Ariana Makau strolled the carpet of Saint Vincent de Paul Church in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow, taking in the church’s enormous stained glass windows with a learned eye. She scoured the angled glass of a particular saint, as if giving the once-over to a long lost pal.
“It was getting ready to crack,” said Makau, referring to the saint’s near-death experience before she oversaw his salvation.
For over two decades, Makau and the company she founded, Nzilani Glass Conservation, have healed hundreds of the Bay Area’s aging stained glass windows, from cathedrals to Victorian homes.
“I think there’s a serenity that stained glass lends itself to a space,” she said, surveying the church’s vast swatch of colored glass.
Makau learned her craft in France and England, toiling over ancient windows in Europe’s vast and historic cathedrals before working as a conservator in the Getty Museum.
The Oakland-based Makau describes herself as more of a conservator than a restorer, seeking to put broken things right, leaving no trace of the work.
“If you do your job right, no one should see you’ve done anything,” Makau said.
Inside her Oakland studio, Makau worked alongside three of her staff, poring over the shards of a Tiffany window she’s restoring from a Pacific Heights victorian. As she glued the pieces of the window in place, she mused over the tenuous relationship between glass and nature.
“Every stained glass goal is unattainable,” she said, “because what they’re really trying to do is manipulate light and you can’t manipulate light.”
Makau spoke of stained glass as a living, breathing form - that changed moods and complexion with the movement of the day’s light.
“They’re constantly changing,” she said. “They’re not static.”
Makau was recently called in to Saint Boniface’s Church in the Tenderloin after someone had stolen one of the church’s original windows. Makau had surveyed the window before the theft and was able to supply a photo and description of the window, which subsequently surfaced at a pawn shop. Still, it’s not the first time she’s worn a detective hat.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gone in and there’s a rock thrown through a window,” she recalled. “And we’re going through people’s wedding photos looking for the one photo that’s not focused on the bride and groom but focused on the background so we can recreate what’s lost.”
Makau and her team have spent several years restoring the windows in Saint Vincent de Paul Church, with several years more to go. On Wednesday, her crew remounted a newly restored St. John Chrysostum window in its perch on the church’s East wall.
Makau watched the work with the expression of a concerned parent. As one of the few stained glass conservators, she said she hopes to pass her love of glass on to future generations of craftsmen and stained glass owners.
“It seems like it’s a lost art,” Makau said. “Hopefully we’re pushing that back a little longer so it won’t be lost.”