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A Window Wrapped around the Sun: Interview with Susan Vreeland

— Author Susan Vreeland’s recent novel "Clara and Mr. Tiffany" (2011) tells the fascinating story of Clara Driscoll, a gifted artist and the creator of leaded-glass Tiffany lamps. In New York City, between 1892 and 1902, Driscoll and the women artisans of the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company created the leaded- glass lamps with mosaic bases which are so well-known today. Clara’s inspiration to design the lamps came to her when she saw a baptismal font cover made of leaded-glass and mosaic. It was her idea to reduce this form in size to make a lamp. She thought it would be lovely to “wrap a window of yellow butterflies around a sun…a light source” and that this design combined Tiffany’s love of light and color.

In a recent interview, One Book, One San Diego's Linda Salem asked Vreeland about the novel and her own thoughts about writing.

Tiffany told artisans that they should always look for beauty.

Tiffany wanted everybody to live with their eyes open, and appreciate the beauty in nature, and in man-made items. To him, nature was God’s unlimited work, and nature motifs were just as spiritual, as inspirational, as biblical images. Tiffany wanted the general public, not just the wealthy, to see Tiffany art convey the beauties of nature. When I see Tiffany windows in churches across the United States, I get a sense of spiritual upliftment from that.

Photograph of author Susan Vreeland.

Above: Photograph of author Susan Vreeland.

This was a period of emergence for women artisans.

Women could engage in craft studios without any loss to social standing, which is a quaint idea for us even to consider. Tiffany conceived of the idea of hiring women from Candace Wheeler, the founder of the Society of Decorative Art that helped women train in the applied arts. In witnessing women work for Wheeler, Tiffany saw their dexterity and their sensitivity to color. So, we have here a transition from women doing weaving and knitting in the home, to women producing textiles for the open market. Until that time, glass art was considered an activity for men only.

Clara’s bicycle seems to be an important part of her life during the time of this story.

Susan B. Anthony said that the bicycle did more to emancipate women than any other single thing. The bicycle was linked in the psyches of women at that time as a symbol of practical emancipation. Women could go places, wear their skirts shorter to manage the bicycle, and be independent.

What is important that we take from the novel about commerce and technology with respect to art in today’s world?

Even as forces of technology and commerce interweave, my message is that art is not left out. When I think how art education is eliminated whenever we get a budget crunch in the schools, I have to stand up and say that even when there was dire poverty ten blocks away from Tiffany Studios in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there was art and creativity, within.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany is a decidedly American novel.

The Tiffany lamp is an American icon bridging the immigrants, settlement houses, and the slums of the Lower East Side and the wealthy industrialists of upper Manhattan, the Gilded Age and its excesses. That’s why I had to have the Statue of Liberty in the book and the Emma Lazarus poem, The New Colossus. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” I can’t help but be moved by that, and that’s part of why this book is an American novel, not just a New York novel.

In the genre of historical fiction, how do you use both fact and invention to tell a story?

I use fictional scenes to illustrate the time, and the issues, and the sensibilities. For example, the march of the Tiffany Girls is my invention. I imagine Clara to have been so passionate about her love for the girls and her commitment to their livelihood, given other attitudes she expressed in her letters, that she would naturally counter the men's strike against them with some overt action. I had to bring that into the realm of reality by the practical measure of having them march. In letters to her family in Ohio, she did write about the men’s strike and the eventual resolution of it.

As a former teacher in San Diego, what message do you have for your former students and for your readers today?

Don’t let parenthood, or a job, or a full career stop your reading of literature. My advice to any student, whether he is headed toward a writing career, or headed toward a plumbing career, would be the same. Read good literature. Challenge yourself.

Vreeland makes her home in San Diego where she writes historical fiction about artists.

Other Books by Susan Vreeland include:

  • "Luncheon of the Boating Party" 2007
  • "Life Studies" 2005
  • "The Forest Lover" 2004
  • "The Passion of Artemisia" 2002
  • "The Girl in Hyacinth Blue" 1999

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