Judith Schaechter – Native to her Imaginary World

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Judith Schachter at work

Art without craft is blind, craft without art is empty Judith Schaechter paraphrasing Kant

Tell me a bit about yourself and what brough you to work with glass.

I was a misfit as a child. This is so cliché, it strikes me as a near prerequisite for a career in the arts, but it is true for me. I wasn’t great academically, I was terrible at sports, I was a depressed loner, and I was neither fully Christian nor Jewish. My brother had been diagnosed with serious cognitive issues subsequent to encephalitis. By the time I was about 10, I was channeling myself into the arts, although I am not sure I really knew that it was possible to have a career as I didn’t know any living artists. My parents were very supportive, so it felt like green lights all the way, other than my vague conception of what being an artist might actually mean.

As for glass, I went to RISD to be a painter, which I really thought I was! But when I discovered glass, I knew, pretty much instantaneously, that I wanted to devote myself to stained glass exclusively forever. I am not sure how anyone can have such certainty, all I remember is that I did, and I was right! Things I can recall are that stained glass seemed to have no history and was ripe for innovation. There was no legacy of ten thousand masterpieces that needed outdoing or overthrowing. There was no pressure to be a genius or Avant Garde, the former seemed out of my reach and the latter of exactly zero interest to me. Stained glass was pictorial, but also it involved many techniques. As for painting instruction at the time, no technique was ever discussed, so I finished in a few minutes and threw them all out. The slowness of stained glass resulted in emotional transference. It took too long and was too great an investment of time and materials to just junk it. I have never loved anything as much as stained glass.

Also, stained glass has no smell.

Let’s start with your earlier work. I am looking at your stained glass from 1983 till 2003 and a lot of the works include a figure, mostly female, enclosed within a frame or a grid. Sometimes you have multiple narratives as in medieval panels, and sometimes it presents a single open-ended plot. I am looking at works like At Her Best (1997) and Autobiography (1999). What is the genesis and process of working on these two?

I am sometimes asked if my female characters are self-portraits. I think we see figurative art as having only a few possibilities: they are either us, or “the other” and I mean that they range from self-portraits to portraits of people who are not us, but also in the meta sense: self in relation to “other”. My pieces are not intended to be me. Not even “Autobiography”! However, I could never complete a work if I did not identify with the character at least potentially. And I am hoping, by extension, others also identify with them. To me, they are not characters, nor are they necessarily narrative. What they are, are dolls, proxies, or effigies. Figures which do the work of containing and expressing that which I am uncomfortable inhabiting in real life. They work very hard, these imaginary souls! They are sin eaters, actors, sewage treatment plants, guardian angels, and whatnot. And if they only worked for me alone, I would not feel good about making them.

Autobiography was conceived around the ironic notion of creating a completely false autobiography—it was for an exhibition of artist’s self-portraits. None of what I depicted has ever happened to me (although I have imagined bombs dropping on my head). Of course, I am always exploring technical and design ideas as well as narrative ones and although the subject matter may take center stage for many viewers, that part goes quick compared to the making of the background. I am not method acting the whole time.

At Her Best was intended to be a musing on sexiness and subjugation. I want you to fill in the blanks. The upper section is a play on Greek red figure pottery. The lower section, as often happens in my work, is about how fascinating floor tiles can be, as compared to actual life, for instance.

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“At Her Best Down on Both Knees”, 25” x 23” top x 19” bottom”, stained glass, 1997
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“Autobiography”, 25” x 21”, stained glass, 1999

In your body of work since 2004 you seem to break more boundaries, experimenting further with composition and figuration forms. For instance, I am looking at Wreck of Isabella, where the figure is more transparent, almost ghost-like and the patterns and border are prominent at the foreground. What is the idea behind this work?

When I was a child, I used to sit on a child sized rocking chair and listen to Pete Seegar, rocking madly to the banjo. My favorite record had the songs “Pretty Polly” (a classic murder ballad about a man who kills his pregnant girlfriend), “Jesse James”, “John Hardy” and “The Titanic Disaster Song”. I deeply imprinted upon this material! And I suppose, I sought to become an artist with a similar repertoire. I have a number of sinking ship pieces and of course, a zillion metaphors can be generated by the idea of a sinking ship. I remember having some comical and bitter arguments with my mother about sentimentality and cliché and probably if she were alive today, we would have a good laugh at how much the same our thoughts were, even though we disagreed. I was always the hard-ass, “cliché’s are awful and should be abolished” person and she was always trying to get me to swallow a lot of romantic sentimental smarm (and she was quite the hard-ass herself, by the way). Now I agree that cliches become tired and stale, but not because there is something inherently bad about them as subject matter but merely because they are resonant, and therefore overused. The task of the artist is to re-imbue them with fresh significance and power, not avoid them. So, sinking ships r us! Especially the ghosts of sinking ships! “Isabel” was my name in Spanish class, by the way. And I often identify with wrecks.

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Wreck of the Isabelle A”, 48” x 23”, stained glass, 2005

Your stained glass at Eastern State Penitentiary is a site-specific project. You seem to engage in a deep visual conversation with many art-historical references. Tell me a bit about the space, the ways you responded to it, and some of the layers of meaning behind this colossal project.

I first saw Eastern State Penitentiary when it opened to the public as an historical site, I think in the 1990’s. And from my first visit there, I wanted to put stained glass in the cells. I am hardly an installation artist! Almost the polar opposite. Getting me to consider the frame is hard enough, never mind the entire room! I am living deep inside those pictures and am almost completely uninterested in anything else. Eastern State was the only space I ever imagined my work in. The previous population of prisoners was my imagined audience. I wanted to make windows that would serve to comfort, entertain and inspire the imagination of those who have felt great despair.

The actual cells, designed on Quaker principles, hearken to small cathedrals. Each one has an aperture of light that implies a “spiritual” aspect that a person in the cell might find puts them in touch with a higher power. Or perhaps not. The greatest compliment I got on that installation is that one viewer thought the ornamental windows (there were two windows per cell—one figurative, one ornamental) were original to the building. I wish it were so—but no, I made them!

A stained glass window

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“The Battle of Carnival and Lent”, 56” x 56”, stained glass, 2011 , photo by Michel Raguin

In your more recent glass work the patterns often seem to take over the image, making it more abstracted, at times as overall patterns. In The Birth of Eve (2013), you literally split the composition in two: a fetus-like Eve is floating in a black void downwards towards an Edenic floral ground. And in Wild Life (2017) The vibrant pattern take over the whole image. What can you share about these two images and how do you see them in relation to each other?

As I mentioned previously, the subject is not always my main focus. I noticed that at some point the backgrounds started to take precedence and the figures themselves became less important to me. Also, I am a huge fan of natural history prints. They seem to tell us much more about art and imagination than actual observation, IMHO. I wanted to depict nature unnaturally. I wanted to invent my own nature. As a confirmed city inhabitant who doesn’t own a car, it’s pretty rare I get into real nature. And I think I have been on a long journey to completely imagine the world. I used to use more sources, but now I am better at seeing what is native to my own imaginary world.

“The Birth of Eve” is about the spontaneous generation of a human from the void. Spinning out from a aperture like at the beginning of a Bond-flick, show from a cannon into compete wholeness and dumped onto a beautiful garden. That’s how I see creation—either in the macro, big bang sense or the micro, art studio-sense.

Wild Life is about how wild life is! I am fascinated with visionary art. But I can’t claim to have ever had a single vision myself. I don’t see this stuff until I make it and am one of the audience myself. So I have to make it if I want to see it!

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The Birth of Eve” 57” x 31”, stained glass, 2013
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“Wild Life”, 44” x 40”, stained glsss, 2017

In Over Our Dead Bodies (2020) I get a sense of both erasure and turmoil. On top the floral and animal images are locked in shattered fragments, altogether swirling in a storm. Bellow, a rich red organic-like shape evokes a pool of viruses, or blood. It is an unsettling and powerful image. What would you like to share about it and how do you see it in context of your other work?

Ever since the election in 2016, many artists shifted their focus to a more activist stance, for obvious and righteous reasons. Although I would never claim to be a political artist, my work began to subtly address environmental issues. “Beached Whale”, “Immigration Policy”, “Murdered Animal”, “Cross Pollination” for example. As I worked on the tree of life image, it rapidly became about climate change.

I began calling the piece Over Our Dead Bodies. That was intended to suggest what life on this planet will be like after humans die off. Even though I feel a certain ambivalence towards my species, I have nightmares about the end of humankind. The upside is that our catastrophic meddling with the ecosystem will stop. One way to see Over Our Dead Bodies is of a spectacularly vivid, lush resurgence of animal and plant life.

Then, along came the pandemic to provide the perfect frame of mind in which to contemplate these ideas whilst the piece was being created. Taking long walks around the city I could see how fast nature begins to reassert itself! It was pretty amazing and this in only a few weeks! I saw a Downy Woodpecker! An Ovenbird! Kestrels! A Common Yellowthroat (not common in the city!) There was noticeably less bus exhaust, clear azure skies, etc. Will we take this lesson home after the pandemic? I sincerely doubt it. But the respite was profound. And it informed my piece. I decided any tree of life worth its salt would most assuredly reflect its origins in the soil. Although it’s pretty hard to discern, the underworld section has a “branch” pattern which is similar to the tree above.

A tree of LIFE must be predicated on the entire life cycle, not just the living part. As I have said a lot in the past (so much that I feel very repetitious saying it again) immortality is a terrible goal for a species. If we were immortal, there would be no need for love or caring. Love itself is an appeal to care about things and to care for them. We have this facility to ensure our mutual survival because we depend on each other.

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“Over Our Dead Bodies”, 40” x 60”, stained glass, 2020

You created and have been teaching a class titled Creativity and Inspiration, a master’s level seminar class at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. What is your approach to ‘inspiration’ and how does it link to ‘empathy’ in your work?

I am hopelessly addicted to the feeling of inspiration. Because it feels like it comes from outside myself, I do not understand it. It is a feeling of being completely subsumed by a passion, there is surrender, submission, glory, and awe, all at the same time. And of course, it all lasts about ten seconds, at most. It is a feeling of being “at one with the cosmos”, transcendent.

As for empathy, it’s almost the opposite. Instead of feeling blasted into outer space by some force beyond myself, empathy feels deeply inscendent. Instead of feeling at one with the cosmos, it’s a feeling of being at one with others. Both feelings must be important, or we wouldn’t have them. As for me, well, I find that the more I try to focus and force inspiration or empathy, the lesser I succeed! But they do happen if I stop gripping quite so tightly. Everything is beautiful, everything feels beautiful and meaningful to me, when I let it be. And also when I let it be, if you see what I mean!

Judith Schaechter lives and works in Philadelphia. Her work is collected internationally and is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Victoria and Albert in London and the Hermitage, among others. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005 and her work was in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. 1n 2013, Judith was inducted to the College of Fellows of the American Craft Council. In 2020-21, Judith’s work was the subject of a retrospective exhibition organized by the Memorial Art Gallery of Rochester, NY, which traveled to the Toledo Museum and the Des Moines Art Center.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com