A few weeks ago, when I ran into Chuck Katzenbach and his wife, Bru, at the Artists Gallery in Lambertville, they invited me to their Hopewell home to see their Boer goats. Mr. Katzenbach originally wanted the goats, bred in South Africa for meat production, to mow his lawn, but he has since built a barn for them with a solar roof, and he will be learning Halal butchering to help serve the Islamic community, who would otherwise be unable to get locally source goat meat.
Mr. Katzenbach, an artist who often paints on glass, has created his own small village on the Hopewell property he grew up on. The original stone house that had been his father’s is now occupied by Mr. Katzenbach’s son, a public defender, and his family. The timber house Mr. and Ms. Katzenbach live in was originally located in Berks County, Pennsylvania. In the 1980s the couple disassembled the house, moved it to Hopewell and completely rebuilt it. There are random-width pine floors that Mr. Katzenbach installed like a jigsaw puzzle. Random width doesn’t mean that each board is a different width, he explains, but each board changes its width throughout. One can easily see how the mind that creates glass quilts and mandalas would also be able to make plumb boards of wood that change size throughout.
A patio outside the house has been elevated so that Ms. Katzenbach can roll out in her wheelchair, tend to her pepper plants, “and play outside,” he says.
The kitchen cabinets are made from former floor boards and are topped by recycled lab counters, complete with acid burn marks to give it character.
He has also reassembled an old barn on his property that he uses as his studio. The first floor, filled with his painted glass work, is more like a gallery, and upstairs is where he does work. A current project reuses a glass tube from the solar panel, mounted in wood with chrome shower rods, and will be filled by painted glass squares.
Yes another building houses his maple-syrup-making operation, and of course there’s a sugar shack a few hundred yards away where he boils the sap, heated with wood from the 6,000 pine trees he planted here as a boy. He has been taking the trees down to make timber, as well as to burn in the sugar shack. Mr. Katzenbach is now planting maple trees that have been bred for a higher sugar content, so he will not have to boil the sap for quite as long.
There’s yet another building, an old chicken coop (he stopped raising chickens because the hawks would take them) he turned into a residence with a composting toilet and outdoor shower. Under its green roof live a young farmer and a filmmaker; Mr. Katzenbach, ever the kind soul, is helping the couple until they can get on their feet.
Here’s what I wrote about Mr. Katzenbach several years ago, when he had a solo exhibit of his glass quilts at the Hopewell Train Station Freight Shed:
The dreams and crayon creations of children often embody themes they take with them the rest of their lives. During his childhood, Hopewell resident Charles Katzenbach would look out his attic window to see a tree’s bare branches.
“The panes of glass, separated by muntins, created a grid superimposed on the image,” he says. “I could see the tree as a whole, but could also appreciate each block of the grid as a separate whole.”
At 55, the artist still sees the world as if through a prism.
“Chuck’s work is unique,” says Princeton photographer Ricardo Barros. “He paints on glass, as in windowpane glass, and these are layered so you can see through some areas and not others. Because their surfaces are flat, one initially gets the impression that the painting is also flat. But as the viewer moves, the painting changes as new elements become visible
and others are hidden. The work can be quite mesmerizing.”
With their centered geometric shapes and bold colors, the paintings are reminiscent of Tibetan mandalas, Islamic mosaic and textile art, and Amish quilt design. The colors and patterns of Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee can be found in Mr. Katzenbach’s work.
Mr. Katzenbach worked in construction for 30 years. Hopewell has been his home since 1955, when he and his family moved from Trenton to a large farm. With his father, a surgeon at Hunterdon Medical Center, he planted 6,000 white pine and blue spruce trees, he estimates, when the corn and hay were no longer viable. He remembers riding his horse to town when Route 518 was a sleepy road.
As a student at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he started studying painting and continued his studies at Princeton University, even though art didn’t exist as a major. Working with Spanish abstract painter Esteban Vicente and potter Toshiko Takaezu in the University Scholar program, he ultimately graduated with a degree in art and religion.
“There wasn’t much I could do with that degree, and I always loved to work with my hands, so my first job was for a pipe organ builder in the Chocolate Factory building (just across from the railroad),” he says. After that, he worked as a union laborer on highways for several years. “It was pretty rough but good money,” he says.
He returned to school and earned a master’s degree in industrial arts from The College of New Jersey, then worked with emotionally disturbed children as a shop teacher at Eastern State School and Hospital in Pennsylvania. “The kids were murderers, arsonists and rapists,” he says. “They used books as projectiles and pencils as knives. Eventually I got them working on the band saw and pouring molten lead.”
When the school lost its funding, he worked for Princeton Energy Group, building solar greenhouses. “That was before SUVs, when people cared about solar energy,” he says wryly.
From there he went on to designing and building houses, starting with his own house in 1984. By then he had married Bru, a nurse, and the couple found a Moravian-style log house in Berks County, Pa., that had to be removed for a dam project. “It took 50 truck loads to bring it back (to the family property in Hopewell),” he says. “My father called it the biggest jigsaw puzzle. We had no drawings, just four Polaroids.”
Mr. Katzenbach recruited everyone he knew to help “for as much beer as they could drink” and about a year later he and his family had a house.
Although he had given up his artwork for lack of time, life was good; he had a new home on family land he cherished, two sons and plenty of work – and it was work he considered enjoyable.
Then the sky fell. The Katzenbachs lost their youngest son, Mr. Katzenbach developed heart problems, Bru became ill, and Mr. Katzenbach’s father died.
“Life has not been pleasant,” says Mr. Katzenbach. “But being depressed is too easy a state.”
The irony is that having to slow down in his construction work meant he could return to his artwork. In 1999 he developed the technique of painting on old glass that has been recycled from building projects. It all started because he didn’t feel like priming a canvas. “I pulled out my paints from college and painted a sketch on glass. I wanted to work on it more so I painted the other side, then on another sheet of glass and then on the other side of that. I started to play with the depth and then I thought, I think I’ve got something.”
Mr. Katzenbach also builds the wooden frames to hold the layers of glass together. Some of the pieces incorporate elements that add to the optical effects, such as convex security mirrors that repeat back the angles. Some are based on standard quilt patterns, such as “Tumbling,” “Ocean Waves” and “Railroad Crossing.”
“My whole life, this is where I’ve wanted to get to,” he says.
And in the tradition of keeping up the family farm, his eldest son, Matt, 30, an attorney, has moved into the house where Mr. Katzenbach’s parents once lived. Father and son tap the maples trees and produce about 20 gallons of Sweet Sourland Farm Maple Syrup each spring.
The full-time artist says having spent all those years in construction has given him the mental tools he needs for his glass creations. “On the job, problems come up and you’d have to dream up a solution that fits the client’s budget. It’s a 24-hour job, you’re thinking about it even while sleeping. But construction was a love. Making objects of any type – there is nothing more satisfying.”