In the early days of her career as a stained glass artist, Judith Schaechter did not take her medium seriously. “I was very sloppy; I was very impatient; and I was just a bad craftsperson,” she says.
Not that she was humble about that. On the contrary, she was defiant. Had she been challenged, she says, “I would have defended being a slob, vehemently defended it.” It was the ideas behind her work that mattered, she reasoned; mastering glass was incidental.
Today she tells a different story. “I have become a craftsman and I have developed nothing but respect for it,” she says. “And I also have developed strong feelings about dedication to a single medium and even single processes.” Schaechter is one of seven new inductees into the American Craft Council College of Fellows. To be named a Fellow, an artist must demonstrate extraordinary craftsmanship over at least 25 years. And the very soul of craftsmanship is deep knowledge of a given material.
What made the difference for Schaechter? Practice. Long, sometimes arduous practice over years. Ups, downs, struggles, breakthroughs – all in an unpredictable sequence. Schaechter tells of a period in her 30s when she was relentlessly critical of her own work. “It was no fun at all,” she says. But she came out the other side. Now, she says, “I get a lot more satisfaction out of the actual making.”
Practice gives rise to what philosopher Michael Polanyi termed “tacit knowledge” – expertise so intricate and deeply embedded that its possessors can’t readily explain it. Think of driving a car, playing the piano, speaking French – or making exquisite stained glass windows. The knowing comes from doing. And when you do for more than 25 years, you know a lot.
Over time, tacit knowledge becomes internalized; it be-comes a keystone of identity. ACC Gold Medalist Betty Woodman, whose medium is clay, puts it this way: “I have a deep-rooted love of ceramics – a passion, a knowledge. It’s just part of me.” Schaechter says something similar: “The thing about stained glass is that somehow it crept into me and became part of me.”
What’s the value of such intrinsic expertise? “I can depend on it,” says Schaechter. So well versed is she in her material that she is free to execute any idea that comes to mind. The medium is no longer a barrier to be rationalized. Instead, it’s her pathway.
Of course, there is not necessarily consensus in the art world about the value of this sort of deep, material understanding. “Dedication to a single medium,” says Schaechter, is “not only out of fashion in our culture, but denigrated, disrespected.”
Some artists today tout the merits of being “material agnostic,” sampling various mediums without becoming expert in any; they learn just enough about clay or wood or metal to be able to bring a particular concept to life, or they have others do the technical, hands-on work.
Schaechter sees that as their loss. “To devote yourself to one path of making has enlightened me beyond my wildest expectations,” she says. “It’s an amazing experience to be at one with your medium.”