Karen Jablonski is an award-winning artist from Monticello, Georgia, who works in the medium of painting enamel, among other media. Her richly detailed semi-abstract enamels often contain hidden images, symbols and patterns, inviting the viewer to study her works intently. We spoke to Karen and asked her several questions about her experience with glass on metal.
When and how did you become involved in enameling?
I became involved in enameling in 1996, in a sort of roundabout way, through a certain dissatisfaction with my prior field (environmental design). Although this did push me creatively and intellectually, I found I lacked passion for the medium and wanted a change in scale, from creating places to creating objects. The shift felt natural to me, as both can express ideas and emotion, and both are in some way experienced, in body and/or mind. The creative process is also quite similar for me, as I think this depends more on the artist than medium.
I experimented with woodcarving and ceramics, as I love working with my hands, but these alone didn’t do enough to incorporate my love of drawing and painting, and I was still a bit frustrated. I stumbled upon enamel when looking through catalogs for stains for my ceramics, did a little research, and was surprised to discover the breadth of its capabilities and its long history. My only experience with it had been as a child, scrolling lumps of enamel on a hotplate at our local park during an arts-and-crafts day. Painting with glass appealed to me right away, as a sort of ultimate medium that was both art and craft. When I saw pictures of the beautiful old Limoges enamel, grisaille pieces from the Reymond and Penicault workshops especially, their amazing veil-like layers and complexity completely took my breath away. I was hooked and have been enameling ever since.
What is your background/work experience/education?
I have a BSLA (Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture), and worked for several years as a landscape designer. Some graduate work in same, while teaching an undergrad environmental design studio with corresponding proposal writing lecture for two years at the University of Georgia. Following this, I’ve devoted myself full time to my artwork. No formal training in fine art or enameling just learn by experimenting, and trial and error.
What qualities do you find appealing in enameling, and why? Why enameling compared to other mediums of expression?
I’ve never lost my original awe of enamel. It still greatly appeals to me for its visual aesthetic and longevity, but I am also very process-oriented, and I’ve found that enamel simply allows me to paint the way I enjoy painting, working small and firing many thin layers of color or detail which could take months of drying time with oils. Something about the feel of the grains, the way you can push and pull them, ease them against each other, and add or subtract them so easily from the painting (before firing!) is wonderful also. The uncertainty of the kiln provides a little risk to keep things interesting. I think it’s important when working with any medium to celebrate its own particular qualities rather than working despite them.
What enameling techniques do you employ? Do you favor some techniques over others, and why?
I’ve done some cloisonné, which adapts easily to the heavy linear quality much of my work has, but always return to a combination of painting and sgraffito (which allows me to ‘draw’ fine lines); my heart is most in this, and here I feel the most free and able to express myself. I started out painting in grisaille, which I still love for its purity and elegance, and gradually began playing with color. Currently I work almost exclusively with Thompson’s watercolor enamels, which I’ve found work best for the patterning I use in my pictures and blend with ease.
Can you describe, in detail, how your work evolves. from start to finish?
When creating my watercolors, after I’ve worked out an idea on paper, at least to the point of knowing clearly what I’m trying to express and have the major forms in balance, I transfer this basic composition to the ‘canvas’ (lately Thompson’s pre-enameled steel tiles which I’ve placed in the kiln to burn any oils off the surface) using thin brown or black watercolor enamel and a small brush. I always keep my sketches close at hand for reference, and if the piece is composed of several tiles, I keep these out too so I can work from one to the other. This base drawing is fired and I’m ready to build color and details. I make extensive use of patterns, which I’ve sought out and collected for years, and apply most of these early on, scratching through a layer of dried watercolor with various sgrafitto tools (needles or rubber tools I originally bought for ceramics). I build the picture in light washes of color and additional, secondary patterns which may highlight or tone down the first layer. Faces or figures are done with a combination of painting or sgrafitto and generally proceed right along with nonfigurative elements. For me, this often causes them to become somewhat abstracted themselves, whether I’ve planned it so or not, and I just let it happen. Around 10-20 firings is normally needed to complete a picture.
How does an idea for a work begin? Do you start with sketches, or is your work very spontaneous?
Ideas run through my head here and there as I go about my day. I try to keep a sketchbook near at hand as much as possible so that I can jot down a quick sketch or note I might otherwise forget.
That said. I absolutely believe that real inspiration cones as an artist works. Rarely does an idea solidify itself simply by waiting for it to happen; it comes through the creative process itself. For me, this almost always begins with drawings; this is an indulgence as much as work for me. I sketch quickly and freely, often with many layers of trace paper as I adjust forms (a throwback to my environmental days, I guess) until the concept and its subsequent composition makes sense to me. I generally have a basic idea of coloring, but unless color is the point of the picture, it does no good to try to plan it completely. The picture itself will dictate what it needs as it progresses, and planning too much can cripple you (I really have to fight this urge myself). However, only very rarely would I significantly alter major forms or the overall composition I’ve worked out in enamel. I’ve often thought composing directly in enamel would be a far purer art, but I love my pencils, and giving up that part of the process would lessen the joy of it for me.
Describe your studio/workspace.
I work from my home, on a large drafting table in an area of the kitchen that (last century) was a butler’s pantry. The original hugh shelves remain and now hold many of my tools, around 100 unleaded enamel colors, various enamel or ceramic painting colors, cans of brushes, sketchbooks and folders full of drawings and patterns I’ve collected, carving tools of various sorts, as that’s another interest of mine – for wood, ceramic, wax – a wide range of graphite and colored pencils, framing supplies and so forth. A real mishmash. I use a little Aim side-loading kiln for firing, which also resides in my kitchen. It has a temperature readout but can’t be set for a certain temperature, simply giving me a choice of heating up slow or fast, and I control temperature while firing by opening and closing the door to let heat escape when necessary.
What inspires your work, and why?
I’m inspired more by ideas and emotions than by things I see, although I do often use elements of the world around me to express my thoughts. In other words, I don’t tend to see a beautiful landscape and wish to reproduce it as an end in itself, but I may sketch it in order to use it to suggest some idea. I see art as taking something intangible – a thought, wish, idea, emotion – and giving it some tangible form. I don’t think it matters if people viewing your work don’t see what you do in it, and I dislike being asked to explain a paintings ‘meaning’. I think the best pictures will mean something different to everyone, anyway. A few things do stick out as especially inspirational to me, such as my daughters, who are 4 and 2. The world is different after you have children; both brighter and darker, more beautiful, more terrible, more peaceful, more stressful, more everything. I love the freshness of their drawings, the energy and freedom, and find myself constantly trying to learn from them things I’ve forgotten. I’m also interested in pattern. Ornamental patterns are, I believe, an outgrowth of the culture of any particular time and population, a measure of how people see and translate their environment, or consider their relationship to it. Thus, they tell us much about ourselves and our fascinating ideological history.
Who has been inspirational to your work, and why?
Lisel Salzer. I’m indebted to a transcription of a videotape explaining her grisaille method; it gave me a place to start in learning enamel painting. I found this on the internet, along with pictures of her work, and was impressed with both her lovely technique and with the diligent effort she had made to develop and perfect it. She explained in good detail, so I was able to try her method and modify it somewhat to suit my own style.
How do you sell your work?
I try to show two or three times a year in juried shows, always keep a few pieces for sale in a local gallery, and take commissions. I tried an arts festival once with good success, but for now it’s difficult for me to find time to create the quantity of work necessary. When the kids are both in school, I’ll likely do this more regularly, as it was interesting to have a chance to talk to people about my work and see their reactions (positive or negative!) firsthand.
Do you belong to any enameling groups, associations or other art guilds?
I am a member of Enamel Guild South, and the Enamelist Society.
Have you read any books that have affected your work?
Far too many to list (I love to read) but writings that comment on people’s relationships – to society, themselves, or the world around them – probably affect me most; Emerson’s essays, various novels of Herman Hess, “Ecology of Perception” by James Gibson.
Do you teach enameling?
Not yet! I’ve been asked about doing a workshop a couple times, but I’m hesitant to accept, not having attended any myself. I may give it a go one of these days though, if there’s enough interest.
Have you attended any conferences, workshops, exhibitions in enameling? Has your work been exhibited? If so, when and where?
No conferences or workshops; I have attended a couple exhibitions, but only one that I participated in, at the Ueno Museum in Japan.
My work has been exhibited in National and International juried enamel shows, since 1998.
This may not relate much to my work in particular, but my experience in Japan was wonderful. I had felt somewhat alone in working with enamel; I knew no other enamelists, indeed nobody in my little town seemed to know what it was or anything of it’s history, so it was easy to feel insignificant as I plodded along trying to figure it out. I won an award, my first in enamel, after submitting work to the 33rd International Enameling Art exhibition, and traveled to Tokyo to accept it. I was stunned by the importance given enamel works there. The opening was crowded, dinner found me seated next to the Swiss ambassador, and the awards ceremony was (at least to my foreign eyes) a rather complicated affair in which I was expected to bow a great many times, to the judges, government and foreign officials, the presenter himself. I’m pretty sure I muffed it badly, as I speak no Japanese and thus had no cues. At one point I thought I was to take my award, only to find as I tried to retrieve it from the presenter’s hands, that he held on firmly and kept speaking. Obviously, it was not quite time! Thankfully, everyone was overwhelmingly warm and understanding, and took my mistakes with kindness and in stride. I was later shuffled up to a platform to make a speech, I believe because they felt honored that I had traveled so far (the honor was mine). I left feeling I was a part of something special, and dove into my work with renewed vigor back home!
Where do you see the future of your work going?
I’m encouraged by the range of products becoming available for enamelists who wish to draw and paint and want to experiment further with these, especially with combining them. Also, I’m drawn to the idea of breaking that perfect fired surface somehow; I’ve tried carving into it with a rotary tool and rather like the effect. Having gone from trying to recreate old techniques to dreaming up new ones, I have to say I’m grateful to work in a medium where people seem so receptive of differences in style and method, indeed seem to celebrate them. There is a great deal of freedom in enameling today.