By Cheri Rae
Artist studios abound in and around Santa Barbara, especially in Painted Cave, where Nadya Penoff lives and works. But hers is likely the only one dedicated to the art of creating Byzantine-style stained glass windows for installations in Orthodox churches from Kauai to New Jersey to Kenya.
Her strongest artistic influence is Theophanes the Cretan, a 16th-century monk whose distinctive frescoes and icons in the monasteries on Mount Athos and elsewhere around Greece are considered among the finest in the world.
In her airy atelier, she creates sacred works in this ancient art form out of carefully selected sheets of hand-blown antique glass and strips of lead. When the artwork requires fine details—as in the faces of saints—she hand-paints them onto glass that is then fired at 1250 degrees.
St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church was her first big commission. In 1987, she fashioned 40 windows of alabaster and iridescent glass—etched, jeweled and beveled—for the breathtaking sanctuary nestled in the foothills of Santa Barbara. “On St. Barbara’s Day, December 4, when the sun is very low, one of the bevels shines right on the face of the icon screen of St. Barbara. I wish I could take credit for that, but I can’t. It just gives me chills,” she says.
She’s currently working on 14 windows that are 16.5 feet tall and 4 feet wide, for a church in Philadelphia. The huge windows depicting many saints—including a hauntingly beautiful St. Barbara—are shipped in pieces, three panels per crate, custom-built by a carpenter. Penoff keeps her fingers crossed that they arrive safely on the other side of the country.
In her commissions, Penoff typically works with architects, contractors, priests and big church donors—usually all men—while retaining her feminine perspective. In an art form traditionally pursued by men, she admits that she feels a special responsibility when painting the faces of female saints in the distinctively flat and rigid Byzantine style. “I try to make their skin a little more delicate color, choose glass that’s a little more pink. I make them distinct from one another by changing their expressions a bit, changing the shape of a mouth, making their expressions a little more loving.”
It’s a profound responsibility to create the windows of a sacred space. To be in control of the amount, direction and intensity of light that’s both transmitted and reflected. To create a warm glow in the interior and a beckoning presence in the exterior. To craft the interplay between moving sunlight and the prismatic effects of sunbeams and rainbows.
“I try to look at the big picture,” Penoff explains, “to consider all the artwork in the church, the iconography, the building design and how they complement one another. To me, it’s more about the whole effect than the single window, making the whole sacred space harmonious.”
She reflects, “I want the windows to help put someone in the frame of mind to have a feeling of awe, to experience a richness and an exquisiteness that allows them to be more receptive to a spiritual connection so that their sensibility is changed when they enter the sacred space. That’s what I care about.”
You may have seen some of Nadya Penoff’s colorful secular work in the community. For more than a decade, she taught Adult Ed classes through Santa Barbara City College, working with her students to create the nautical-themed window at Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, the inspirational doors at Transition House and an installation at Direct Relief International. Her work decorates the homes of several recognizable Hollywood actors and rock stars, and provides a bit of reading whimsy in the children’s section of the library in Vandenberg Village. Her artist’s statement dedicates that bright window to her son and all who struggle with dyslexia.
This story originally appeared in the winter 2015/16 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.