ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Tiffany Studios is known for its stained glass lampshades. But Louis Comfort Tiffany and his artisans did a lot more than that. One of the lesser-known aspects of their work is on display at the Corning Museum of Glass in western New York. Karen Michel reports on the first ever exhibition of Tiffany mosaics.
LINDSY PARROTT: Trying every door...
KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Sometimes being a museum curator is being a detective.
KELLY CONWAY: It's so tantalizing from the outside.
MICHEL: Kelly Conway and Lindsy Parrott have been scouring archives and eBay, trying to track down Tiffany's glass mosaics, some of them hiding in plain sight all over the country. A couple of clues brings them to the Redeemed Christian Fellowship Church of Prophecy in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. A delivery man leads us to a side door and Pastor Dr. Kenrick McBean.
KENRICK MCBEAN: What company again?
PARROTT: It's from a museum - the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass and the Corning Museum of Glass.
MICHEL: After a tour scored by religious music playing throughout the church, Pastor McBean ushers us into the sanctuary.
CONWAY: Oh, my goodness.
PARROTT: Oh, my gosh.
MICHEL: For the curators, it was an "Indiana Jones" moment.
CONWAY: The decoration is here. It's just painted over. Look at the columns.
PARROTT: That's what we were hoping.
CONWAY: That's what we were hoping.
PARROTT: Oh, my goodness.
CONWAY: Look. You can see the ghosting of it behind the faux marbling.
PARROTT: Oh, you can.
PARROTT: This is amazing. You've just made all of our lives.
CONWAY: We have been dreaming about this for about the last year.
MICHEL: Twelve columns painted over in green, faux marble. But under a thin coat, you can't quite see, but you clearly can feel the green and orange and blue and red glass stones embedded in each column.
MICHEL: Overhead, a Tiffany stained glass window among the other cathedral-worthy windows.
PARROTT: It is still here.
MICHEL: Pastor McBean knew he had the window but not the mosaics, which is the point of the exhibition co-curated by Lindsy Parrott, director of the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass.
PARROTT: It's an enormously understudied aspect of Tiffany's career, and he is such a well-known name. But this is one facet of his artistry that has been under-explored, and the stuff is ravishing.
MICHEL: Louis Comfort Tiffany had gone on a grand tour of Europe, as befitted respectable gentry of the late 1800s. He was the son of the luxury jeweler. He'd seen the magnificent mosaics in Italy and came back with ideas, says the Corning Museum's Kelly Conway.
CONWAY: An inkwell that just has many different colors of iridescent glass to a beautiful mosaic fireplace that shows musical instruments to all of this transparent glass used in a lamp. They were in homes. They were in libraries. They were banks and churches and all kinds of public spaces. So Tiffany really did outfit the architecture of so many spaces in American buildings.
MICHEL: One wall of the exhibition is filled with a black and white photograph of the Tiffany studio. And notably, there are lots of women among the workers. Again, curator Lindsy Parrott...
PARROTT: Women were certainly working as artisans. There were certain aspects of the decorative arts or applied arts that were considered kind of genteel and appropriate for these young women to be employed in and pursuing. But this was pretty muscular work.
MICHEL: Visitors can learn how that work was done.
ERIC MEEK: So we're going to be demonstrating how sheet glass or plate glass was made a long time ago.
MICHEL: Eric Meek is the manager of hot glass programs at the Corning Museum of Glass and a glass artist himself.
MEEK: It takes an extremely skilled, experienced and really gifted team of glass workers. And a team of glass workers is always three to 10 people. And that's just to make the raw material. And then they took these, and they cut them out. And then the selectors that were putting the mosaic together would select and really create the painting using these color blocks. So the more you learn about Tiffany Studios and these mosaics, the more you're amazed.
MICHEL: You can even make your own or blow glass to feel part of a process that made Louis Comfort Tiffany a household name. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "GLIDER")