Painter transforms a working lamp into a collectible piece
Sometimes, a useful household appliance also is a work of art. In this case, random antique lamp parts pieced together and topped by a hand-painted ball shade qualifies as a light fixture as well as a collectible item. It’s functional art at its best.
This vintage lamp, called a banquet lamp because it usually was set on the sideboard in a dining room for lighting, is at La Maison Rouge Antiques, 418 22nd St. in Galveston. Store owner Theresa Dickerson bought it at a Galveston estate sale.
What makes this lamp interesting is the artwork and design. The white glass globe was hand painted by Texas artist Stella Shilling. Shilling worked for 23 years for Mathisen Antiques in Houston, painting lamp shades and china. She retired about 15 years ago.
The tall lamps are composed of the globe or ball shade, a lamp chimney — which is an open-ended, slender hurricane lamp glass — a tank cap and connector, the lower portion, known as the font, and the base.
When Shilling met the Mathisens, they had hundreds of vintage lamp bases and fonts that needed restoration and globes, she said. Shilling learned porcelain painting in Georgia when she was a special education teacher, looking for a hobby, she said. She was shopping at Mathisen Antiques when Gladys Mathisen hired her after seeing a sample of her painted lamps. Shilling estimates she painted more than 15,000 globes and shades in the 23 years she worked at the shop.
These retro lamps often are referred to as “Gone With the Wind” lamps because similar ones were featured prominently in parlors and living rooms in the famous 1939 movie. But the “Gone With the Wind” lamps have two glass shades: one at the top and one at the bottom, Shilling said. Tall lamps, like the one at La Maison Rouge Antiques, actually became fashionable after the Civil War in the 1880s and were popular in Victorian homes. They were large and ornate in the dining room on the buffet and were common in Galveston homes.
To decorate the glass globe, Shilling used mineral-based paint mixed with oil to the consistency of the type of paint sold in art stores in tubes. But this paint is fired in a kiln at 1,100 F, sometimes two or three times, depending on how many coats of paint and texture is desired.
“That paint is not going anywhere,” Shilling said. “It is there to stay.”
Shilling painted mostly floral designs and flowers with soft elegance on the ball shades, she said. Pink and ruby rose combinations were very popular. But on larger dome shades, she could be a bit more creative and paint garden backdrops or landscapes, she said. She even painted a golf course scene on a shade with beautiful brass hardware for a particular customer’s den.
Many of the lamps she painted originally had been designed to burn oil or kerosene, which explains the inside glass chimney. Earnest Mathisen restored and rewired lamps and the couple refinished and cleaned the hardware. Sometimes the bottom, or font, was composed of random antique and interesting-looking parts, combined to give the lamp a new life.
It wasn’t uncommon for customers to bring pieces of fabric or a tablecloth in and ask Shilling to custom paint a shade.
“It was a very enjoyable job for me, as it was always interesting,” Shilling said.