The use of glass as a medium to tell a story has been around for a millennium. At its peak, during the Renaissance, stained glass was one of the most prevalent forms of painting in Europe.
But Vero Beach? For such a small town – and barely a century old – Vero Beach has an unusually rich collection of stained glass in churches and public venues. That is due in large part to the fact that 60 years ago, Milwaukee artist Conrad Pickel chose sleepy Vero Beach as the location for a second stained-glass studio.
With such a high-caliber stained-glass studio located in Vero Beach, it’s no wonder that Christie Garst, a local art history enthusiast, organized the Stained-Glass Crawl three years ago. That tour, scheduled for Jan. 28, will take people to see more than 100 examples of stained-glass art in Vero, and includes a stop at the Conrad Pickel Studio.
Garst, a former high school math and science teacher now at home with a toddler, became interested in stained glass while living in France. Her church, Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, has a number of windows made by Pickel, who opened the Vero studio 60 years ago. Garst’s visit to the studio west of Vero set the crawl in motion.
A world-renowned stained-glass artist, sculptor and painter, Pickel studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, and apprenticed at the Franz Mayer Studio.
He came to the United States in 1927 and spent the next 20 years honing his craft. The Conrad Pickel Studio was founded in 1947 in Milwaukee and is considered one of the leading stained-glass studios in the country.
In 1956, he opened a second studio in Vero Beach and turned over the management of the Milwaukee Studio to his son Paul. He ran the Wisconsin studio before consolidating both studios at the Vero location.
Growing up, Paul Pickel watched his father create glass masterpieces that graced churches, cemeteries, synagogues and community facilities all over the United States.
In addition to garnering a reputation in the field, the studio can lay claim to creating the largest stained-glass window in the world at the Resurrection Cemetery Mausoleum in Chicago. At 24,000 square feet, the project is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
And while NASA might have put man on the moon, the Pickel Studio has put a mosaic NASA logo on the floor at Kennedy Space Center.
Paul Pickel loved art and travel and has managed to meld his passions working as a second-generation stained-glass craftsman. He majored in art and business at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee with plans to pursue a career in international business.
“Dad thought of himself as an artist but had good business acumen,” recalls Pickel. “I’m more of a director with an art background.”
After his father’s death in 1994, Pickel continued the family legacy of telling visual stories through stained glass, and the business continues to thrive at its location tucked on a shady lot off State Road 60 just west of the Indian River Mall.
The process for creating stained glass has remained virtually the same as it was 1,000 years ago. The glass is mouth-blown, the paint contains tiny glass particles, and each piece of glass is bound by strips of pure lead.
Pickel starts a commission with a site visit to consult with those involved with the project and to get a feel for what the clients have in mind. “Stained glass has to be part of the architecture. It’s not like a painting on the wall, it has to blend in with the architecture. We have to be very careful; we work very closely with the architects or ministers or priests in developing the feeling.”
Studio artist Lyn Durham will then prepare a colored sketch. Once approved, the studio crew can begin the process of making the actual window, which entails checking and double-checking the dimensions and laying out the window to size.
“People love stained glass because it’s like a painting that’s made out of light and it changes with the light,” she explains.
Durham then creates a cartoon – a full-size drawing of the final design, which is then transferred to a pattern with lead lines, features and faces.
Pickel’s wife, Rosie, is in charge of the selection and organization of the glass at the studio. “She has a real eye for color,” says Pickel.
“There are thousands of pieces in a project and each piece has to be carefully cut, otherwise it would interfere with the next piece,” says Pickel. That care has to follow through the entire process, he says, from firing the glass and painting it to handling, packing, shipping it and, of course, installing it.
It takes skilled artisans and quality materials to maintain the level of work the studio is known to produce. Today, the studio has a full-time staff of eight. Craftsmen and commissions alike come in by word of mouth.
The glass is hand-blown in a German town near the Czech border where it has been made for hundreds of years. The color is determined by adding metallic oxides before the master blower blows the large bubble, which is formed into a cylinder before it is heated again.
“We prefer mouth-blown glass because of the interesting bubbles. It creates the sparkle and adds character to the glass,” says Pickel.
After the glass is selected and cut, each piece is waxed onto clear glass with beeswax so the design can be viewed in a vertical position. If everything is OK, then Durham will paint the faces and details. This process sometimes takes five or six firings in the kiln.
Then, each piece is leaded, and the joints are soldered so that it holds it together. After that cement is rubbed into the lead and bars are added to strengthen the panel. Finally, it’s ready for installation.
The studio recently finished a window for Christ Church Vero Beach, which is currently under construction at the corner of SR 60 and 6th Avenue. The project took several months from conception through completion, Pickel says.
“It usually takes a year from design through installation,” he says. He stops to point out a rainbow of colors beaming through the window of his workshop.
Pickel Studio has done work for several thousand churches in the U.S., Bermuda, Canada, the Cayman Islands and the Caribbean.
“It’s great to know that every day people are viewing our art all over the country,” says Pickel. “We are very fortunate that way.”
Locally, the studio has done work for at least 20 houses of worship, including Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church, Holy Cross Catholic Church, Our Savior Lutheran, St. Mark’s Anglican, St. Sebastian Catholic Church, Temple Beth Shalom and Trinity Episcopal. There are installations in a number of chapels including the Gifford Youth Achievement Center, Indian River Medical Center and Indian River Estates. Others adorn municipal buildings and private homes.
For Pickel, stained glass creates the atmosphere to complement the architecture. “People walk into a church and are not conscious of the stained glass, but it affects them,” he says. “People are mesmerized by stained glass because it creates such an interesting atmosphere. If you look at the window, it tells a story.”
Artist Durham points out that because stained glass is enhanced by daylight, it changes with the weather, season and time of day. “You can get used to a painting on the wall and stop seeing it. That never happens with stained glass,” she says.
The window the studio did at the Gifford Youth Achievement Center is one of Pickel’s favorites. “It tells the story of the center’s history. It’s a special and very uplifting stained-glass window.”
While stained glass is a large part of the studio’s work, they also design mosaics, bronze sculpture and wood carvings. The mosaics at the entrance of Royal Palm Pointe Park as well as the Downtown Vero Beach welcome sign at 20th Avenue and 20th Street are examples of the studio’s work.
As for the Stained Glass Crawl on Saturday, Jan. 28, the tour will showcase more than 100 stained-glass windows in Vero Beach, many of them made by Pickel studio.
The free tour will start at 9 a.m. at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in south central Vero. Docents will be on hand to guide guests through each site. To reserve a spot, email firstname.lastname@example.org.