In: Judith Schaechter

Judith Schaechter | Eastern State Penitentiary | 2010-2011
June 16, 2023

Judith Schaechter | Eastern State Penitentiary | 2010-2011

Schaechter works in a medium – stained glass – that is often consigned to the past, a method that most would be surprised to find is still employed by various artists. In terms of this, her thematic choices for this series of works installed in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania being a re interpretation of an allegory (most notably executed in 1559 by Pieter Breugel the Elder) that dates back over a thousand years is a melding of material and intent that literally shines.

It’s installation in a penitentiary offers even further intersections about indulgence and discipline, redemption and rashness, but also harkens to how this was a form of art that was essentially populist, offering narratives and stories to any who encounter it, even in unexpected places that foster moments of unanticipated joy.

Judith Schaechter is a very accomplished artist. She has lived and worked in Philadelphia since graduating in 1983 with a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design Glass Program. She has exhibited widely across the United States, and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in Crafts, The Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, The Joan Mitchell Award, two Pennsylvania Council on the Arts awards, The Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and a Leeway Foundation grant, and she is a 2008 USA Artists Rockefeller Fellow. Much more about her impressive career can be seen here.

An excerpt from her statement about her work:

“I found the beauty of glass to be the perfect counterpoint to ugly and difficult subjects. A radiant, transparent, glowing figure is not the same as a picture of a figure (which reflects light). It’s a blatant reference to holiness or some type of “supernatural” state of being. In terms of my figures, although they are intended to be ordinary people doing ordinary things, I see them as having much in common with the old medieval windows of saints and martyrs.

They seem to be caught in a transitional moment when despair becomes hope or darkness becomes inspiration. They seem poised between the threshold of everyday reality and epiphany, caught between tragedy and comedy.

It seems my work is centered on the idea of transforming the wretched into the beautiful in theme as well as design. For me, this means taking what is typically negative — say, unspeakable grief, unbearable sentimentality, or nerve-wracking ambivalence, and representing it in such a way that it is inviting and safe to contemplate and captivating to observe (to avoid ending with preposition). I am at one with those who believe art is a way of feeling one’s feelings in a deeper, more poignant way.

Medieval windows sought to confer inspiration and enlightenment to those who would see it. Beholding a stained glass window can enable, encourage, and literally enact the process of being filled with light. It sounds like some kind of preternatural phenomenon, but it’s a physical fact. While one is busy identifying and empathizing with the image, one also physically experiences the warming, filling sensations of light. It’s so persuasive not because the pictures are convincing narratives but because the colors are overwhelming and the light is sublime…”

Besides the imposing – perhaps edifying, considering its location – Lent work, Schaechter has also interspersed smaller slim artworks in various sites in the Penitentiary, with titles that evoke emotion and consideration like The Weeping Chorus, Confines, Mother or Sister.

Prisons are spaces that we ignore in most conversations about society, let alone cultural communities: except for when the ‘debate’ rears its ugly head in the public sphere about whether they are spaces designed for rehabilitation or purely for a punitive joy that usually seems to have a vague stench of hypocrisy about it. In imagining what it would be like to stand in the presence of these works, the idea of ‘redemption’ – a word I am uncomfortable with, as like too many words it is used with a biased or easy intent – comes to mind.

More of Judith Schaechter’s unique artwork can be seen here.

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More