Let There Be Light
Stained glass artist Michael Pilla pursues his passion
By James Walsh
Photo by Eric Moore
Pilla, a former seminary student, is naturally drawn to finding a spiritual side to his work. He’s always worked with his hands—his mother was a seamstress and his father could take apart and reassemble just about anything. But his career as a maker and restorer of stained glass windows was more serendipitous than preordained.
After seminary, Pilla worked as a technician in a photography studio, but hated it. He had been dabbling in glasswork for a while, but it wasn’t until he visited an antique store on Grand Avenue in St. Paul that fate intervened. He came upon a partial stained glass window in need of repair, so he bought it and took it home to try to fix it.
Just as his father took cars apart, Pilla disassembled the window and began painstakingly making it whole again. When he was finished, he took it back to the antique store to show the shopkeeper. “He said, ‘Do you want some more?’” Pilla says. Just like that, a career was launched—though five years of trial and error followed.
“I learned by seeing what was good and what was bad,” says Pilla, who has no formal training in stained glass making. But commissions began trickling in. The Green Mill in St. Paul hired him to create a stained glass window, and others began to take notice. Today, his Monarch Studios creates and replicates windows in new and old homes, churches, and commercial spaces. Small, custom projects start around $2,000; the most expensive piece Pilla has ever created was a $350,000 window for a church in Kansas.
Whether he’s working on a window for a home’s basement bar or a project at the University of Notre Dame—Pilla’s passion remains the same. “To me, every space is a sacred space,” he says.
David Heide of David Heide Design Studio lauds Pilla’s “incredible knowledge of antique windows.” For a restoration of a Kenwood Queen Anne home, for example, Pilla replicated the original windows by using small, antique black and white photographs from the 1890s, says Heide. “With Michael, it’s sort of the whole package,” Heide says. “You don’t just get his eye, you get his passion for what he does.”
After more than 32 years, Pilla’s passion remains. “Every day, I ask myself, ‘Do I have it today?’” And everyday, he realizes there’s nothing else he’d rather do than find more beautiful ways to bring light into lives.
Pop QuizSignature footwear:
K-Swiss tennis shoes
CD listening to right now:
Soundtrack from “The Mission”
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James walsh is an education writer at The Star Tribune.
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