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Omaha Magazine

Valerie Leighton Turns Windows into Works of Art

Nov 01, 2021 10:54AM ● By Sean Robinson
Valerie Leighton behind sheet of blue glass

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Valerie Leighton has been nailing it as a stained glass artisan for nearly 30 years. Those who don’t know her can find her pieces—such as custom one-of-a-kind windows and installations to smaller pieces such as suncatchers and jewelry—all around Omaha. Operating out of a studio in north downtown’s Hot Shops Art Center, she commonly works with homeowners and businesses to create lasting pieces that are scattered throughout the metro area. 

She considers this her legacy. Beautifully designed, assembled, and painted by her, there are windows with "wow" factor peppered across this city—work that can be simultaneously enjoyed by those inside and others driving by.

“I love working with my hands, and I love creating. Plus, I’m very inspired by glass,” Leighton said. “It looks a certain way on a table then you lift it up and it’s entirely different. There’s a magic to glass.”

Before glass was her muse, there was photography. Leighton called the dark room at Central High School her second home as a teenager, spending hours developing photos for the yearbook and newspaper. 

“I wanted to be a photographer for as long as I can remember,” Leighton said. “I thrived in the dark room experience, but then everything went digital. I just didn’t transition well.”

It wasn’t until she relocated to Tucson, Arizona, after graduating from the University of Colorado in Boulder with a degree in anthropology that she was once again bitten by the creative bug. There she discovered stained glass.

While working as a receptionist for a custom homebuilder, Leighton took a stained-glass art class in a funky little studio she would drive by on her commute. Harkening back to her days snapping and shooting, she finally got to work with her hands again. Almost instantly, she was hooked. 

“I started doing it as a hobby at my kitchen table. Turns out, that’s the worst place to make stained glass. You know, because of lead exposure in the paint,” Leighton said. “We didn’t think of things like that back then. But I knew this was something I was passionate about…something where I could make beautiful things.”

When she moved back to Omaha in 1996, Leighton had a business plan and was honing her craft through workshops, stained glass conferences, and self-training. Her company, Painted Light Stained Glass, first operated out of her bedroom and has since flourished in Hot Shops.

Though she’s decades away from her days in the Central High dark room, her first creative love is still represented in today’s work.

“A lot of my designs are influenced by my photography background as far as composition, shapes, and color,” Leighton said. “Abstract is my go-to. When clients say, ‘I have no idea what I want,’ that’s when I get to really have fun.”

Several of Leighton's pieces are showcased in Andrea Zink’s 111-year-old Dundee home. The minute someone steps inside, they’re greeted with the color and character of Leighton’s work. It’s in the entryway, the living room, the dining room, and even the bathroom. Zink can’t seem to get enough. 

“Valerie pays attention to detail and tries to fit [each] piece to where it’s going to live,” Zink said. “She’s got an incredible eye for what she’s doing. Her heart is just totally in this.”

Displayed on the shower wall is a Leighton original featuring flowing shapes pieced together to mimic the look of a rushing waterfall.

“When she created that waterfall, that was all her design.” Zink said. “Valerie just nailed it.”

Leighton now handles one to two commissions per month, mostly residential. The labor-intensive process to create each custom stained-glass window totals about 30 hours. There’s meeting with the client, drafting a design, editing it to full size, cutting glass, puzzling it together, soldering, cementing, and painting. 

However, not everything she makes starts from scratch. Leighton also handles repairs. 

“Stained glass is often very personal to the client—those projects especially,” Leighton said. “I’ll have people bring in a window their grandfather made years ago that suddenly shattered. To be able to bring that back to life for them, that feeling is why I do what I do.”

While Leighton always finds opportunities to evolve as an artist—more recently, she also began operating a studio out of a barn in Oregon—her people-focused approach is as permanent as the paint she uses. 

“I want to bring joy to others with my work,” Leighton said. “I don’t want to overcomplicate things or try to make some grand statement. It’s more about the beauty of it and creating something that makes others happy.” 

Visit paintedlightglass.com for more information.

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann