April 13, 2011
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.
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.
March 29, 2011
Ubaldo Vitali (b. 1944) is “arguably the greatest living silversmith in the United States,” according to Ulysses Dietz, one of the curators of the new Renwick Gallery exhibition, History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational. Vitali is a go-to-guy for commissioned work from high-end houses like Tiffany, Cartier and Bulgari, as well as for restoration of antique silver pieces. Stylistically, he combines traditional craftsmanship and technique with elements of modern design.
As an artist, Vitali is constantly aware of the ever-changing interplay of light as it bounces off of the surface of his works, or as he puts it, “each object reflects its own structure, its own soul, its own personality.”
Italian-born and trained, Vitali came up in the old-school guild system in Rome, later emigrating to New Jersey in the late 1960s. And he maintains those roots, still a member of a Roman goldsmith’s guild. In fact, he’s the only member allowed to reside outside of Rome.
Vitali’s pieces are featured in the exhibition, along with works by three other artists—ceramic artist Cliff Lee, furniture maker Matthias Pliessnig and glass artist Judith Schaechter—that share his sensibilities regarding updating classical technique with modern style. He’ll also be giving an artist talk about his work Sunday, April 17 at 1:30 at the Renwick Gallery.
I caught up with Vitali at the press preview and found him to vaguely resemble an older, more Italiano version of George Clooney in his suit. It was almost difficult to imagine the elegant gentleman in front of me pounding sheets of silver and making the precious metal bend and melt. But initial appearances can be deceiving, and Vitali’s enthusiasm for his craft, as well as his humble nature, shine through when he speaks.
What attracted you to working with silver, as opposed to, say clay, stone, or other metals?
I come from a family of silversmiths. I am the fourth generation. I went to my father and grandfather’s workshops since I was very young. However, all my studies were in the arts, and I was given the freedom to be a painter or a sculptor. But I guess it was in the blood. Silver was in the blood, and it always kept pulling me back.
You were trained in the old world-style guild system of silversmiths. Briefly, what is that like, and how long does it take to go from being an apprentice to a master?
The guild system is [now] more a symbolic thing. In the past, the role of the guild, besides controlling the metal, was to be insurance for the family. If you died young they would take care of your widow and the children. It was a system of support. Today we don’t need that anymore, so it’s basically symbolic. As far as apprenticeship is concerned, by the 20th century, you don’t have to be an apprentice in order to become a master, at least in my field. But most of the people that start in this business are young, usually ten or eleven [years old]. They go maybe two, three hours a day, like in internships here. Then if you feel you have some kind of attraction to it, these people will become more and more involved.
Do you think traditional silversmithing has become a lost art?
Yes and no. Actually, it’s practiced more in the U.S. than the rest of the world, because you have so many colleges that offer courses. However, whenever you make something institutionalized, it loses a lot…When people come out of an institution, even if they have a Master’s, they will end up teaching, because it’s very difficult for a silversmith to establish an economically viable business. It’s almost impossible.
Do you think technology has helped or hindered the process of silversmithing?
In my shop, I use the oldest techniques…But on the same token, I have the latest technology, from hydrogen flames to induction melting, all kinds of microscopy. You name it, we have it. There is no reason to shut the door to technology–You embrace it.
History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitation 2011 is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, located at Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W., through July 31. The show was curated by Nicholas R. Bell. The artists were selected by Bell, Ulysses Dietz, senior curator and curator of decorative arts at The Newark Museum and Andrew Wagner, editor-in-chief of ReadyMade Magazine.
This post was updated to clarify the role of the visiting scholars.