It’s impossible not to think of stained-glass artist Corrie Zam-Northan’s medium as a metaphor for her life. After all, stained glass is about assembling broken pieces into something brand new and beautiful—just as this art enabled Northan to do for herself nearly 14 years ago. Now she’s passing along that same spirit of healing through a stained-glass project for the Northern Nevada State Veterans Home in Sparks.
Raised on a ranch in California’s San Fernando Valley, Northan came to Northern Nevada 32 years ago and fell in love with its open spaces and big skies. She worked a series of jobs, including massage therapist and cocktail waitress. In 2007, a friend invited her to help open the new spa at the Nakoma Resort in Plumas County’s Lost Sierra region.
During this period, she met the man who would go on to become her husband, and his mother, Bonnie, who would have a profound impact on Northan’s life.
“When I met her she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She also had Parkinson’s. They lived on a beautiful 20-acre walnut ranch south of Chico,” she recalls, explaining that she stayed on to help Bonnie with some of the daily work on the ranch—work she was familiar with from childhood. It was during this time that Northan learned to do stained glass.
“Bonnie was an amazing woman, and she could see that I was getting worn down. So one day she said to me, ‘You know what? I have some friends who went to college with me, they’re very artistic and crafty. Why don’t you go meet them?’ They did traditional stained glass, had worked on cathedrals and had over 30 years’ experience with it. And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ So they took me under their wings.”
Though Northan, whose mother was a painter and father a woodworker, had done art all her life, she’d never thought of herself as an artist. For her, art was healing, a way to process emotions. She explains that her parents had been the victims of a home invasion that ultimately left her father paralyzed. She and her sisters had spent years caring for their parents as they were in and out of acute-care centers. “Art was my therapy,” she says. “I would sit at the bar and color in my coloring books. Which is funny because the format of stained glass is called a cartoon.”
Now that she was again in caregiver mode, she saw that the ancient art of stained glass had come to her right when she’d needed it.
“I worked with these women one day a week, and worked on the ranch the rest of the week, and it was awesome—it gave me an escape,” she says.
In 2008, eager to return to the mountains she thought of as home, Northan and her husband returned to Reno, just in time for the stock market to crash. “We lost everything,” she says, explaining that she and her husband relocated to Virginia City to rebuild their lives. She went back to bartending to keep the bills paid and continued doing stained glass as her own personal form of therapy.
With her parents’ and Bonnie’s passing, Northan, who had spent so many years as a caregiver, could now turn that focus on herself. She continued studying stained glass, learning various techniques and taking small commissions for residences. She did a combination of glass work, oil painting, and murals as a side hustle on her days off from bartending. But her business, Fire Horse Studio, continued growing, and eventually she grew to the point that she was commissioned by businesses and organizations to do larger glass work, including for the Fourth Ward School, St. Mary’s Art Center, and Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City, and JubJub’s Thirst Parlor and the original Foley’s Pub in Reno.
But it was just as the pandemic was wreaking havoc in early 2020, threatening to take more from Northan and disrupting her plans to travel for a stained-glass course to Philadelphia, a gift landed right in her lap. The State of Nevada wanted to commission her to create a 98-panel stained-glass collection that would become permanent parts of Sparks’ new Northern Nevada State Veterans Home. The commission would ensure she could stay plenty busy over the next two years.
“You should have seen my face,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘Am I being pranked right now?’”
The 98 panels of glass will ultimately be placed around the facility’s four doorways, which are arranged in a sort of cross, with each side representing a part of Nevada—the Ruby Mountains, Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake, Las Vegas, and Valley of Fire, with such natural features inherent to these areas as bristlecone pines, aspen leaves, the Stone Mother of Pyramid Lake, yuccas, and a mountain bluebird.
The process is similar to a jigsaw puzzle, with a sketch, or cartoon, of a large image that she then breaks into small pieces along natural lines, each of which represents a piece of glass. The fact that the project involves so many smaller pieces versus one large one enables Northan to utilize more intricate details in the work. Breaking it up, she explains, creates more structural balance, since glass and the copper and leading between the pieces create significant weight. The panels incorporate a variety of stained-glass types, from pre-colored glass ordered from vendors around the country to fused pieces and glass she is staining by hand with a paintbrush. With a kiln, she fires the pieces to meld them together and reveal the colors that are part of the finished work.
Some of the panels have been installed at the veterans home, though the process has been slow, primarily due to supply chain issues delaying her receipt of materials. With the help of a young local artist named Kit DeCarlo, the goal is to complete all 98 panels by this June. Installation can be a time-consuming, complicated process; unlike paintings, which can simply be hung on a wall, these large, heavy pieces of stained glass must be laid out in their proper arrangement on a large, open floor—St. Mary’s Art Center has served as a good location for this—and strategically numbered so that they are installed correctly, and careful attention must of course be paid to ensure no damage occurs to the delicate pieces during transport.
What helped to inspire the work and continues driving her to meet her June goal was her first visit to the facility in 2020. “When I walked in, it was stunning,” she says. “The activity, the stimulation for them … I don’t know if people really realize how important that is, to never give up their dignity, their pride. These men and women have sacrificed their lives for our freedom, and we should really give back to them. And this facility helps do that. So with my parents’ incident and seeing how important those care facilities were, this project just feels like a completion of that … coming full circle.”
Cover image: A stained-glass piece that Corrie worked on with fellow artist and teacher P. McGrain. Photo: Kris Vagner
You can see more of Corrie Zam-Northan’s stained glass work on her website.