Barbara Meise: Ephemeral Artisan Stands the Test of Time
As one of the few remaining stain glass masters in the world, Barbara Meise (pictured above) is our very own Jersey City treasure. Her diminutive stature belies the giant footprint she has laid down across our land. From churches of all denominations to landmarks to historic homes, she is a medieval messenger of a craft which might have been lost had she not claimed it for viewers to savor over the years.
Yet the gifts she’s presented are not accomplished for acclaim or self-aggrandizement. As Jersey City historian John Gomez pointed out a few years back, “Stained glass is to her, a spiritual summoning, a reason for breathing.”
Harkening back to the pre-Christian era of the Egyptians and Romans, colored glass was first used in the creation of small objects. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that stained glass became a major pictorial format for illustrating and illuminating biblical narratives.
As unique as her artistry, Meise’s raison d’être comes bundled in somewhat of a paradox. While rooted in a historical context, Barbara is nonetheless a modern day woman. Affected most recently by Hurricane Sandy, she reflects on the severe water-damage to her studio and the artwork contained within by contending “life is ephemeral.”
At first blush, that transitory worldview might appear contradictory for an artist who preserves artifacts of the past, but upon reflection, it’s actually what drives Meise to continue to create and re-create. When asked if she’s the last remaining link to a dying art form, she refutes that belief, pointing to “the next generation who will continue this work – perhaps with a different focus – perhaps disbanding some of the classic techniques in favor of modern solutions.”
If her acceptance of life’s impermanence might appear to favor Buddhist doctrine, Meise does not align herself to any one religion. Quite the contrary! “I’m spiritual, not religious,” she contends.
While she acknowledges her Roman Catholic upbringing, the artistry of Barbara Meise can be found in a variety of sacred places from Lutheran churches to Jewish synagogues.
In fact, one of Barbara’s restoration projects remains only partially installed as the result of one house of worship changing religion orders over the course of more than a hundred years. As a reflection of Jersey City’s multicultural melting pot, the Sunni Rizvi Jamia Mosque at 294 Grove Street is housed in a building that served previously as a synagogue and earlier as an abolitionist Baptist Church that dates back to the late 1800s. Today, hanging mid-air is a half-completed stained glass window that Barbara initiated over eight years ago but has been unable to finish due to these administrative transitions.
Attraction to sacred spaces harkens back to Barbara’s early adult years after she immigrated to America from Berlin, Germany via commercial freighter. From Brooklyn, New York, her move to Tenafly, New Jersey was instrumental in placing the young artist in the right spot at the right time. Encouraged to pursue a career in the arts by her parents and with course work at Cambridge and later a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Columbia in Manhattan, it was her chance meeting with the famed J & R Lamb Studio that introduced her to what was to become her life’s work.
Married with four children, Barbara’s days were filled, but during her off hours, she visited the studio, not necessarily as a career move but instead to “absorb and learn techniques in stained glass making that were a whole new field for me at the time,” she noted.
From a historical perspective, established in 1857, J & R Lamb Studios is America’s oldest continuously run stained glass maker, preceding the studios of both John LaFarge and Louis Comfort Tiffany. The firm was selected by the United States government as one of four studios to represent American achievements in stained glass at the Paris International Exposition of 1900.
Originally headquartered in Greenwich Village in New York City, under Karl Barre Lamb’s leadership, the studio relocated to Tenafly, New Jersey after the Great Depression. Katharine Lamb Tait, Karl’s sister succeeded her brother after his death to become head designer of Lamb Studios from 1936 to 1979. It was during the end of Tait’s tenure that Meise first met and apprenticed as an intern under her tutelage.
Tait’s extensive projects completed during that period included the Presbyterian Church in Tenafly, the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in NYC and a memorial window at the Newark Museum. As much a traditionalist as a contemporary artist, Tait was known in her latter years to combine Art Deco elements with ancient Greek decorative borders.
“Katharine was an inspiration,” noted Meise. “I learned all there was to learn about cleaning, cutting and firing the glass” for assignments that entailed some of Tait’s more than a 1000 commissions. “I was in my late twenties, and Tait continued to work until the age of 90 [so] I absorbed everything her mastery had to offer,” added Meise.
Barbara’s fertile training ground at the Lamb Studio provided her with the education and confidence she needed to spread her own wings. Thereafter the student became the teacher, when she volunteered and taught gilding and manuscript illumination classes at major medieval art institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters in New York City. When reflecting on this period of her life, Meise mused, “my passion for this work was a constant reminder that I was always a medievalist at heart.”
Meise’s designs and restorations can be found today in some of Hudson County’s most aesthetically pleasing sacred places, public buildings and even private residences. After opening her own studio in 1990, appropriately named Artbuilders in Jersey City (across from City Hall at 193 Montgomery Street), she received the “Excellence in Preservation Award” in 2003 presented to her by the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy. This prestigious award acknowledged the meticulous restoration work she accomplished on the “Christ The Good Shepherd” window at the Cotton Temple Church of God in Christ Church located at 381 Bergen Avenue.
While the window is attributed to the former Tiffany Studios master Benjamin Sellers, Meise is of the opinion that the designer took his inspiration not from Tiffany but rather from the British painter William H. Hunt, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement who was known for his focus on religious themes.
In 2008, Meise demonstrated that the lady doesn’t only do windows: she expanded upon her design repertoire to restore one of Jersey City’s most treasured musical instruments.
Described in the news, as “Jersey City’s historical movie theater gets a necessary organ transplant,” the Loew’s Movie Palace reached out to Meise to apply her skills to an entirely different type of restoration. “It was a thrill to be part of that installation,” said Meise. The organ called the “Wonder Morgan” was originally used as the background music for silent movies during the early 19th Century. Meise added the delicate gold leafing to the console and the organ is once again in use and available to be viewed and heard at the theater’s 54 Journal Square address.
Today, not content to live off her laurels, Barbara continues to spread her wings – this time – for the wings of Michael, the Archangel. Working in her Artbuilders’ studio on what is called the cartoon stage of a stained glass project, she maps out a black and white mural that is yet to be commissioned. With charcoal sticks in hand, she works from scratch to create a work she will propose to various church councils, when she is satisfied with its final design. While original in nature, Barbara indicates, “The Arch Angel is a form of iconography that is restricted to a certain style and does not vary too much.”
Outside of the studio, on a much grander scale, Meise has been engaged in a project that has occupied her talent for the last eight years. When the windows of Newark’s First Baptist Peddie Memorial Church (built in 1890 by the Scottish philanthropist immigrant Thomas Baldwin Peddie) came under disrepair, Meise’s services were once again requested. “The windows are superb examples of the Tiffany style (referring to the master artist Louis Comfort Tiffany), “but time has not been kind to them.”
“So far we have removed, restored and reinstalled only half of the 80 or so windows,” she says. “Then there’s the spectacular art-glass ceiling dome which measures approximately 40 feet in diameter and contains 28 individual sections.” To do the job right, and not to risk breaking any of those panels, Meise indicates that only two panels at a time can be removed and delivered to her studio in Jersey City for restoration. When asked about a completion date for that assignment, she humorously quips, “You do the math!”
In addition to the restoration work at the Peddie Church, Meise also added two originals windows, one of which features Christ seated with children (seen above). “Any resemblance to my grandchildren Anna and Joseph in that panel is purely intentional,” smiles Meise whimsically. The other is a portrait of Christ kneeling in prayer the night before his death in the Garden of Gethsemane. A testament to Meise’s abilities, both windows, while original in design and fabrication, fit perfectly with the aesthetic of the original windows.
While recognizing the constant flux of change in the world she lives, Meise leaves her definitive imprint on all that she touches. She may see life as ephemeral and fleeting, but one would be hard pressed to say her work will not outlive her for hundreds of years to come — just as it did for those Medievalists — all those centuries ago.
When asked what she favors most about her body of work, she pensively responds “Every inch matters.” And when queried whether she will ever cease creating, she is quick to illuminate, “Never … an artist never retires!”
Artbuilders is located at 193 Montgomery St., 201.630.0369.
Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the the 2014 Winter issue of JCI Magazine. Jeffrey Vock photographed “Greetings” for the cover of the 2014 Winter issue. “Greetings” (pictured above) is an original stained glass piece by Barbara Maria Meise in homage to her daughter. The work was exhibited at the Noyes Museum in Oceanville, NJ in 1984 as a part of a presentation by awardees of an annual NJ Fellowship by the State Council on the Arts. The portrait represents Meise’s daughter wearing a Central American costume hat and Austrian-Bavarian garments including embroidery on the shawl. The text comes from poems written to Meise by her daughter, as well as a few written by Meise herself. The glass is painted and acid edged with an oxide matte over it.
Photos by Jeffrey Vock