Ancient Tales in Modern Glass

November 20, 2019
Cappy Thompson

If you’re lucky, when you step off the plane at the Sea-Tac International Airport, you’ll find yourself greeted by a vivid and magical dream in stained glass at Gate A-14.

In this dream artwork, the sun and moon are carried across the sky in a Pegasus-drawn chariot. The deep blue firmament through which they fly is flooded with uncanny creatures of the zodiac, jeweled with stars. And off to the side lay the dreamers themselves, embracing in the top room of a yellow tower.

One of the dreamers in the tower is Cappy Thompson ’76. She completed I Was Dreaming of Spirit Animals in 2003 as a public commission for the Port of Seattle.

Sixteen years later, it is still one of her favorite pieces. An astonishing 33-feet high and 91-feet wide, Thompson made the folk-art masterpiece using stained glass techniques that date back to the Middle Ages. Now, it gives travelers from around the world a stunning and surreal welcome to the Pacific Northwest.

A Self-Taught Apprentice

Evergreen Library Glass Window

After focusing on art in high school, Thompson eventually found her way to Evergreen, where she worked closely with faculty member Marilyn Frasca. Frasca became a mentor and friend who helped shape Thompson’s relationship with her own art. “Marilyn taught me how to see,” she said.

In her final year at Evergreen, Thompson began an internship with Olympia’s Mansion Glass, an art glass company started in 1973. Already a skilled painter with an interest in different cultures, Thompson began to research painted glass with the aid of Mansion Glass and her faculty sponsor Rainer Hasenstab. Her love affair with the material unfolded quickly.

After graduating, she rented a studio in downtown Olympia where she taught herself the ancient technique of grisaille, or gray-tonal painting. Even then, her interests in world mythology and folk art guided much of her work. Glass proved to be the perfect medium.

A House Made of Glass

At the same time, the Northwest was turning into a hub for glass artists from around the world. Dale Chihuly’s Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood—already a pilgrimage site for aspiring glass artists in the country—was taking off. Many of the graduates stayed close to Seattle.

In the late 70’s, Chihuly, already famous by the time, heard there was a glass artist working in Olympia, so he decided to pay Thompson’s studio a visit. Unexpectedly, he also brought his mother and his dentist. Thompson remembers being offended when Chihuly’s mother pointed at her art and said, “Well, isn’t that weird?” She said, “In hindsight, that was probably quite a high compliment.”

After moving studios a number of times throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Thompson and a group of friends came together, purchased an old boot manufacturing building in Seattle’s Georgetown, and named it Sunny Arms.

From Sunny Arms, Thompson began to expand her life as an artist. By keeping her overhead low and working part-time jobs here and there, she was able to keep her focus on art. For a couple of decades she made comparatively small but evocative pieces, showing her work in galleries and selling it on the market.

Then, in the early 2000’s, she was asked to submit a concept for a massive public commission at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. She was shortlisted for consideration along with a star-studded cast of artists. One by one, the more famous artists dropped out due to lack of time and Thompson was given the chance to show I Was Dreaming of Spirit Animals to the world. This was also the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with historic glassmakers an ocean away.

The Mythopoetic Tradition

Gathering the Light

As her first major installation was getting under way, Thompson’s friend introduced her to Derix Glasstudios in Taunusstein, Germany. The family-run manufacturer has been in business more than 150 years, combining ancient glass fabrication techniques with modern technology. Since 2003, she has worked with Derix on all her large-scale public commissions, including her piece for Evergreen’s own library.

Thompson’s art takes inspiration from the narrative glass art in European churches and cathedrals that thrived throughout medieval times. Towering kaleidoscopic designs rich with symbolism and characters from the Bible were used to weave the stories that formed the moral fabric of the time.

But she doesn’t limit herself to telling the stories of one culture or religion. “I am interested in medieval art and early art across all cultures,” she said. She describes her style as “mythopoetic,” or mythical poems rendered in glass.

Figures from history and myth are alive in her stained-glass work in Evergreen’s library, entitled I Imagine Us as a Holy Family Engaging in the Great Work of Increasing the Light, completed in 2006. Along with a whimsical vision of humans, plants, animals, and heavenly beings living in chromatic harmony, it depicts historical and spiritual figures, from the Persian poet Hafiz to Chief Sealth of the Suquamish and Duwamish people.

“I wanted everybody to be able to find themselves in it,” she said.

Decorating a popular study spot for students on campus, the piece glows when the sun hits it just right and the rich hues spill over the tables and onto the library floor.

The Colors of Dreams

“Painting is kind of like dreaming. It brings your inside forward; it brings your thoughts into focus and view,” said Thompson.

Like the visionary painters and artists of the Middle Ages, much of Thompson’s art is inspired by her dreams. And also like those artists, Thompson often paints herself and other figures from her life into her work. The other dreamer in the yellow tower of Gate A-14 is her late husband, Charlie Williams ’75, who passed away suddenly two years ago. Now Charlie, like the mythical figures of ancient days, is remembered tenderly in a dream made of glass—a beautiful tribute and testament to the power of Thompson’s artistic tradition.

Today, Thompson is a celebrated member of the art community. She has been active on a number of art boards and regularly donates work for fundraisers. She has also taught workshops from Mexico to Australia and Germany, as well as at Chihuly’s Pilchuck Glass School.

Overlooking the city, the walls of her Sunny Arms flat are covered with inspirational folk art from around the world, including her own glass (and non-glass) work. Thompson said she owes much to her time at Evergreen, including gaining what she called “a deepening of seeing” and how to have a dialog with her own work.

She shows no signs of slowing down, but more and more, she finds herself returning to the smaller scale work she discovered as a student at Evergreen—the kind of work that made her fall in love with glass.

“The Evergreen internship at Mansion Glass was phenomenal for me,” she said. “It led me, in a gentle way, to what became a life’s work.”