ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) – It all started with a sentence. One curious sentence in a historical document led to five months of poring over letters almost 100 years old, e-mailing stained glass experts and church tours, camera in tow.
Now it appears the question that sentence raised has finally been answered: Seminal stained glass artist Mary Tillinghast’s last work is housed in the Trinity Episcopal Church on Church Street.
The Tillinghast name might not be as familiar as glass artist global brands, Charles Lewis Tiffany and John La Farge. But she was not only a contemporary to them, but worked with Tiffany for six months before being poached by his archrival La Farge, eventually becoming his business partner. She later started her own company.
Local poet and writer Laura Hope-Gill didn’t know anything about Tillinghast when she ran across her name researching her book about Asheville architecture, “Look up Asheville,” slated for release this winter. She was reading an essay by Zoe Rhine about Trinity that mentioned only once Tillinghast having been hired to do the windows for the church, built in 1912.
Her name struck Hope-Gill: She wanted to know who was this woman, and how did she in time when women couldn’t even vote get hired for this job?
Hope-Gill isn’t the only one who didn’t know the windows portraying stoic saints and crosses immersed in abstract jewel-colored patterns came from New York-based Tillinghast.
Tillinghast’s dismissive treatment in the historical record is typical of other minority artists. It’s only been a relatively recent trend to re-examine the art historical canon and give credit to those contributors whose name was erased by prejudice.
“As a woman and an artist myself, I’ve felt hauntingly close to Mary in all of this,” Hope-Gill said. “I wouldn’t want my work, which is certainly equal to the work of male poets – it sounds ridiculous even to have to say that – to go unnoticed just because of my sex. And yet that is what has happened to countless women through time.”
The church’s history did not reflect her contribution, something that Rev. Carol Hubbard is excited now to update. (Some of Tillinghast’s original windows had to be replaced in the 1960s because they were beyond repair.)
Even Kent Watkins, a relative of Tillinghast writing a book about her life, didn’t know the last work of her life was in Asheville. She died during the completion of the Patton window on the church’s west wall.
Watkins recently came down from Washington to examine the Tillinghast letters in the UNC Asheville special collections library and help confirm Hope- Gill’s hunch.
“This experience of being told there are no Mary Tillinghasts in the church, of finding no trace of her in the records, even of knowing next to nothing about stained glass ought to have discouraged me from taking any more steps,” said Hope-Gill. “But I’ve come to understand the work of preservationists. It’s detective work.”
Hope-Gill said she wants her experience to “inspire more people to ask more questions about who did what, and I think that a lot of those people will find that those people are women.”
The story actually starts in 1845, the year of Tillinghast’s birth. She grew up in a wealthy family and even studied art in Paris for six years after school. Tillinghast returned when the family money ran out and first worked as a nanny in Boston.
It’s unclear how she started to work at Tiffany and Co., or how she rose to the top of her profession so quickly. She left no papers, records or materials of any kind behind, said Watkins.
But there are traces of her personality one much larger than her deceptively petite 5-foot-frame in the newspaper articles he has unearthed.
“She knew how to market herself very well, and she seemed to be aware of how to stand out,” he said. She was strong-willed, feisty and notorious for her social gatherings and salons with other artists in her Washington Square apartment.
Tillinghast was also “a jack of all trades,” Watkins said, noting that she was one of the first female members to be inducted into the American Institute of Architects. She was an accomplished decorator and textile artist, even making $30,000 curtains with silver thread for a Vanderbilt mansion in New York City.
She was also one of the first to use opalescent glass, a type that La Farge invented by incorporating white into the color mix, making it not transparent. She didn’t use this kind of glass at Trinity, which initially threw the history detectives off, because the glass was too expensive for the church.
Hope-Gill’s discovery also serves an important lesson about preservation, she said.
“We don’t know what we have here in Asheville because a lot of key people left after 1929,” Hope- Gill said. “There are engravings on our porches done by master carvers. There are wrought-iron ornaments about town done by historically significant artists Asheville is a museum that we hang out in, work in, live in.”
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