Judith Schaechter: The Cutting Edge of Stained Glass
For more than thirty years, Judith Schaechter has been applying avant-garde sensibilities to a once traditional art form: stained glass.
Judith Schaechter is a leading creator of stained glass. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Hermitage in Russia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, among other major institutions.
Born in 1961 in Gainesville, Florida, and raised in Massachusetts, Schaechter studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. She is credited with reviving and expanding the medium of stained glass, creating brilliantly colored and intricately designed artworks. Her creations were included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and the 2012 Venice Biennale.
She teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the New York Academy of Art.
Judith Schaechter is one of the world’s leading exponents of large stained glass, a medium she’s been instrumental in helping to revive.
Judith Schaechter: See, the good thing about stained glass is it died prematurely. It didn’t live up to its potential in its time, so there’s stuff that can be done with it.
AJC: And you’re doing it.
Judith Schaechter: And I’m doing it.
AJC: How good are you now?
Schaechter: How good am I now?
AJC: Compare yourself with, I don’t know, the great stained glass artists of old. Renaissance, Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Schaechter: You know I have a tendency to be very grandiose in my own mind.
AJC: Go for it.
Schaechter: I think I’m the best.
Schaechter: Because I think that I have actually, well, I’m one of the best. See? I’m backpedaling now. Now I’m getting embarrassed. I think that I have stretched the form. Other people stretch the form, too, but not very many. I would say it’s a low stakes proposition to stretch the form in stained glass. I wish more people would be interested in doing that. I can see why they’re not. But it’s kind of easy to be a big fish in this pond. I am a very competitive person. I went in to be the best and I think it’s just as egregious if I were to say, you know, “Oh I’m just kinda, like, okay.” Because I’m better than okay and there are people who are in this medium and I don’t wanna insult them by saying that I’m average.
Schaechter’s work has been exhibited in some of the world’s most prestigious collections, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, London’s V&A, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Smithsonian Institution, making her rightly one of the most highly regarded artists in her field. Historically stained glass windows were created by artisans for ecclesiastical settings where they were used to illustrate holy texts.
AJC: Does what you do always have to have a story? Does it have to have a meaning beyond what we see in the work?
Schaechter: One of the things I’ve come to feel very strongly about is this privileging of ideas and what I take people to mean when they say the word “ideas” is some sort of a verbal construction. And what I find typically is much more constructive for me is to draw, to work through the materials and the process towards an idea. I don’t have an idea and then make it. I’m not separating labor from management, here. I really think art is one of the big opportunities in life to solve the mind-body split. Art is right at the nexus of those things and to favor concept over process is problematic. I also think of craft in my case as an extreme sport. I am not messin’ around. I deliberately make it as hard as possible ’cause I’m just that kind of a weirdo.
AJC: You really do, though. You go through process multiple times.
Schaechter: Yes. I have undiagnosed ADD and this just works for me. I feel more in sync. The more processes the better. And one observation I made was that when I was a painter a long time ago, painting was taught when I went to school basically with no technique whatsoever. It was a confrontation between yourself, your creativity, and a canvas. And it was very simple to fill up the canvas with stuff and then it was very simple to destroy it and throw it in the trash. At the same time I was taking a glass class and it literally took a week to get the glass to do anything. With hindsight, I think what happened was that I developed feelings. I transferred my emotions onto this glass. I was invested in it so I wasn’t gonna throw it out because at that point I had done a lot of work to it and in that way I was able to sort of gain purchase on this stuff and it was miraculous because I had done so many different things. I had done a lot of sewing. I had done sort of proto-sculpture-ish kind of activity. I certainly had painted for years, but nothing, I never gained fluency. Once I became fluent with glass, which I think happened just by accident, I was not going to give it up. That feeling is extraordinary. It was like finally being able to say something.
Schaechter: In my 30s I developed a critical facility. Before that I loved everything I did and almost like when I finished it I didn’t recognize it as my own. I would look at it and went, I remember saying this, “Who made you?” And I was really pleased as punch with my stuff and then I grew up and it was an awful thing. I’m glad it didn’t happen in art school.
AJC: So does stuff ever get abandoned before it’s finished then because the critical faculties kick in and go you’re on the wrong road here, girl?
Schaechter: Every piece you see is a decision tree where nine million things have been abandoned. It’s a battlefield strewn with a billion corpses. It’s ugly. So every piece represents a lot of things that didn’t happen. That’s embedded in the work. Basically I end up with something is what I’m saying. But it can be a heck of a road getting there.
But once she does get there, the end result is beautiful and this is no accident.
Schaechter: I always felt very ugly and I was told when I was little by other kids in class, I was teased for being ugly. And I remember when my teachers in art school said “Beauty doesn’t matter,” I remember thinking, but I can make beautiful things. I can’t be beautiful but I can make something beautiful. And I can, like, seduce someone with my fabulous object, and I’m not gonna give that up just ’cause some professor tells me beauty doesn’t matter. Right? You and what army? And I definitely understood that I could be beautiful by proxy. So, that’s one of the reasons I think aesthetics matter to me. I will always try to make beautiful artwork. I can’t imagine suddenly, and I know that some people think my work is ugly, but they’re just wrong.
And though her work doesn’t deal with the religious themes common to stained glass, Schaechter says she does find a power greater than herself in her art.
Schaechter: I’m not a religious person at all, but I do feel spiritual leanings and I understand what an unbelievable cliche that phrase is. I don’t know how to explain it, but having felt real inspiration, it feels so like it’s coming from outside yourself and that to me was what I would call mystical. My imagination is limited. That’s why I don’t like ideas so much. I can make my ideas. That’s the easy part. It’s making them better than my ideas that I wanna do. And that’s what’s so exciting and that’s what’s so hard because that is like, you know, going through a wormhole. That’s outer space. Like, how do you get to a place where you don’t know where the place is? But that’s what you have to do and when you get there, look my hairs are rising on my arm. When I get there, it’s extraordinary.