On View at the Renwick: Judith Schaechter’s Stained Glass Works Shatter Convention

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According to one of Judith Schaechter's bios, she "single-handedly revolutionized the craft of stained glass through her unique aesthetic and inventive approach to materials." Judith Schaechter, while flattered by the description, wants you to know two things: one, she did not write that bio and two, she does not believe herself to be "some kind of Grand Poobah Savior of Stained Glass."  But Schaechter has, admittedly, made significant contributions to the field.

"I would say that my contribution has been both technical, as well as in terms of how one might use contemporary content as inspiration, without sacrificing the medium's spiritual essence," Schaechter says, "or something like that."

Born in Gainesville, Florida in 1961, Judith Schaechter grew up in Massachusetts, visiting art museums where she was drawn to "scary paintings," which would later influence her work. Schaechter began her career as a painter and later switched to stained glass, "a notoriously difficult medium," according to Andrew Wagner, editor-in-chief of ReadyMade magazine and co-curator of a contributing scholar to the exhibition, "History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011." And she's been shattering conventions ever since. Traditionally, stained glass is created by cutting the glass, painting it using the matting and tracing method and assembling it with lead. Schaechter's technique, by contrast, involves sandblasting, layering and painting the glass with vitreous paint and using copperfoil instead of lead, sometimes referred to as the "Tiffany Method." She also displays her works more like paintings, instead of in architectural settings. Judith Schaechter, quite simply, is an unintentional rebel. So don't ask her to define her art or deconstruct its meaning, the witty artist simply can't, and more importantly, won't. Instead, she prefers to let the pieces speak for themselves. Here, she offers a few thoughts on her process.

You describe yourself as an outsider. In what way(s)?

My parents were a mixed background couple.  My father is of a Jewish background (and he immigrated to the USA in the 1950s) and my mother, Episcopal (from Oklahoma), although both were atheists before I was born. I grew up in a largely Catholic area of Newton, Massachusetts and to the children in the neighborhood I was "Jewish." To Jewish children I was "Christian."  And that is only part of the story. . . I was also 100 percent nerd. I was not just bad at sports, but truly appallingly awful, (left handed, but right legged and also right eyed and left eared—I am hopelessly miswired— for one thing). My brother was strange to others because he was learning disabled. . .. There are many obvious and not so obvious ways I didn't fit in as a kid. I believe that this taught me to see way beyond any socially designated boundaries and to see them as artificial (albeit sometimes necessary). Think outside the box?  I'm so outside the box that first I'd have to pick one to think "inside" of!

How does this designation inform your art? Or your  chosen medium?

Well, I would not designate myself as either a "Fine Artist" or "Craftsperson," for one thing, but some sort of melange. I also can hold contradictory beliefs in my head without much conflict. I am very open-minded yet paradoxically very stubborn. And, I am fine being alone for long periods of time.

Why glass?

I have often wondered if I had a predisposition to the medium or if it’s all coincidence. All I can say for sure is that I knew almost instantly when I tried stained glass that that was what I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life. Amazingly, this turned out to be true.

The fact is I feel my medium is a separate and living entity with which I have a relationship not unlike a marriage. Glass seems to love me back unlike anything else I’ve ever worked with and therefore, no matter how bad things get, there’s always incentive to "try to work it out."  For some reason, my medium HAD to be glass and believe me, I tried other media! I truly thought and wanted desperately to be a painter—but it was not to be. Glass was the only thing I could bear to work with long enough to become fluent in. I strongly believe that stained glass is an unlimited expressive and virtually unexplored technical medium—when I get bored with glass it’s something wrong in my own head, a failure of my own imagination which would translate to any medium—so switching would be not only  futile but also a cop out.

I have a crisis about every three years or so when I not only feel I am in a rut with glass but actually tell everyone I am quitting.  Like anyone who’s  ever truly loved something, I regularly DESPISE IT WITH ALL MY HEART. But I always go back to it.

What, if anything, do you want visitors to take away from your pieces, or understand about your work that may not be immediately evident?

Let's just leave it that I want them to take away something!  Anything they may want or need that they might find there --that's for them!!!!

See more of Judith Schaechter's work in the exhibition "History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011," on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery through July 31. The show was curated by Renwick curator Nicholas R. Bell. The artists were selected by Bell, Ulysses Dietz, senior curator at The Neward Museum and Andrew Wagner. The exhibition also features the work of silversmith Ubaldo Vitali, ceramic artist Cliff Lee and furnituremaker Matthias Pliessnig.

This post was updated to clarify the role of the visiting scholars.

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