One of the leading ecclesiastical artists in the United States, Sylvia Nicolas is a member of an illustrious and prolific stained glass family. She is the fourth of five generations specializing in the liturgical arts and the daughter of Joep and Suzanne Nicolas, both famous artists who immigrated from the Netherlands to the U.S. in 1939 to escape the rising tide of Nazism. Joep Nicolas was sometimes referred to as “the Father of Modern Stained Glass.”
In 1996, Sylvia Nicolas completed 13 windows for the Basilica of St. Pancratius in Tubbergen, the Netherlands, for the Four Generations Foundation, which contains windows made by her great grandfather (Frans Nicolas, 1826-1894), grandfather (Charles Nicolas, 1859-1933) , father (Joep Nicolas, 1897-1972) and cousin. Her son and fifth generation Nicolas, Diego Semprun Nicolas, created the remaining 10 windows in 2002, finalizing this unprecedented multigenerational project.
As a young artist, Nicolas was interested in costume design. She attended the Lycée Francais and the Dalton School in New York, the German Institute in Rome, and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques and Académie de la Grande Chaumière, both in Paris. She studied with Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo and Ossip Zadkine, French-Russian artist known for his figurative-Cubist sculptures. Throughout her career, Nicolas has designed costumes and sets for ballet productions in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Paris, France, and Manchester, New Hampshire.
From her studio in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, Nicolas has created commissions for monasteries, churches, hospitals, government buildings and public spaces. A few of her most successful stained glass projects include 10 windows for the Church of the Annunciation, Washington, D.C.; two large windows for St. Mary’s Chancery, Wichita, Kansas; 24 windows on the life of St. Benedict for the refectory of St. Anselm Abbey, Manchester, New Hampshire; 23 windows for Saints Philip and James Church in St. James (Long Island), New York; 47 windows for St. Dominic Chapel, Providence College, Providence, Rhode Island; and 19 windows for St. John’s University, Queens, New York.
In addition to her work in stained glass, Nicolas is skilled in a wide range of other media including oil, pen, conte, sculpture, mosaic and mosaic garden sculpture, concrete relief and painted tiles. Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, is home to three of her bronze sculptures and a large mosaic in the sanctuary chapel.
The recipient of The 2019 Lotte Jacobi Living Treasure Governor’s Art Award and the 2012 Barnes Lifetime Achievement Award, Nicolas is currently the focus of a Virginia Raguin essay to be published in an upcoming book about Franz Schroeder. Raguin is also working on a video interview of Nicolas for the American Glass Guild, an organization for which Nicolas serves as Senior Advisor.
In this conversation with Nicolas, the 93-year-old artist discusses recent windows created for St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Charlottesville, Virginia. She also reveals the secrets to her painting process, whether stained glass is an art or craft, and the importance of iconography and mythology in her work.
No matter the medium, Nicolas expresses the humanity of her subjects. Her focus on people, mingled with talent in a variety of media, allows her to produce art both delicate and evocative. “Foremost it is people I am concerned with, in whatever context. I’m a storyteller, really.”