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Woman at Work: Stained Glass Conservator Ariana Makau

Tell us about your company, Nzilani Glass Conservation.

We specialize in architectural art glass (both preservation and new pieces), providing safe, museum-quality services for private residences, historic buildings, and museums. Nzilani leads our industry in safe practices when working with lead and glass.

We collaborate with high-end metal and woodworkers, engineers, and general contractors to solve unique problems, often with creative solutions that pair “old-school” fabrication with modern techniques. Nzilani is also dedicated to making our profession more equitable by being accessible to underserved communities, challenging the notion of who is qualified to work in our profession.

Members of Team Nzilani (leftright): Jenna Kurtz, Ariana Makau and Lydia Henkel-Moellman. Photo Credit: Greg Tuzin

Members of Team Nzilani (left—right): Jenna Kurtz, Ariana Makau and Lydia Henkel-Moellmann. Photo Credit: Greg Tuzin

How did you come to your line of work?

My first job in conservation was an internship at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Antiquities Conservation. That inspired me to get a Master’s in Stained Glass Conservation. After that I worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I returned to California and started my own business in Oakland when I saw a need for museum quality work in the public sector. Nzilani Glass Conservation works locally, plus all over the country.

Nzilani glass ariana makau at work

Ariana at work. Photo Credit: Nzilani.

We’ve seen images of you dangling from some scary church roofs, etc. Do you have a good head for heights?

To be clear, we don’t ever “dangle” at Nzilani (*laughs)—you know safety comes first in our motto, “Be Safe. Have Fun. Do Excellent Work!”

Ariana in safety-harness suspended over a stained glass dome at Resurrection Oakland Church during conservation. Photo Credit: Nzilani

Ariana in safety-harness suspended over a stained glass dome at Resurrection Oakland Church during conservation. Photo Credit: Nzilani

We are often harnessed to scaffolding while wearing hooded & booted Tyvek suits, full face masks, nitrile gloves, and a hardhat (and let me add, the Dovetail Workwear gusseted crotch is everything on those days that I’m lying upside-down to reach a window or climbing up multiple stories on scaffolding).  Apparently, I come by this part of my job honestly. When I was around two years old and living in Kenya, I climbed a water tower in our town. Family lore has it that I giggled the whole time and managed to get 20 feet up before I was “rescued” and brought back to earth. 

Tell us about Nzilani, for whom you named your company.

Tabitha Nzilani Makau is my Kenyan father’s mother. She has never traveled outside her native country and is close to 100 years old. While dozens of relatives have the “Makau” name, only she has a company named after her. Traditionally the Akamba people give a child one name when they are born, and a second when they “anneal” later on in life (a glass word that means “set” or “settle”). My dad named me Nzilani (zee-LAH-knee) on the day I received my Master’s degree from the Royal College of Art in London. As a parent, I love that my kids know this story, and have a connection to that part of their heritage. Rural African women aren't often favorably presented in mainstream media. Every time someone utters "Nzilani" referencing our work, she is positively amplified.

Ariana Makau daughter twinning freshley overalls

Ariana and daughter Fiona twin in the Freshley overall.

Your work often involves places of worship. Do you have a spiritual orientation?

Our work is at the intersection of the spiritual and the secular. There’s a reverence for stained glass that transcends individual religious preference. Every space is sacred to the person who connects to that place through its windows, be it a private residence, a historic building or place of worship. I always feel like I am in a place of grace when working on a window. 

Do your clients ever give you license to explore representations of the figures you encounter in glass? For example, depicting Jesus with a darker skin tone?

It’s interesting you ask. As a woman of color in a white male-dominated field, the personal is political simply by doing what I do. Consider never seeing yourself physically reflected in the "fine art" that you work on, or in bid walkthroughs for a potential job. I am privileged and love doing what I do. But in the 20+ years I've been in stained glass conservation, only recently were we asked to change the face of a Christ child from an early Victorian aesthetic to a Middle Eastern visage.

nzilani stained glass restoration of baby jesus as middle eastern

Painted glass treatment described above. Photo Credit: Nzilani.

By documenting our work and platting the piece (putting another piece of glass over the original—which meant incorporating the original design) we leave a written and physical record of what was and what is currently acceptable.

There’s a newfound national interest in art preservation—Who does it? What deserves it? What comes to many people's minds here is monuments, but I view it through the context of my work in stained glass. At Nzilani, we are eager to engage in conversation that brings these questions to the fore, often starting with our diverse crew as a catalyst. 

Follow Ariana and her team @nzilani_glass

Ariana's pronouns are she + her.

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