Mike Tharp: The pieces of their lives captured in stained glass

Martin Heiss, left, and Renne Bigelow in front of the beautiful stained glass window above the entrance way door leading into the Holy Cross Luthern Church on 5th and Bellevue Road in Atwater. Renne Bigelow and her class created this fine piece of art.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Martin Heiss, left, and Renne Bigelow in front of the beautiful stained glass window above the entrance way door leading into the Holy Cross Luthern Church on 5th and Bellevue Road in Atwater. Renne Bigelow and her class created this fine piece of art. Merced Sun-Star

Sometimes life is just plain strange.

And tragic. And wonderful.

Otherwise, how can you explain why a stained-glass window in a church forged a bond between two Mercedians who faced their worse loss -- death in their families -- and found a rainbow inside each other?

The stained-glass window bends the light into reverent prisms in Atwater's Holy Cross Lutheran Church.

The two people who made most of the window are Resse Bigelow, 47, founder and owner of Resse's Riginal Stained Glass, and Marty Heiss, 78, a retired Air Force noncommissioned officer.

Marty's wife, Georgia Ann, died in 2008 at 69. He wanted a memorial for her. The church was starting a construction project that included a stained-glass window. He cashed in an insurance policy and gave the money to the church. Other donors followed.

Resse, a native North Carolinian who started working with glass at 18 when she moved here, got the commission.

"I wanted to be part of it," Marty recalls, so he joined her free noncredit class through Merced College.

"He was very lonely," she says. "I had a need to help seniors and old people -- to give them a purpose, a place to come and feel needed and appreciated."

As the window took shape, section by section, because they could not stop for death, he unkindly stopped for them. Her father, Robert Pittman, had moved from North Carolina last July to live with her. On Oct. 13, he died. Seven months after his wife died, Marty's daughter Karri died at 51.

What now?

The stained-glass window became their focus, their shelter, their light in the dark.

She was mostly self-taught at the tough task of molding glass, color, steel, zinc, copper, lead, putty, solder and sweat into a form that reflects and channels light.

At first, after her dad died, she wanted to give up. "I can't do it," she said. "Yes, you can," he said.

They got back to work.

His first creation in her class had been an American Indian dream-catcher. Then, for his motor home, a jumping fish. (His business card, which still carries Annie Heiss' name, reads "No commitments! No schedules! Camping and fishing is our game! We're retired!!!"

Now he had a commitment. And a schedule.

For eight months, three days or nights a week, they worked on the window, across five banquet tables in her shop. Besides her Merced College classes, in 13 years she'd also acquired a clientele. One man in Reedley, for example, is paying her to decorate his swimming pool with a glass mosaic of a mermaid, shark, footprints and a sun dial.

But the Holy Cross window occupied her time -- and her mind. And Marty "filled the void." As they measured, cut, grinded, glazed and shaped the glass, "Marty was behind me," she says.

Her students helped: "It brought us together and saved the shop. They weren't going to let us sink." From Chowchilla, Mariposa and Los Banos they came.

Like every educational institution in the state, Merced College had to cut back. Her classes dwindled. The Great Recession discouraged paying customers. Her income since November fell by half.

Resse and Marty soldered on. They worked side by side.

They grew close enough to finish each other's sentences, to fuse big and small pieces of colored glass, to become foster father and daughter.

The circles were hard to get just right. It was a messy job. They had to be aligned. She started, as always, with a design, a pattern. Then she had to use her hands, whose fingers flex with muscles, to force the design from her imagination into the glass.

Near the end of the job in February, they applied a buffer to the glass sections. She rubbed her fingers raw. "I wanted to chase her off to get some rest," says Marty. She stayed.

Local contractors chipped in to help with the steel frames and sandblasted the words from scripture.

On the night they installed the window, they worked from 8 p.m. until 3 a.m. Then they stood outside the church and looked at what they had made. Tears flowed. "And I had to get up early for church," Marty chuckles.

The words in the circles are from Luke: "Blessed are those who heard the word of God and keep it." And Titus: "He saved us by His mercy and renewal of the Holy Spirit."

Now two more churches have approached Resse about making stained-glass windows for them. She's talking with the Merced Mall Car Wash about making stained-glass featuring the classic cars of owners who want to sponsor a window.

Beyond the business side, Resse hopes that more people will sign up for her classes. Kids to seniors can join. The students learn a craft and become friends. Husbands and wives divide the labor. One woman recovering from a stroke has made her little stained-glass pieces for six years. Students fix potluck lunches. They celebrate Thanksgiving together. They enter their pieces in the county fair and win prizes.

Marty has become famous as "the doughnut guy" who brings in a box every Friday. The ladies just love him.

Resse remains an artist. She's still learning. For Holy Cross she used a new technique to fuse the glass in a kiln. She also made bevels out of custom dichroic (two colors) which ignites iridescent flashes of color.

"This is my career, my job," she says. "I love creating things for people that might be there forever. Someday, my great-grandkids can say, 'Hey, my great-grandmother did this.'"

That'll be up to her son, David Bigelow Jr., who owns Mailboxes West in the London Square shopping center, and her daughter Shara, 17.

Meantime, two people who lost loved ones found another person in their lives to love. And in the work and world of artisans, they found themselves.

"You just never know," says Resse, "what's going to happen in your life. People are part of your life for a reason."


Resse's Riginal Stained Glass is at 1199 Broadway, at Third Street, in Atwater, (209) 676-0531.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or