Artist Marty Mitchell has been teaching stained-glass techniques in classes at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College for a remarkable 45 years. “The classes are extremely popular and are filled up each term,” says Brinda Caldwell, director of A-B Tech’s community-enrichment programs. And, adds Caldwell, there’s always a waiting list of more who are eager for a chance to learn this ancient art.
Mitchell grew up near Washington, DC, where she spent many of her Saturdays wandering among the collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and other renowned venues there. Later, she rented houses in older residential neighborhoods.
“I was enamored with their elegant architectural features, including colored-glass transoms displaying the house number.” She also recalls the leaded-glass entry panels “sparkling on snowy nights.”
She enjoyed painting the otherwise plain white walls of these rentals with strong colors, mandalas, and cosmic motifs, adding, “I like to think some of the landlords did not immediately roll on more white paint when I moved on.”
Mitchell and her daughter Rachel Ward relocated to Asheville in 1978. “Before the year was over, I came across a shop in Black Mountain that featured a variety of small stained-glass panels.” Immediately intrigued, she sought out a stained-glass class where, she says, she found the process “surprisingly accessible.”
“I also found it an engaging way to apply my drawing skills. I was captivated by the material — each piece of glass was unique and beautiful, [with] new possibilities for impression and a new experience of color ecstasy.” After trying her hand at making a few pieces, Mitchell created a unicorn with a silverleaf mane and tail.
She sold the piece for $1,000 at a show, and quickly knew what she wanted to do for a career.
Early on, she began working with Gary Newlin, who owns A Touch of Glass in West Asheville, and on-site glass restorer Kevin Hartsoe. (Newlin also teaches at A-B Tech.) At A Touch of Glass, Mitchell and her daughter are primarily responsible for doing commissioned glassworks.
“It only seemed natural that Rachel would also gravitate toward glass,” says Mitchell, praising her daughter’s “unfailing sense of color” and a “brilliant creativity [in] the fabrication process.”
Mitchell, who in the mid-1980s joined the Southern Highland Craft Guild through A Touch of Glass’s Production Center membership, says she thoroughly enjoys teaching her art to others. “Teaching requires that you analyze what it is you do so you can present it in a lucid manner,” explains Mitchell. The excitement for students, she says, is the thrill of the reveal (that “hold-it-up-to-the-light moment,” as she describes it). “Something else also happens. A link can be forged when we find we have this thing we love in common.”