead find yourself in a situation where, yes, your brain has changed, but not in the way you had hoped?
RP: Yeah. Mostly my memory’s been affected …
If you’re creating, you’re trying something new and doing something different. I try to carve out a couple hours every week, (depending on how much time I have), and just let it evolve. Let the process be more important than the product, which is where I’ve now landed.
Before the accident I was focused on product and selling pieces and getting better, and now I’m just diving into this stream of surrender, I guess.
Letting go and letting pieces evolve, whether they’re paintings or stained glass. When I find my critical self rising up, or the voices that say, “this is crap,” or “what am I even doing?” I pause long enough to say, you know, we’re not going that route, we’re just going to realign. And the pieces that come out of that help me feel like I’ve stepped into a richer connection with God.
I don’t believe the creativity is just in my brain. It’s not something I own. It’s me stepping into God’s higher creativity, the Creator’s creativity. So there’s this dance of things happening. It’s really helped me let go of perfectionism.
F+L: I think it’s interesting, how that seems to be the way that God often works.
F+L: God takes something that happens that feels negative in some way, and then makes it positive. It’s kind of like Genesis 50, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” I think you can tell when people have been through something like that.
RP: Yeah. Because there is less of this idea that I have to make sure things are perfect. I have to make sure I’m doing it right. Whatever it is you’re working on, you’re not flaring around in a circus. You’re more centered and present and you can let things go. You’re not thinking in black and white. You’re in a gray space. And that uncomfortable gray space is really where I think a lot of encounters are missed. I know for me, being more prone to black and white thinking, where I have to have it perfect, done yesterday, and tied with a pretty bow on top …
But when I think about God … he speaks in a whisper and not in the ways we expect. Sometimes those whispers are just received, but other times we hear them when we create still spaces for the whisper to be heard.
During the pandemic, I led something I still don’t know what to call … I wanted people to be able to meditate on scripture visually and creatively. So we did a weekly Zoom meeting in the morning with a group of people from all over the States.
I would read different versions of the same scripture. We did Psalm 23. We did one verse a week and then took some time to be still, and I would play instrumental music and then we’d each simultaneously create something visual to correspond with that verse.
We’d let the Holy Spirit speak and then share what we had at the end. It was amazing. These people, none of whom would call themselves artistic, created and then communicated these beautiful things.
It was especially meant for those who are visually oriented. Like, personally, when I open the Bible and look at Psalm 23, I just see a bunch of black and white words, you know?
But when we wrestled through it visually we were able to make it concrete.
F+L: That’s lovely. What are your goals going forward with stained glass, or just creative pursuits in general?
RP: Hmm, goals… You know I used to make a spreadsheet of all (this is actually my first year of not doing this) where I would have yearly professional goals, yearly personal goals, and then I would break them down by month and every Sunday night, break them down by the week and how I would roll them up. I still have all the whiteboards at home. I still use them a little, I guess, but I think for creativity it’s kind of a rock. It’s a big rock that has been hard to fit in the jar right now because of life.
But where do I go forward with it? I don’t know. If we’re thinking dream world…
F+L: Sure, let’s do it. Dream world scenario.
RP: Dream world, I would love to be part of a collaborative, making bigger scaled stained glass pieces for churches or spiritual places that need maybe updated images, pictures that show where we are currently, a reflection of the church as it is now.
So creating stained glass in a way that would speak to contemporary people. That would be the pipe dream.
F+L: Have you been able to connect with other people who do this locally?
RP: Yeah, I took a class here in town.
There are two ways of doing the same glass. For the smaller pieces, like a sun catcher, you use copper tape. And it’s relatively easy to do. But if you’re going to scale anything bigger you have to do the leaded version, which is much harder. The process is longer. So I took a class on how to do that.
I connected with a lot of people there. And then things grow. People do shows and you meet other people …
So I’m learning there’s a huge creative culture, you know, within the Twin Cities that I didn’t know about.
F+L: Earlier you touched on how creativity could be well-utilized by church leaders. It made me think of a pastor friend of mine, who, during the pandemic, found himself essentially alone at church a lot. One day he was exploring the storage area of his church, and found a crate full of puppets that hadn’t seen daylight in years. He decided to start using these puppets for all of his children’s messages, and they’ve since become quite popular with parishioners of all ages.
RP: Oh, I love this! Your friend had this time to walk around in the church attic or storage space … I think a lot of people had time to walk around their own storage spaces and find out what they had lying around. I think creativity can also just be thinking inside the box of what we already have and using it. Having that margin of time to really assess our lives, and what we have and use it. And instead of just going fast and forward, like a river, getting swept up in the current, they’re going deeper. They’re swirling around and they’re creating things. And in that pool there are these unexpected amazing things.
I don’t think many of us want to go back to the fast current. It’s always been the status quo. The hustle has been romanticized, but now people are seeing it is not as fulfilling as promised. How can we change the pace for people like church leaders? I feel for them, they always have to be “on.” How do we build in pockets of time for them to just look through their storage to find what they already have? How do we do that for all of us?