For many people, prisons and churches are best endured through the steady countdown of minutes till release, but internationally acclaimed Philadelphia-based artist Judith Schaechter’s custom-designed stained-glass windows at Eastern State Penitentiary may persuade you to clock some serious time. Numbering 17 windows in total, Schaechter’s site-specific installation, The Battle of Carnival and Lent, extends through three of the magnificently decayed cellblocks of this historic Quaker prison to create a dazzling secular meditation on confinement.
“I wanted it to be about prisons, mental and physical,” says Schaechter, who approaches the visual design of each window first and only later worries about the theme. “I deferred thinking about the content of the work for a long time. I know it sounds like a disingenuous copout to say this,” she adds sheepishly, “but I work very intuitively.” She starts by doodling faces, then selects the one most suited to the eventual figure she has in mind. It’s a relatively spontaneous approach—unorthodox in an industry in which tradition still reigns supreme. Schaechter describes the stained-glass community as “very doctrinaire,” a place where “any diversion from traditional technique is frowned upon.” But that’s never kept Schaechter’s technical and formal innovations in check.
Her windows for Eastern State diverge significantly from traditional designs. Birds and weather are both big themes. “I’m sure that anyone in a prison who has a window just becomes obsessed with looking out that window,” muses Schaechter, whose imagery borrows from well-known myths that revolve around protagonists left to the savage mercy of nature. Prometheus is plagued by ravenous crows in cellblock 8; Icarus molts his feathers in cellblock 11; and rain, wind and tears lash each character while the windows themselves stream colored light onto the heads of spectators below.
Schaechter may add contemporary sensibility to the age-old medium, but she takes her inspiration from traditional stained-glass windows. “Chartres is, by far, the most amazing thing in the world,” she says, referring to the 13th-century cathedral in France. “You go in there and it’s like being socked in the gut with god-ness—in a good way.” Schaechter’s own windows at Eastern State pitch a more secular narrative. In one window, the mythically meek Andromeda transforms into a feminist heroine and Atlas strains against the weight of a brutally familiar world in another. Each figure is squeezed into slender apertures that measure 40 inches long by 4 inches wide—a “really crazy dimension to design for,” that forced Schaechter to crop the human figure (a violence she typically tries to avoid, but which seemed somehow appropriate to the theme of confinement.)
Even crazier than designing for these slit windows was curator and Senior Vice President and Director of Public Programming Sean Kelley’s suggestion that she make a giant stained-glass window for the 57-by-57 inch transom located at the end of cellblock 11. “My first thought was he was out of his mind. It’s enormous!” Schaechter recalled. So, naturally, she agreed to do it.
As the second largest window she’s ever made, the “Battle of Carnival and Lent,” (named after a painting by the Dutch master Brueghel), is a dense tangle of struggling figures draped in richly patterned garments. To the uninitiated observer, it looks exquisitely detailed and flawlessly rendered; but not according to Schaechter, who is self-avowed perfectionist: “I can be such a killjoy with my perfectionism, but this was good for me. If they’re not perfect, who’s going to know?” One look at those delicately furrowed brows and deftly drooped lips, and I can confidently say: absolutely no one.
Through November. Free with $12 admission. Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave. 215.236.3300. easternstate.org