Master Class

Laurie Bieze

Stained-Glass Artist
70 years old
in Eau Claire since 1978

“I remember the moment I told my mother that I was going to be an artist forever,”

recalls stained glass master Laurie Bieze. Now 70, Bieze recalls the day when her kindergarten teacher gushed to her mother about the young girl’s artistic skill. “And on the way home I told her Mrs. Andrews was right, because I was going to be an artist my whole life,” she says.

Bieze is the rare person who has been able to make such an idealistic childhood dream come true. From the beginning, art was one consistent factor in a nomadic life. The daughter of an Army officer, Bieze moved around the nation – and world – attending 17 different schools before graduating from high school.

When I moved to Eau Claire and I did my first show here I had all female nudes.
Don’t do that in Eau Claire. Oh, was there a bunch of criticism, and mothers that were covering their little boys’ faces. // on the public’s initial reaction to her work

Some of her earliest memories come from Austria, where her family was stationed shortly after World War II. Her father was tasked with repatriating concentration camp survivors, and when appropriate housing couldn’t be found for the refugees, they sometimes lived in the mansion that had been given to her father. “They were shaky,” she says of the houseguests. “They had been through so much for so long, and yet they were also happy that they were free. ... I remember feeling warm towards them and liking them.”

Bieze is still seeking warmth in the presence of pain. She’s battled cancer for years, a fight that has sapped her strength and taken most of her hair. And while she isn’t actively creating art now – an acolyte, Brian Duerkop, has taken over her Banbury Place studio – she remains an artist at heart.

“What I found after the years started passing is that I had an identity as an artist,” she says of her youth. “And so wherever I lived, that was something I could always rely on. If somebody said, ‘We’re going to have to get somebody to design the cover of the yearbook, is anybody interested?’ I would always say yes.”

After high school, Bieze attended art school in Denver, where she learned to hone her style of soft, swirling lines. She and her cat left Colorado to see the country in a 1955 Ford, finding their way to Philadelphia, where Laurie found work creating window displays for Gimbels Department Stores. Later she did everything from creating top-secret flip charts for the military in Alaska to running the media center at Oregon State University. She married, had two children, and in 1978 – seeking yet another change – her family relocated to Eau Claire, where Laurie worked for a printing company.

But that job didn’t last long, and Bieze decided to go into business for herself as an artist. “I didn’t want to paint because there’s too much competition in painting, and you have to build a reputation for too long to make it work,” she says. In Oregon, however, she had done some design work for a stained glass studio, and she had found the medium easy to draw for. “It’s just kind of fun, and I love lines,” she says of the design style. “I’m really a line person – I love the way they flow. You can get such big flows when you’ve got a magic line going. It feels really good.”

Photo by Drew Kaiser

“I had this reader who read everything dramatically to the class, and he started reading Hamlet’s soliloquy, and it was ‘To thine own self be true, be not false to anyone.’ I heard that and it changed my life, and I said, ‘I can be whoever I want to be as long as I’m true to that person.’”
// on words that inspire her

Seeing an opening in the local art market, she set about learning to create stained glass. What began as a one-room studio in her Eau Claire home eventually turned into a studio and gallery on South Barstow Street after Bieze divorced. About 15 years ago, she moved into a studio in Banbury Place, where she became a fixture in a burgeoning arts community at the former factory. (Bieze is a founder of the annual Banbury Art Crawl.)

Bieze’s work – which has included windows (naturally), but also sculptures, mobiles, and lamps – is typified by sinuous, sensuous lines, something she attributes to her own aesthetic inclinations as well as her art-school training. Human forms – especially female nudes – are a favorite element. Her work graces countless homes, collections, and public spaces from Eau Claire to New Zealand. She’s created 23 pieces for Mayo Clinic Health Systems in Eau Claire (the former Luther Midelfort), while other clients range from Chippewa Valley Technical College to the royal family of Thailand, from local churches (including St. Olaf’s Catholic Parish and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation) to Playboy International.

Bieze embodies a combination of bohemian creativity and business acumen, and her advice to budding artists falls in the latter category. “You have got to make contacts,” she says adamantly. “You could be the best artist in the state of Wisconsin, and if nobody knows you’re there, they don’t care.” To become known, artists must get to know their communities: The people they meet and discuss their work with will spread the word. “Within three or four people down (the line), somebody’s going to say. ‘I’ve always loved stained glass.’ ... And out of that good conversation with one person, you’ve got a job.”

Bieze has created her career through talent, hard work, and self-assurance. From this has grown a community of friends and artistic admirers who have brought her success. Her advice about building a business network is eminently practical, but her life philosophy also embodies the poetic, as with a favorite line from Hamlet hanging in her studio and inscribed on a bracelet around her wrist: “To thine own self be true.”

“I heard that and it changed my life,” she says of the phrase, “and I said, ‘I can be whoever I want to be as long as I’m true to that person.’”

You have got to make contacts. You could be the best artist in the state of Wisconsin, and if nobody knows you're there, they don't care.
// on advice to young artists