Through the Looking Glass

Detail from Judith Schaechter's 2013 work Birth of Eve.

Detail from Judith Schaechter's recent stained-glass work, Birth of Eve.

Down the rabbit hole with stained-glass artist Judith Schaechter

By MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

World-renowned artist Judith Schaechter lives in a world of raging contradictions. She was raised atheist, but she works in stained glass—the medium of church windows—and saturates her work in spirituality. She's edgy, but she uses centuries-old techniques. Her works are darkly beautiful, but they glow in the light. In her hands, Medieval saints might wander into modern-day sitting rooms; a thicket of Renaissance-style flora might twine about a comic-book character; a swarm of locusts might invade Disneyland; a large-eyed girl might strike a passion-of-Christ pose on the moon.

The result? An acclaimed body of work that examines modern anxieties and trials in unexpected ways and challenges viewers to reconsider their notions about the divides between art and craft.

Schaechter spoke about her work during a visit to campus that included studio visits and a public lecture in the Weiss Center for the Arts. She is one of the nearly a dozen acclaimed artists, musicians, performers and writers to work with students on campus this year.

"It's great to be able to talk with her like this about the way she generates ideas and works through them," said Emily Lehman '14, one of 13 art & art-history majors who have met with visiting artists, in and out of class, throughout the year. 

World-renowned artist Judith Schaecter discusses life and art with studio-art major Tesha Chai '14. Schaecter is one of nearly a dozen acclaimed artists, performers, musicians and writers who served residencies at Dickinson in 2013-14.

World-renowned artist Judith Schaechter discusses life and art with studio-art major Tesha Chai '14. Schaechter is one of nearly a dozen acclaimed artists, performers, musicians and writers who served residencies at Dickinson in 2013-14. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Powering the motor

Widely considered the leading contemporary artist in her medium, Schaechter has works in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Art and Design (New York), Renwick Gallery (Washington, D.C.), the Carnegie Museum (Pittsburgh) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London). She was awarded Pew, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and Guggenheim fellowships, and her work was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and the 2011 Venice Biennale.

The reason for the buzz? In an already-small community of stained-glass artists, few, if any, approach the form with Schaechter’s Brothers-Grimm moodiness, painterly eye and fidgety attention to detail—a combination that rewires the conventions of her craft. 

Judith Schaechter's Birth of Eve (full view).

Judith Schaechter's Birth of Eve.
Courtesy of Judith Schaechter.

Unlike most stained-glass artisans, who paint on the surface of glass, Schaechter works with flash glass, a handmade material with a thin veneer of brilliant color on the surface and layers of paler colors beneath. She layers and sandblasts the glass to achieve desired colors, then creates gradations and shadings by etching the surface with handmade tools. Finally, Schaechter paints on and fires black-enamel details, adds washes as needed and assembles the finished pieces with thick swaths of copper foil.

It’s painstaking work, and a single pane takes an average of three months to complete. But as Schaechter told Lehman during a visit to the Goodyear Studios, the monotony can be meditative. “In fact, the more boring it is, the more I love it,” she said with a laugh. “Perfectionism is the friction that powers my creative motors.”  

'It's about love'

Discussions like these—about process, philosophy and the working artist's day-to-day life—are the heart of Dickinson's artist-in-residence programming. Like all studio-art residents, Schaechter delivered a public address, visited classrooms and studios, interacted with students and faculty in small groups and gave individualized critiques of works by senior studio-art majors as they prepared for their senior show.

During her conversation with Lehman, for example, Schaechter asked questions about Lehman's process and praised her use of stream-of-consciousness-like imagery. She also described her own struggles to balance meticulousness with spontaneity—a topic Lehman had thought a lot about—and talked about her love-hate relationship with glass.

Schaechter discussed the contemporary art market with Tesha Chai '14 and answered Chai's questions about prettiness and beauty in art. “Prettiness is simple and surface-deep, but your work is beautiful, because it gets to the messiness underneath," she told Chai, explaining that true beauty is "a lot like love, because it's deep and complicated. You can love and hate all at once.” 

Asked if she worried that art was a selfish pursuit, Schaechter rallied for the cause. "I think you have to follow your heart, because you will serve humankind so much better as an artist if you love what you do," she told Molly Leach '14, explaining that art created with authenticity resonates with viewers who have similar views or experiences, and can make them feel more connected, less alone. "In the end, it's all about love. That's the only sound reason to keep doing what we do."

Those words rang true for Leach, as she considered finishing touches for the most challenging drawing of her career thus far. “This is an incredible opportunity that I never thought I would have,” she said. “Her insights are priceless.”

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Published Mar. 17, 2014