Judith Schaechter, “Beached Whale” (2018); courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, Harlem, and the artist. The work, which the Des Moines Art Center has bought for its permanent collection, features a belly-up, dead whale with a man-made net wrapped around its body.
Writer: Christine Riccelli
Over the years, Judith Schaechter has received wide acclaim for her groundbreaking work in bringing stained glass into the 21st century. Within moments of stepping into the Des Moines Art Center’s new exhibit, “The Path to Paradise: Judith Schaechter’s Stained-Glass Art,” you realize that that almost feels like an understatement.
Hung from the wall in light boxes, the 45 riveting panels assuredly are unlike anything you’ve seen—or probably even imagined. They mesmerize with their vivid colors, complex compositions, layered patterns, and bold and often startling subject matter, ranging from the quotidian (pre-wedding jitters) to the disturbing (insanity, rape, infanticide) to the darkly funny (Satan on a toilet).
Whatever the specific subject, though, the juxtaposition of agony and ecstasy is a common thread in Schaechter’s work, as are hope and redemption, concepts she has explored throughout her 40-year career. “You can have light only because it exists in the context of darkness,” she said in a phone interview from her Philadelphia studio. “I don’t want to depict only the dark side of humankind—that’s not even interesting. What’s interesting is how to transform what’s difficult into what’s bearable, understandable and meaningful—how to transform despair into hope.”
Females are often the central characters of her work. “I’ve always been interested in human figures, specifically females,” said Schaechter (pronounced Shec-ter—”rhymes with Lecter, as in Hannibal Lecter, which is how people remember it,” she said with a laugh). The purpose “isn’t to further the feminist agenda. I am who I am, and I want to identify with the characters in the work, so they tend to be female.”
Schaechter said she doesn’t strategize the specific themes of her work. “I’m not inspired by any one thing but try to let [the subjects] develop organically and intuitively,” she said. Indeed, the exhibit’s works were influenced by an intriguing array of historical and contemporary sources, including the Big Bang, an English Gothic rock band, the Romanov dynasty, comics, medieval altarpieces, New Orleans jazz funerals, a 1992 Supreme Court case.
The difficulty of the work occasionally has made Schaechter briefly flirt with leaving it behind. “But stained glass—it’s love for me,” she said. “I fell in love with it 40 years ago,” the result of discovering that painting, which she was studying at the Rhode Island School of Design at the time, wasn’t for her.
Today, “as a craftsperson working in a medium that’s supposedly dead, I’m happy people are taking the time to take a look at my work,” she said. “I’ve never tried to make my work satisfy market trends. My philosophy is that I’m not that special, and so if I’m interested in [a particular topic], maybe others are, too, and maybe we’ll find each other.”
The exhibit runs through May 23. Admission is free, but because of the safety protocols in place, reservations (which can be same-day) are requested; click here to make yours.