As director of a fifth-generation family-owned SoCal stained glass business, David Judson feels strongly about the importance of the medium.
“Stained glass is not just a decorative or secondary art,” says Judson, who’s been director of Highland Park-based Judson Studios since 1996. “We believe that there is a place for fine art in the glass world as well.” The studio subject of Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale’s new exhibit, Judson Studios: Stained Glass from Gothic to Street Style, which runs through September 12.
The display was scheduled to open last year, coinciding with the publication of JUDSON: Innovation in Stained Glass (Angel City Press). Coauthored by Judson and writer Steffie Nelson, former editor of Pasadena magazine, the exhaustive book looks at stained glass pieces from every decade of the company’s 120-plus-year history. The more than 300 images also document how Judson has maintained its reputation as an art institution for more than a century in L.A. and beyond.
Judson’s great-great grandfather William Lees was born in 1842 just outside of Manchester, England. He traveled around the U.S. and Canada, even serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. Seeking warmer weather to improve his health, he moved to California and settled in Highland Park. Primarily a plein air painter, he taught classes and founded the Arroyo Guild, which included artists who were inspired by nature along the Arroyo Seco and the local Arts and Crafts Movement. He also became the first dean of USC’s College of Fine Arts, now the Roski School of Art and Design, when it was originally located in a Highland Park building. (After the school relocated to USC’s main campus in 1920, the studio took up the space.) With his three sons, William Lees established the Colonial Art Glass, eventually renamed Judson Studios. Their first commission was Eva Fenyes’s Algerian-inspired mansion in Pasadena in 1897.
The company would sustain itself through two world wars, the Great Depression, post-war Modernism, the development boom in Vegas in the 1970s, and the development boom in downtown L.A. in the 2000s. Judson built everything from stained glass windows and domes to skylights and light fixtures in places of worship, mausoleums, private residences, shopping malls, and even retirement communities.
Some of them are instantly recognizable: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock and Ennis homes; Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; Orpheum Theater; Hollywood Forever; The Standard, Downtown; Wilshire Boulevard Temple; All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena; Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels; and Church of Epiphany in Lincoln Heights, where Cesar Chavez gave speeches. Judson even designed the fountain for the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai, one of the tallest hotels in the world.
Studio artists have depicted not just neo-Gothic style religious imagery, but scenes inspired by California landscapes, Spanish missions, the military, and poetry by Tennyson and Longfellow.
“Everyone has an immediate connection with stained glass,” Judson tells Los Angeles. “They’ve either dabled in stained glass or somebody related to them at some point has had some interaction with stained glass. Or maybe you grew up in a house of worship or lived in a house with stained glass. It has a craft element to it, so it resonates with people on a certain level. It works on a much broader spectrum than fine art or painting does. Stained glass doesn’t have that barrier. It’s much more relatable. It has a way of working with color and light that no other medium does. There’s a vibrational level of light passing through colored glass that makes almost a soulful connection to people observing it.”
“Stained glass is familiar,” adds Nelson. “Because of its prevalence in places of worship, people are encouraged to engage with their higher selves. It’s linked to something spiritual, but it does also have this very visceral vibrational quality.”
In 2019, Forest Lawn Museum approached Judson about organizing an exhibit. The studio’s relationship with the cemetery chain started in the 1920s; you can find Judson works in Glendale’s Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection and the Great Mausoleum, among other locations. “We’re two century-plus-old Southern California institutions focused on art collections or art production in various ways,” says museum director James Fishburne. “We both foster traditional art, but we also support contemporary art as well. And we also both value old world craftsmanship.” But the pandemic postponed the show and, for the first time in history, Judson shut down for two-and-a-half months.
Now reopened, the museum surveys Judson’s legacy chronologically, starting with two of its oldest stained glass from the early 20th century by Frederick Wilson and A.E. Brain, both Tiffany designers. The collection’s nearly 100 art works, archival photographs, and sketches also spotlight Judson’s more recent collaborations with modern artists, namely David Flores, Marco Zamora, Shay Bredimus, Alice Wang, Jane Brucker, and Tim Carey, who made a stained glass portrait of Kobe Bryant.
“That collaborative element is one of the most exciting things that we’re up to,” says Judson. “For street artists, it’s kind of just a natural transition for them to go from a large-scale wall to glass. I think there are a lot of parallels there.”
An exhibit highlight is a face of Christ from The Resurrection Window built for the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City in 2017. In 2013, the largest Methodist congregation in the country commissioned the studio to design the largest stained glass window in the world. The process was such a massive undertaking that Judson had to open a second facility in South Pasadena. It also inspired this year’s documentary Holy Frit, which screened at several film festivals. Director Justin Monroe chronicled the four years Carey and Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata spent using a process called fused glass to manufacture the window’s 161 panels, which, measuring at 3,440 square feet, is roughly the size of a basketball court. (Judson is currently working on an even bigger project building the New Mount Carmel Monastery in Wyoming.)
“What I hope people take away from this is the fact that stained glass is a pertinent and exciting art form in the 21st century,” says Judson. “It’s a trend that I hope gains steam. This idea that it’s an ancient art form only is what we’re trying to debunk. We’re not doing our grandfather’s stained glass.”
Judson Studios: Stained Glass from Gothic to Street Style, through September 12, Forest Lawn Museum, 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale.
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