From Trash to Artistic Treasure

By Beacon Staff

The adage “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” could easily have been coined for Columbia Falls photographer Cari Stiffarm.

When Stiffarm got word five years ago that the original windows from the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier were being removed and thrown away, she saw an artistic opportunity in what others were ready to disregard as junk.

Since then, she’s turned the windows into interesting photo frames and a lucrative side business. Of the 175 windows she originally rescued from the dump, only two are left.

“I never thought I would get through all of those windows,” Stiffarm said. “I kept them in a storage unit and after putting them in there was convinced I’d never see the back of that unit again.”

A native of Columbus, Ga., Stiffarm came to Montana as a college student to intern in Glacier National Park. Her first summer there she made only $4.25 an hour as a cashier. Still, she was hooked and returned the next two summers for internships, the final one turning into a full-time position in the park concessionaire’s human resources department.

Framed in the kitchen window of her Columbia Falls home, Cari Stiffarm describes the history of her using windows from Glacier National Park buildings to frame her photographs.

Stiffarm’s interest in photography flourished in the park, and when she wasn’t working, she’d spend her time hiking and shooting scenic vistas. So, when she heard rumors that the windows were going to be replaced, she immediately thought they’d make the perfect complement to her growing store of park photos.

But Stiffarm missed the first batch of windows. She had quit her job at the park to raise her new son, Gage, and by the time she got word that the windows were out, they were already loaded and on their way to the dump.

“My son was only about four months old,” she said. “I loaded him up in the car and went out to try and find the landfill in Browning. That was an adventure in itself; we drove around for hours.”

By the time she got there, nearly 400 windows had already been crushed and buried in the landfill. But when a second, smaller load of windows was removed weeks later, Stiffarm was ready.

“I contacted the maintenance guy and told him if he took them to my storage unit instead of the dump that I’d make him a picture,” she said. “I think he thought I was nuts. It was like, ‘You want to do what with these?’ But he brought them.”

One of Cari Stiffarm’s finished pieces is framed behind a historic window.

Stiffarm set to work stripping and scrapping the window frames and replacing broken panes. Because the frames were varied and odd sizes, Stiffarm would choose the picture to fit the frame, ordering the prints from a shop in New York that can customize sizes. During the summer months, she entered booths in local arts fairs to sell her work.

Admittedly someone who has a history of beginning and then abandoning side projects, even she wasn’t sure if her plan would work out.

The reception, though, was positive as locals and tourists were drawn by the unique look of the frames as well as their historic significance. The growing popularity of recycling helped, too. The windows and photos, depending on size and availability, have sold for anywhere from $175 to $895.

“I think a lot of people really like the idea of owning a piece of park history,” Stiffarm said. “They’re getting a photo that captures their favorite scenery in the park through the window of one of the park’s historic lodges.”

The Great Northern Railroad built the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier in 1912. The windows Stiffarm uses for frames were the originals. The wavy, float glass was poured, cooled and placed in Douglas fir frames on site. It’s a limited supply: Glacier Park Lodge, because of its location outside park boundaries, is the only lodge that could dispose of old materials.

As her store of park windows has dwindled, Stiffarm has begun to also use frames from other local buildings – old farmhouses, churches, whatever she can get her hands on. And the hobby that was just meant to keep her busy until her son was old enough for school seems likely to continue as a full-time career.

“The park windows lasted just the right amount of time. Gage starts kindergarten in the fall,” she said. “I think, though, that I’m going to try to see if I can’t get into other avenues of photography and keep this going.”