[ stained glass/installation ]
"I'm sort of like a snake handler," explains Bryan Willette with a chuckle. "I know what I'm doing is dangerous, but you develop a comfort level by knowing how to handle it correctly."
The treacherous work he does? Installing stained-glass windows. He might not be in danger of venomous bites, but the pieces he's handling are painstakingly crafted and usually pricey works of art: Break one, and feel the fangs of horror and regret sinking in.
Willette, who works at Germantown's Beyer Studio doing everything from glazing to designing to constructing stained glass, mostly installs windows at churches and universities. But recently his job took him to an unusual place: a prison.
Not just any prison. Willette installed the 17 windows that artist Judith Schaechter created for grandly crumbling Eastern State Penitentiary. The world's first true "penitentiary," designed specifically to encourage penitence and reform, Eastern State kept its inmates isolated from each other, performing labor and learning trades. Its cell blocks radiate from a central point like wheel spokes, with each cell lit by a skylight — a design copied by hundreds of prisons worldwide after it opened in 1829.
"I was sort of moved and haunted by the architecture of the cells themselves," Schaechter says, "which are proportionally a microcosm of some kind of chapel, especially with the placement of the window." Schaechter has designed stained-glass replacement windows for three cell blocks and a large arched window — the second-largest she's ever made — called The Battle of Carnival and Lent.
"I want it to deal with big themes," Schaechter says of her work. "I didn't want to, for example, tell individual prisoners' stories. I wanted to talk about the human condition and what it means to make bad decisions and end up in prison. But I wasn't even necessarily thinking about a prison prison — just imprisonment."
Eastern State's art program taps two to four artists from more than 75 proposals each year to create site-specific, prison/corrections-themed work that enhances and comments upon the location. For example, a 2011 piece, James Mills' On Tour, consisted of signage pointing to tourism sites where people once suffered, an inherent critique of Eastern State as an "attraction." This year, alongside Schaechter's work, will be Ryan Legassicke's States of Security/Security States, a banner hung from Eastern State's outer wall depicting full-scale silhouettes of barriers from around the world.
"The art always has to support one of the threads" of the penitentiary's past, incarceration or punishment, says Sean Kelley, Eastern State's senior vice president and director of public programming. The proposal guidelines state it plainly: "Do not suggest Eastern State solely as an architectural backdrop."
Still, the architecture enhances certain artworks, including Schaechter's. Her skylights depict mythical and biblical characters like Prometheus, Andromeda and Noah in windows that are only "4 inches wide by 40 inches tall — a very difficult space to try to fill with a picture of a person, unless you're going to do anorexic basketball players playing with giraffes or something," she says. She cropped and squeezed the figures into this thin space, emphasizing the sense of confinement.
The arched transom window, on the other hand, gave her an extensive canvas for The Battle of Carnival and Lent. With monklike figures combating clownlike ones, the theme is obvious: austerity versus decadence. She was inspired by a Bruegel painting with a similar name, she explains, but also by "the struggle with self-control: I figure everyone in prison has that — I mean, everyone has that, to some extent."
Until now, Schaechter's windows have typically included just a single figure. But Carnival and Lent, she notes, "has 96 figures if you count the snails." The one window she's made that's larger is a beautiful decorative piece in New York City's Museum of Arts and Design. (Willette installed that one, too.)
After nearly 30 years of working with stained glass, Willette still finds the medium appealing: "I like the intensity of it — the colors are all highly saturated. And it is being driven by the sun. And it's tricky. It takes a long time to learn how to do it right." Isn't that fragility nerve-racking? One of the first things you learn "is how to pick up and put down a stained-glass window," he says, "because there's a right way and wrong way to do it. You learn where the breaking points are. I know this because I found out the hard way."
Schaechter has a different take: "I don't think of them as even remotely being fragile, but I'm around glass far too often to judge anymore. All I see is how hard it is to cut, and I think it's really tough."
Judith Schaechter: "The Battle of Carnival and Lent," ongoing, Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave., 215-236-3300, easternstate.org.