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Museums, and Judith Schaechter's glass link in the broken arts chain

May 6, 2020

Judith Schaechter creates stained glass art.
Credit Provided by Judith Schaechter

Had it been a minute faster, or a minute slower, on a 2,825-mile journey, the Titanic might have been just another passenger ship that never met an iceberg.

That's the cruelty of timing. We're seeing it now in the arts, as musicians gauge whether they should release a new work in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, or wait until it's OK to throw a party.

Museums are finding themselves in a similar quandary. "The Path to Paradise: Judith Schaechter's Stained-Glass Art" opened Feb. 16 at the Memorial Art Gallery. It was to run until May 24, less than three weeks away, and then move on to the Toledo Museum of Art for a June 27 opening. Further down the road, the Des Moines Arts Center awaits an early 2021 arrival of "The Path to Paradise."

RIT Press published a colorful, 165-page catalog to accompany the exhibit on its travels.

Then, COVID-19. And the Memorial Art Gallery closed. Where Schaechter's magnificent and provocative panels still await your eyes. About four dozen pieces, chosen from the 232 she's done over the years. "It just opened and no one has been able to see it, appreciate it," says the MAG's public relations guru, Meg Colombo.

And the situation's much the same at the Toledo Museum of Art. It's also closed -- no one knows for how long -- and apparently will not be ready to mount "The Road to Paradise" as scheduled.

"I basically called them up and asked," Schaechter says of the Toledo museum -- and here she switches her voice to a worried, cartoonish plea -- " 'Is my show canceled?' "

There is no answer. While there is public concern over a possible disruption in the nation's food chain, the arts chain has already been broken. Schaechter and the Memorial Art Gallery choose to respond with a virtual tour of her exhibit at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 7, from her home in Philadelphia. It'll be live on her Facebook page; watch it here. 

Schaechter's painted glass is not what is commonly found in church windows. The works are intricately detailed, crammed with visuals both drawn from nature and alarming in message.

"I'm using a lot of strategies of beauty to sort of make the imagery more poignant," she says. "We all have to live with grief and fear and negativity in our lives. And no one is exempt. I don't know what else art is for except to help us with that."

Schaechter is a funny, interesting and provocative artist. "Everybody thinks I wear black robes and greet the mailman at the door with a candelabra," she says.

This is perhaps to be expected of an artist who describes herself as growing up with parents who she describes as "crazed, radical atheists." One who confesses her moment in music is frozen somewhere around 1984 and Devo. 

She went off to the Rhode Island School of Design in the early '80s to study painting and found herself drawn to the classes in stained glass. But not because she saw her future there. She admits she was intimidated by painting and the expectations were less intense when working with glass. "I thought stained glass was a foolish thing," she says. "I thought it was like macramé, I thought it was my hobby."

Not so. Schaechter had stepped into the American glass movement. Giants such as Dale Chihuly walked those halls. And Richard Harned, a professor who Schaechter calls the "mad scientist" who "let me explore the real me."

And by 1986, Schaechter had stopped painting. "I didn't even notice it was gone," she says.

She calls her first colored glass pieces "crude and cartoony, my influences were the East Village and punk rock. I thought I was going to get instantly famous by hanging out with those people."

Her work then, she admits, was "lowbrow art." Glass-art highbrows would tell Schaechter, "Your technique is terrible… but it kind of works." Her response would be "argumentative and rebellious. 'Yeah, I did it on purpose, so screw you.' "

My One Desire is one of Judith Schaechter's works.
Credit Provided by Judith Schaechter

Over time, her technique has become refined. In defense of the violence, she references centuries-old glass with "a lot of eyeballs torn out, so I didn't invent this."

She loves animals, but some of her panels depict animals in pain. The message can shift with the news of the day: A panel depicting a sinking ship and possibly drowning dog began as a comment on global warming and habitat destruction, but with the election of Trump can now be seen as an admonition against his harsh immigration policies. 

Her father, who is now 92, as a child immigrated from Italy with Jewish family members during World War II. But they couldn't find a country that would take them, finally ending up in Ecuador. Schaechter says turning away immigrants from South America today brings to mind "the way my family was denied entry."

"It's just cruel," she says.

At age 59, "I feel like my neural pathways have calcified," she says. "It's harder to experiment as you get older, it's harder to improvise." Confined in her home, breaking loose to walk her dog, she turns to the internet for, "Less rage, more food," she says. "I like food porn, party salons, rather than, 'Let's say what we think of Donald Trump.' " Her current food perversion is a cabbage-laden version of a Slovak dish called haluski.

"There is pressure on creative people to use this pandemic time to be super productive," Schaechter says. "At first, I felt incredibly unmotivated. I don't know anybody who can be creative when they're panicking. The pandemic might change what people go to art for. It's turning into political commentary. And it's terrible that it had to happen because of the pandemic."

The George Eastman Museum

These aren't bowling lanes in Georgia. New York state's serious approach to the coronavirus pandemic has left the lights off at the George Eastman Museum as well. But it too has gone virtual, with "Eastman Museum at Home." 

Much of the collection can be seen, including videos on the current exhibitions. Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena explains how he rescued family photos from dumpsters and marketplaces and converted them into art. Watch instructions on how to make a phenakistoscope, poke around the gardens (where it's always summer), and check out movie-streaming recommendations from the Dryden Theatre. "Behind the Scenes at Eastman Museum, Featuring Badly Photoshopped Cats" is worth a few moments. And the 360 Historic Mansion Tour is like a video game where you're driving a motorcycle through George Eastman's most cherished possessions.

The Strong

Chris Bensch, chief curator at The Strong, talks about the history of the Hula-Hoop in one of his videos in the Stories Behind the Stuff series.
Credit Screenshot from Facebook.com

Just down the street, The Strong has become the "Virtual Strong National Museum of Play," which included chief curator Chris Bensch's series called "Stories Behind the Stuff." They're two-minute videos explaining the history of the Hula-Hoop, the Frisbee, the board game Candy Land, Mr. Potato Head and the stick, which was inducted in 2007, drawing gentle mocking from Stephen Colbert. But as Bensch pointed out, "Even dogs know that this is a toy, it's not just a stick."

Did you know Play-Doh was originally wallpaper cleaner? As that product died off, it was converted into the perfect modeling clay for children. An almond aroma was added, which may have encouraged kids to eat the stuff, Bensch noted. But apparently it was thought to be remembered fondly enough that, for its 50th anniversary, a Play-Doh perfume was introduced. Briefly.

And, "Sometimes there are toys that are real losers," Bensch said as he reintroduced the Daddy Saddle. A plastic saddle that kids could strap onto dad's back and ride him, on his hands and knees, across the living-room floor. Mercifully, Bensch noted, The Daddy Saddle did not come with spurs.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.