“The idea that suffering is meaningful & important is profound. My work is like the sewage treatment plant—I take the bad stuff and try to make it beautiful so we can all drink it.”
Judith Schaechter, acclaimed stained glass artist, is best known for her aesthetic that features images in states of lament, grief, and suffering. This subject matter has, at times, rocked the more conservative foundations of the stained glass world. Schaechter explains, “I think that my work, subject matter wise, it is really in keeping with the tradition of images of martyrs…the everyday martyrs. And it sort of shocked me that people couldn’t see that… The idea that art can be beautiful and disturbing at the same time is so hard for people to hold in their minds.”
Aside from the subject matter, Schaechter has pushed out the boundaries of stained glass through her technique. While Tiffany often employed layers of glass in his windows, most artists stack glass simply to change the color. Schaechter uses layers to create the image itself, adding detail and depth. Ironically, Schaechter’s signature style happened almost by accident. “I started stacking glass in layers because my light table was small and I wanted to get the pieces out of the way. I noticed that it looked really beautiful and I got excited by the relationship of the transparency of the different glasses.”
Now a master at her craft, Schaechter continues to find things that excite her creatively. At age 55 she is far from the final season of her career, but her late-style expression has been influenced by three significant turning points in her career.
Recognizing the Need for Growth
As an artist who garnered success and acclaim early on, Schaechter explains that she never had to consider the faults in her work. “I was like a child. I believed that my work was really good and that people would want to look at it. So I was able to put myself forward as a great and an important artist. And I look at that work now and am kind of mortified… I was in my 30s when I started being able to see that my work was somehow flawed. This was devastating to me, actually, but was an important part of my development.”
Part of this critical facility involves the release of creative control. “I have literally spoken to works in progress and asked them ‘What do you want? I’ll do anything for you. Just give me a clue.’ I think my whole process has been one of surrendering my ego time and time again. And without that, the work doesn’t reach the mystical heights of amazing. It just stays sort of locked in my quotidian concerns, which are not really important to others — and I do want my work to be moving to other people.”
A Life-long Commitment to the Same Problem
The second turning point that has influenced her late-style is a fidelity to the same problem and subject matter. Schaechter explains, “I’m not an artist whose work has changed radically… It’s like I’m stuck on this one problem — I’m just 35 years into the same problem: I’m trying to make a really excellent picture out of stained glass. People looking at the work would have no trouble identifying it as something of mine. But I find that I’m just as interested now in anguished women and pattered backgrounds. It is still fascinating.”
This commitment does not mean her current works are rote. On the contrary, now that Schaechter has achieved mastery, she has to be especially intentional in cultivating space for creative expression and play. “An important part of being a master means that you give up control and become spontaneous.” Schaechter explains that this wasn’t the case when she was a beginning artist and everything was inherently spontaneous. “Everything I did with glass was new for the first 10 years or so. If it wasn’t new to others it was new to me. And I was doing things differently and combining things in ways that hadn’t been combined before.”
Schaechter continues, “When I work on pieces now I try to leave areas really unresolved, so that I am playing with the glass again. Even if I’m not exploring technically, I’m exploring the specific design in a way that all the decisions haven’t been made ahead of time so that I can be spontaneous.”
“My Work is For Others”
The third turning point for Schaechter was the realization that her work involves others in a way she didn’t value when she was a young artist. “I really feel strongly now that my work is for other people. I never would have said that before. In art school you are groomed to not be a sellout. But I actually think I’m not making my work for myself. I‘m not pandering to an audience, but if my work isn’t resonating with other people I feel like I’ve failed….I want my work to be telling other people’s stories.”
Schaechter continues, “I’m embarrassed by talking about my feelings about this…but I want my work to help people who are in a state of despair feel their feelings again so that they can crawl out of it. I don’t know if my work could ever approach that task, but I want to make work that is not telling people to ‘cheer up’. I want to speak in that language [of suffering] about what is beautiful in life. I advocate a rigorous definition of beauty because I don’t think you can experience joy without knowing despair. They are co-dependent.”
This co-dependent dynamic can be said of much of Schaechter’s work: the juxtaposition of beauty and anguish, ego and surrender, fidelity and innovation. But just as she does with plates of glass, Schaechter layers these elements to create works of art that are both striking and profound.
The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.