- For more than thirty years, Judith Schaechter has been applying avant-garde sensibilities to a once traditional art form: stained glass.
- In the past century or so, tattoos have gone from being a mark of the outsider to a more socially accepted expression of self.
- With a voice and stage presence as big as his personality, Eric Owens is among the most celebrated bass-baritones in the opera world.
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.
Eric Owens is a celebrated bass-baritone opera singer who has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, English National Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Canadian Opera Company, among other major companies.
Born in Philadelphia in 1970, he studied piano and oboe before earning a BA in vocal performance at Temple University and a master’s degree from the Curtis Institute of Music. Known for his interpretations of both classical and modern opera, he made his debut at the Met in 2008 in the contemporary piece Doctor Atomic by John Adams. He received the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording for a recording of this opera and the 2012 award for singing Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Owens is director of vocal studies at the Curtis Institute of Music.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate. For more than 30 years, Judith Schaechter has been applying avant garde sensibilities to a once traditional art form, stained glass.
Judith Schaechter: I can make my ideas. That’s the easy part. It’s making them better than my ideas that I wanna do.
In the past century or so, tattoos have gone from being a mark of the outsider to a more socially accepted expression of self.
Julian Siggers: It’s probably now more unusual for a 20 year-old not to have a tattoo than to have one.
And with a voice and stage presence as big as his personality, Eric Owens is among that most celebrated bass-baritones in the opera world.
Eric Owens: There have been times when I thought, oh my God, that was terrible. And people think, “Ah! “That was amazing.”
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
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.
In today’s highly individualistic society, tattoos are an increasingly common mode of self-expression. In recent years they’ve moved from the fringes of society to the mainstream. Although their wider acceptance is a recent phenomenon, tattoos themselves are by no means novel. The oldest tattoos on record belong to a five and a half thousand year-old man discovered in the Alps. Anthropologists believe these tattoos, which consist of a series of dots and lines, were for healing because they were found on parts of the body afflicted with arthritis. Although using permanent ink as a remedy may seem far removed from artistic adornment, director of the Penn Museum of Anthropology and Archeology, Julian Siggers, says that this only hints at the wide range of purposes tattoos have served.
Julian Siggers: If you think of the body, it’s our first walking canvas, you know. It’s an obvious thing to decorate. For the Greeks and the Romans tattoos were a sign of slavery or a mark of punishment, but Herodotus, our first historian, also notes that many of Rome’s enemies like the Picts, the Gauls, the Celts, they were a source of enormous pride and a source of identity and prestige as well. So, it varies hugely across time and space.
Tim Pangburn: Yeah, at one point the term artist wasn’t used with tattooing.
Though he’s also a fine artist, Tim Pangburn makes his living running his own tattoo studio.
Pangburn: It kind of became a movement in the ’90s. Like, that was the thing to do. A hundred years ago it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t classically trained artists doing tattoos. It was like a craft. You would learn it and you would try to make a quick buck with it and that was the whole point of it. So, a hundred years ago? Yeah, I probably would’ve been painting ’cause I don’t think the lifestyle of tattooing back then would’ve appealed to me. It was a lot rougher in the old days.
And though tattoos used to be reserved for prisoners, sailors, and other social outcasts, they’re now so commonplace as to render them impotent as signals of rebellion.
Siggers: So many people were trying to do the same thing at the same time and actually in effect become the mainstream. I mean, it’s probably now more unusual for a 20 year-old not to have a tattoo than to have one.
And though many of today’s tattooed generation choose deeply meaningful designs, a growing number of the inked are interested solely in the aesthetic value of these permanent accessories.
Client: I am from Connecticut. I am not by any means trouble or really like a juvenile or anything so it was kind of like a tongue in cheek, funny thing and I just liked the design.
Client 2: So I just kind of like them ’cause I like, you know, kind of pretty looking art. It’s just a way of expressing yourself. It’s a way of kind of owning your own body in a sense.
Pangburn: I started getting tattooed just because I liked the imagery and I wanted a lot. I just wanted to have a lot of tattoos. You start kinda collecting after a while. Especially when you get a lot of tattoos you’ll start being like, “Oh, I have a piece from this guy and I have a piece from so and so.” Then it’s not just tattoo artists that do that. There’s a whole, like, culture of collectors that travel around and get tattooed by people.
AJC: You’re a gallery.
Jasmine Morrell: Yeah, you’re a walking gallery.
For tattoo shop owner Jasmine Morrell, tattooing is as satisfying as any fine art endeavor.
Morrell: I think part of it is intention. This is a beautifully crafted tattoo that I’m creating and I don’t want people to just look at the technical aspects of it. I want them to look at it, step back, and see that it’s not just another tattoo, but it’s a piece of art on this person’s body and that it belongs to that person’s body. It was for their body for that spot to be part of them.
Pangburn: Your body has kind of a natural movement to the way your muscles are positioned that kind of lends layout of a tattoo to a specific body part. Japanese tattooing is completely based in that. It’s completely based in form and flow and position on a body so it accents the natural contours of the body.
Morrell: I think studying anatomy is important for someone who wants to be a serious tattoo artist. I think it’s good to know how the body works and how the muscles work and also acknowledge that it’s not everyone’s body and you have to take into consideration that each person is going to have a different arm, different leg, a different back, so you need to get acquainted with that person and not just anatomy as we know it.
But locating the right position isn’t the only difficulty presented by a human canvas.
Pangburn: The biggest challenge with working on skin as a medium is the fact that over time it’s going to age and the pigment under the skin is gonna spread out and blur. That’s why when you see, like a, you know, 80 year-old guy with a bunch of tattoos, they’re all just like blobs. It’s because they were probably nice crisp tattoos when he was 22. Every tattoo at some point is gonna look like that. And, you know, when you get tattooed, you’re just kind of accepting of that.
But the nostalgia for a youthful tattoo is not confined to its bearer.
Morrell: It’s their tattoo, but it still reminds me of a time in my life. So, I could see someone else’s tattoo that I’ve done five years ago and remember where I was mentally, physically, how I was going about my practice. What are the things I’d change? What are the things I would never, never do again? I’m never unhappy with things I’ve seen in the past, I just see how I’ve changed or how I’ve improved or how things have come along.
Pangburn: As far as me needing that artistic growth, that’s absolutely necessary and any tattoo artist will say the same thing. Everybody wants to grow. Everybody wants to be better and that’s one of the reasons most people work in several mediums because when you switch back and forth between artistic mediums, it kinda brings a new perspective to the other ones when you go back to them.
Morrell: I do a lot of water coloring and I find a lot of similarities with technique and how I carry that out.
Tatooists are artists with a range of creative skills who, like all commissioned artists throughout history, must find a balance between the wishes of their client and their own personal artistic expression.
Pangburn: It’s not a hundred percent my artistic vision because I’m doing something for someone else. So it’s like they’re commissioning me for work. I work in a style that we call new school and it’s heavily based in illustration influenced by cartoons, comic books. It’s a kind of silly, a lot of times there’s, you know, goofy stuff going on, animals doing people things. It’s very lighthearted, fun imagery.
Morrell: A lot of people come to me with a basic idea and then they give me some sort of direction and tell me to just kinda do what feels right. I mean, they trust me. That’s always something that is very nice, but something that is very earned. And I never wanna break that bond.
And though the bond between tattooist and client may be transient, the results of their interaction become a uniquely permanent and poignant possession.
Siggers: There’s an interesting story of an anthropologist who actually was working in Borneo and had some traditional tattoos done on him and he comes back to the States and his house burns down. And he basically comes out of this house and he’s just wearing, you know, a pair of jeans and he suddenly realized the only possession he can really take with him is actually his tattoos, which is a really interesting way of looking at it. It’s a form of modification that is yours forever and grows old with you. It’s almost comforting.
Eric Owens is one of the most celebrated bass-baritones in the opera today but he’s aware that sometimes what he hears and what the audience experiences can be very different.
Eric Owens: There is almost no self-awareness as to sonically what’s going on out there. There’ve been times when I thought, “Oh my God, that was terrible.” And people say, “Ah! That was amazing.”
Happily, Owens understands that a great performance requires him to transcend his surroundings.
Owens: I’m aware of when I am and I’m not in the moment and I know when you get into that zone and you’re listening and not worried about some note that’s 20 minutes down the pike. You’re just, someone’s talking and they’re talking to you and you’re listening to them. But you’ve got all that other stuff going on, too. It’s like, you know, it’s like I’m listening to the orchestra, too. I make sure I got my eye on the conductor in my periphery and you have to, I mean, the multi-tasking that goes on while you’re up there would just, like, totally blow people’s minds.
AJC: There’s an effortless quality to what you do. And I’m not saying that you don’t have to put a lot of effort into sounding the way you sound, but you sound like you don’t have to. You can do this first thing in the morning. When does that come along?
Owens: Oh goodness, I’m still tryin’ to get that together.
Owens: Oh, I mean it’s, that feeling of it being effortless in the right places in your mechanism, that was a long time. That was a long road, just the idea of everything being as free as possible all up here and all of the work was happening here. And it took me quite a while to sort that all out.
AJC: But you are naturally, you’re singing in your natural speaking range. I mean, I’ve spoken to—
AJC: There are basses who walking around who speak—
AJC: Well, they speak tenor and they sing basso.
Owens: Right, right. Right.
AJC: But you’re…
Owens: But I’m—
AJC: This is your natural place.
Owens: This is my voice. And all I need to do is slow this down to start singing. There’s not really a gear shift that needs to take place. I tell students sometimes, I said it’s like in The Music Man, it’s like: ice cream. Yes, singing is just sustained talking. And it’s easier for, I guess for lower voices, but—
AJC: Yeah. Because also there’s less energy, right? To hit a really high note on a high range?
Owens: I think one needs to not feel like it’s something that they have to hammer away at or that it’s a struggle to get up there because if you think it’s a struggle it’s going to be and then you start doing all of these things and you take this breath that’s, “Okay, damn it, I’m gonna.” You know, and the best thing you can do is just, and just let it out.
AJC: Let it out.
Owens: And that’s one of the hardest things, though. I mean, in life. Being simple. Simplicity doesn’t mean easy.
AJC: It’s not easy.
Owens: And it doesn’t mean uninteresting either.
And if contending with the sheer volume of full orchestra seems daunting, you’re right. It took some time for Eric Owens to evolve his technique.
Owens: The natural tendency is to try to—
AJC: Sing over them.
Owens: Right. And that’s the worst thing ever, especially if it’s something dramatically intense and if your character’s angry and you have to convey that anger through the text without it going to your voice and becoming a shouting match. And that’s hard to accomplish at times. I mean, even now I’m still trying to. It’s like, Eric. The worst thing you could try to do is try to—
AJC: Out-sing an orchestra.
Owens: Right, “Bull in a china shop” your way through this orchestra.
AJC: So how do you do it, then?
Owens: The best thing to do—
AJC: You go low and let them react to you.
Owens: Well, I tell ya… The more you just let it flow unencumbered and sing it like you sing Mozart or Bach, it’s gonna carry over the orchestra and it’s counterintuitive. You know, where less is more.
But Eric Owens is well aware that in this day and age his artistic obligations don’t end when he leaves the stage.
Owens: Here lately I think you need to go above and beyond, not simply because you’re trying to further career, but simply because the arts are in a state where, you know, the status quo isn’t going to cut it.
And so, Eric Owens continues to devote all of himself to the art form he loves.