Stained glass that breaks all the rules

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Stained glass that breaks all the rules
An installation view of Judson Studios' exhibit at Forest Lawn in Los Angeles, April 16, 2021. Judson Studios is collaborating with emerging and established artists to modernize a medieval craft. Yudi Ela/The New York Times.

by Adam Popescu

LOS ANGELES (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In 1893, an itinerant plein-air English painter came to the West Coast to die. At 51, William Lees Judson could look back on a life full of adventure: trans-Atlantic crossings, farming Ontario’s plains, fighting under Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War, beaux-arts immersion at Paris’ Académie Julian. When his wife died suddenly and his own health soured, doctors advised him to take the “California cure” and spend his last days in the Golden State’s hot, dry air.

“Instead, he lived another 35 years, started USC’s College of Fine Arts in this building, and helped launch the Arts and Crafts movement,” his great-great-grandchild David Judson said recently at the stained glass studio the elder Judson founded in 1897.

From the studio in Highland Park, with its views of the San Gabriel Mountains and Arroyo Seco, its original crown moldings, terra cotta portico, light fixtures and over 500 types of colored glass on display — a palette of sorts for the studio’s artisans to choose from — one can nearly picture Los Angeles as the sleepy cow town it once was.

Five generations of Judsons would fabricate stained glass windows for Craftsman homes in Pasadena and Hollywood, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis and Hollyhock Houses — UNESCO sites whose windows were angle-heavy glass abstractions that Wright called “light screens” — as well as glass murals at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, the globe chandelier at the historic Central Public Library in Los Angeles and countless churches, synagogues and museums.

Beyond California, the studio’s best known work includes the space-age glass at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Cadet Chapel, a midcentury marvel in Colorado; and the 100-foot-wide, $3.4 million fused-glass window at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Artisans created 30,000 pounds of 17 colored glass pieces for the Burj Al-Arab hotel’s lavish atrium fountain in Dubai — and bronze-colored glass for Kelly Wearstler-designed cabinets and sliced-agate glass door panels for Christina Aguilera.

Stained glass was born in the churches of medieval Europe and is mouth blown, then hand-cut and assembled with strips of lead. Judson is steeped in the tradition of leaded glass, but also excels at a process in which glass is heated to more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which fuses multiple pieces and forms new colors. The most expensive color is pink, Judson said, because it is made using gold flakes.

The studio has over the last four years teamed up with a cadre of local emerging and established artists who designed murals, streetscapes, even sculpture, which Judson fabricated for a debut show that was scuttled because of the pandemic.

“World War I, the 1918 pandemic, World War II, we were open for all of that,” said Judson, who closed for three months last year because of COVID-19. (The staff was cut to 18 employees from 30.)

This pause presented something unexpected which helped the show come to fruition: time to perfect the multiyear, labor-intensive undertakings, which take eight to 10 hours to design and paint per square foot. Next week, those pieces that the artists started years ago will be unveiled in the debut exhibition, at Forest Lawn, a museum that doubles as a memorial cemetery and park, and is also known as a Los Angeles landmark.

Glass portraits of a deified Kobe Bryant, gothic script mosaics and abstract sculptures are among the fusions from Tim Carey, who worked with the Mexican-Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata on the Resurrection window; David Flores, known for pop art murals and commercial work; Miles MacGregor, aka EL MAC, an acrylic painter with murals in Cuba and Cambodia; Marco Zamora, known for paintings of the blue-collar side of town; and the experimental filmmaker Alice Wang, whose work is influenced by the La Brea Tar Pits.

The collaborations break “all the rules of stained glass,” said James Fishburne, the director of the Forest Lawn Museum. The venue breaks rules too, said Zamora, who called Forest Lawn an “unexpected place to show” in an “unexpected” year.

The show, which is free, runs from April 28 to Sept. 12 and includes nearly 100 original pieces. It also reveals the medieval stained glass built into Forest Lawn’s walls, including some designed by Albrecht Dürer. Many of the glass pieces in Forest Lawn’s collection that will be part of the show were created between the 12th and 16th centuries in France and Germany and bought from the collection of William Randolph Hearst.

“We’re a hidden gem and we’re trying to unhide it,” Fishburne said.

Judson Studios began working with Forest Lawn in 1920 on a group of ceiling lights and windows for its Great Mausoleum.

There are many steps in creating windows, Judson explained, and that means ample room for errors. That was especially pointed for what may be the studio’s most ambitious project: “Pagoda,” a massive glass dome from Taiwanese American fine artist James Jean. Design, framing, materials, construction, data analysis and structural engineering brought the out-of-pocket cost to $1.5 million.

“When I started working with Judson, we used the technique of water-jet cutting and bringing in airbrushing and building 3D elements,” said Jean, who worked with Judson on an earlier project, a glass sculpture, “Gaia,” which is now at a South Korean museum. The partnership led to the immersive “Pagoda” that allows viewers “to step in and be completely enveloped in color and light and it will shift and change as the light changes,” Jean said. Panels from that work will be shown by late summer.

A recent trip to the cemetery, perched on a hill overlooking the urban jungle, was a scene of juxtapositions: Fishburne is ready to show off the museum, a hodgepodge of a Frederic Remington cowboy, Mark Twain maquette, Easter Island moai and classical reproduction, while horse-drawn funeral carriages and mourners are just outside. That scene was a somber reminder of the place and time that makes Fishburne remark that he “hopes the public comes.”

“Now that we’re opening, it’s exciting, but you don’t know what to expect,” said Fishburne.

Still, having something to look forward to is a major unifier.

“We’re basically graffiti, street artists, so to have us come through to Forest Lawn, it feels really good,” said Flores, who grew up in Tulare, California, where “there was no stained glass,” and fell in love with the medium on trips to Spain during long contemplations in medieval churches.

Flores at one point spent two days a week at the studio learning to cut and snap glass into form with Judson’s artisans, whom he credits with immense patience.

“There’s a special type of discipline needed for this kind of work,” he said, a resolve he admits he lacks. “I hope people show up and give it a chance.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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