Opening New Windows

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January 3, 2013
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Ruth Weisberg

The creation of every work of art should be both a challenge and a pleasure to the artist and his or her audience. I am referring to pleasure as the profound feeling of completion or the discovery of new meanings and possibilities. This may be more likely to happen when the artist works in a long-practiced and deeply familiar medium. My approach to drawing, painting, and printmaking has taken years to evolve, and, over those years, common threads have emerged. For example, I’ve been particularly drawn to a sense of the ephemeral or transient that can be expressed with washes or veils of color. Time and memory have been my themes across these two-dimensional media. But what happens when a new medium appears on the horizon? In my experience, its very unfamiliarity can inspire the artist to new discoveries and solutions.

I received an invitation from the liturgical arts committee of Our Savior Catholic Center in Los Angeles to design and produce a large stained-glass window (7’ x 3’) for its building adjacent to the University of Southern California. The invitation surprised me for several reasons: First, my work delves deeply into Jewish experience and history and, second, I had never before worked with glass. I considered the project because the committee members wanted a window (perhaps a pair) based on, in their words, “The Old Testament,” which they consider foundational to their own beliefs. I respect this impulse and admire deeply Catholics’ tradition of incorporating inspiring art of the highest quality in their churches. They chose “creation” as the theme and, after much thought, I decided to create a tripartite window that depicted the first four days of creation.

Working on the window at the superb and historic Judson Studios’ stained glass studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles, I was fascinated to discover something about myself as an artist: Despite using a new technique, I recognized myself and my work. I found a way to recreate my characteristic visual language, situating my images in a virtual sea of brushstrokes. While the materials have great intrinsic appeal and beauty, the technical constraints of working in stained glass are enormous. At the same time, the creative possibilities are quite varied. For instance, the
transparent colored glass can be painted with ink composed of ground glass that is then fused with the glass in a kiln; alternately, the glass can be etched or enameled or sandblasted. The glass is then inserted into a matrix of leading, which is particularly challenging to the design process because leading is a powerful visual element that can, potentially, disrupt the depicted images. My printmaking background — with skills in stenciling, stamping, and etching — proved helpful in altering some of the established practices in working with stained glass.

The process involved much initial painting of the glass and then adjustment as the glass emerged from the kiln. Some pieces had three or four layers added; other sections needed to be softened by etching the glass with acid. In a few cases, I began anew. In the final weeks, I kept assembling the three window sections,  looking for incongruous details or underdeveloped passages. When something is complete, it is dynamic but harmonious; nothing leaps out that still needs adjustment or correction.

This new medium allowed me both to draw on my own artistic history and to reinvent myself. In the end, my artistic practice transformed the possibilities of the medium of stained glass, and stained glass opened new doors for me — or, should I say, windows?

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Ruth Weisberg is an artist, professor of fine arts, and former dean at the Roski School of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California. Among her awards are the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s 50th Anniversary Cultural Achievement Award in 2011 and the Women’s Caucus for Art’s 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award. Weisberg’s art has been shown at more than 80 solo and 185 group exhibitions, including recent exhibitions at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, a retrospective at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, and solo exhibitions at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino and the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts gallery on Los Angeles.

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