The Enamelware of Sarah Perkins

The tendency to dismiss enamel work as a superficial art literally, as a matter of surfaces glossing over the duller hues of base metal, and figuratively, as nothing more profound than a decorative, and therefore decadent, mode of appeal to the eye-has clearly diminished in recent decades.

No longer, as in American craft exhibitions of the 1930s, is enamelware treated as a subcategory of ceramics, principally an affair of glaze. Dispelling the stigma of superficiality has been characterized by both literal and figurative reworkings of the enamel surface; on the one hand, the obvious physical violation of enamel by the increasing expression of the metal beneath, and on the other, a lampooning, even denigration, of enamelware’s beauty and the development of the surface as a carrier of meanings that surpass shallow formal concerns.

Stubble Begger’s Bowl, 2001
Copper, Enamel
3 x 3 1/2 x 3 1/2″

The vessels of Missouri metalsmith Sarah Perkins have played a significant role in bestowing a new depth and content upon contemporary enamelware. While her work has passed through many stages since the early 1980s, her credo has remained consistent: determine what lies outside the limits of acceptability for a given technique and seek to incorporate those proscribed effects into an acceptable work. In general terms, this has meant that Perkins has been inclined to grant metal an equal standing with enamel. Rather than subordinating it, as in champlevé or cloisonné, to the restrictions of a pattern created by discrete fields of differently colored enamel, she has freed it to follow an independent logic. Conceptually, this realignment is significant to Perkins, whose aspirations for enamelware include its use as a vehicle for exploring issues of balance that have nothing to do with metal or glass. Disrupting the absolute calm of the enamel surface, in other words, is a means of invigorating the conceptual serenity of enamelware, of unleashing from it a symbolic potential previously dormant under a diverting layer of color.

Tom Canty’s Begger’s Bowl, 2001
Silver, Enamel
3 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 4 1/2″

In a current series that Perkins has aptly named “Folded Vessels,” the effort to undermine superficiality comes overtly to the fore. Based on experiments with a series of brooches that drew visually on organic forms such as plants, insects, and crustaceans, the “Folded Vessels” bear raised metal ribs, both vertical and horizontal, that suggest the petioles of leaves or the ridges on a carapace. In purely material terms, by working primarily with transparent enamels, Perkins has allowed the silver of the vessel’s body to remain subtly visible through the layer of color. Secondly, and more importantly, by exploiting an effect that is normally considered detrimental to a raised vessel– the creasing of the metal as it is hammered-she has created linear reliefs that allow the silver to exist as a design element independent of the enamel. The vertical repetition of silver via rings, for example, suggests a rippling upward movement of the surface, a crawling of the vessel’s skin, and contrasts directly with the perpendicular movement of light through the lucid layer of enamel. This dynamism, reinforced by the allusions to life forms in the vessels color schemes, grants the object a presence more complex and infinitely more vital than that of a mere shell.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Reinforcing the assertion of metal in the obtrusive ribs of the “Folded Vessels” are the effects of another intentional “error” of metalsmithing that Perkins has exploited in order to animate her rims with an organic irregularity. “I keep hammering after the metal is work-hardened, trying to distress it and get it to crack at the top,” she explains. “That’s considered a mistake when you’re learning to smith. Although I’m not a total rebel, I like to break the rules lightly.”

Contained Folded Vessel, 1998
Silver, Enamel
8 x 4 1/2 x 4 1/2″
Photo: Tim Barnwell

Another example of Perkins’s transgression for calculated effect is her loose interpretation of the cloisonné technique in some of her vessels: her wires fail to define discrete enclosures for the color. Employed as linear design elements in their own right–and hammered or filed unevenly to enhance their expressive potential– ­they meander their way spontaneously through the enamel fields rather than dividing them up according to the dictates of an overall color pattern. This independence enhances the importance of metal in the work and serves as a counterbalance to the expressive freedom of the enamel. To fine-tune this equilibrium, Perkins often augments the presence of metal by incorporating granulation on the vessel rims or appending silver bezels for pearls or stones.

If Perkins’s “Folded Vessels” physically disrupt placid surfaces of traditional enamelware, they also dispel superficiality in a figurative sense by emphasizing the rhetorical content of her work; they become metaphors for a more complex interaction between enamel and metal. “I’m interested in the relationship between the two,” she says, “because I’m interested in relationships generally. I’m concerned with how people use things and how they relate to one another. That’s why I make vessels in the first place.” Noting that most significant interaction between people is accompanied by eating or drinking, often in a ritualistic manner, she has consciously sought to create a sense of unspecified ceremonial purpose for her work. Preciousness, too, is a quality that she has attempted to cultivate in her vessels, although her conception of the precious has more to do with the implied fragility of objects and the reverence of the viewer than with any particular issues of beauty. The value of her precious objects, likewise, is connected not to the cost of their materials but to a psychological and perhaps even moral concern for their preservation-the sense that they embody something profound and irreplaceable.

Ganoksin is sponsored by
Rosewater Itradan, 2001
Silver, Enamel, Ebony, Coral, Pigments
7 x 12 x 3 1/2″
Photo: Tom Davis

“I think that a lot of what I do comes from the fact that I was brought up an atheist,” she speculates. “If you look at human making in different cultures, much of the work is about the basic need for ceremony, ritual objects that mark certain beliefs. I don’t have those beliefs already, so I try to make work to satisfy that essential need in me and to address the need that I see in other people.” Whether or not anyone might actually use her vessels for ceremonial purposes is not really of concern to Perkins. It is the general implication of ritual-the sense that a proper order and an appropriate place exist for certain actions; that nihilism does not underlie all aspects of life that matters more to Perkins than the specifics of any ceremony itself. As utilitarian objects, her vessels are, after all, simply bowls, jars, or teapots. Only the qualities of her surfaces separate her work from more mundane vessels, connecting them to psychological needs that from a materialist perspective are difficult to fathom. Literal superficiality, in other words, is in Perkins’s work the key to a figurative depth.

Folded Beggar’s Bowl, 2002
Copper, Enamel
2 1/2 x 5 x 5″
Photo: Tram Davis

If the strategy that Perkins enacts in her “folded Vessels” is essentially a solemnization of what in many contexts can be a rather frivolous medium, in some of her other recent vessels she has followed the antithetical path of satirizing the exaggerated prettiness to which enamelware usually succumbs. In whimsical pieces such as Mae and Sophia, a teapot and a lidded jar respectively, she lampoons the stereotype of voluptuousness associated with enamelware by producing curvaceous vessels dripping with the suggestion of bejeweled necklaces, gold chains, and strings of pearls. Like the notorious ornamented busts of Mae West and Sophia Loren, their namesakes, the vessels are hypertrophied emblems of sensual indulgence implicit send-ups of enamelware that has no higher aspiration than a sex-symbol kind of status. The initial seductiveness of these vessels, especially the turquoise color that Perkins describes as “excessively pretty,” is a consequence of their surfaces. Interestingly, however, these same surfaces are upon closer inspection the source of the vessels’ undoing as mere ornaments. By under-firing the enamel, Perkins has given it a gritty appearance, a roughness associated with natural and decidedly unpretty surfaces such as sharkskin.

Adding to the disconcerting effect of the surface texture in these pieces is the exuberant, excessive decoration, which flirts with the boundaries of bad taste. Daubing on wet enamel in lines, mixing opaques and transparents, and sifting dry enamel over the surfaces to create uneven effects that include stenciling done with parts of her hand or arm, Perkins has created surfaces that resist any facile harmony. Other somewhat incongruous techniques include melting various glass beads onto surfaces to create rows of amorphous lumps or “little cosmic doughnuts,” or fusing on short enamel threads that have been prepared by pinching a small quantity of molten enamel from a crucible and pulling it across the room. The combination of these diverse techniques obviously does not produce surfaces that are actually displeasing to the eye, nor are they really intended to. “I wanted to make work that addressed the issue of enamel and prettiness,” Perkins explains. “By including things that were a little unusual, I hoped that you would be taken aback when on looked closely. It’s a tension rather than ugliness, enough to show that for me pretty is a dirty word.”

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Blue Triple Cup, 2000
Silver, Enamel
3 x 3 x 3″
Photo:Tom Mills

Perkins’s intent to thwart the easy visual consumption of her works takes a slightly more malicious turn in another recent series, the “triple Cups.” Named for their construction as double walled-vessels whose exterior surfaces are extended into invisible planes in space–implicitly, third cups-by stubby rows of equal-length, blunted silver wires, the pieces clearly bait desire. The frosty white interiors are alluring but off limits to fingers that would damage their fragile oxide finish. The shiny exteriors, covered in candylike translucent enamel, are even more seductive, and even more obviously untouchable. Inspired by menacing seed pods encountered on the Konza Prairie in Kansas , the prickly cups are maddening, threatening to the very hands- that their glassy surfaces entice. As in her other vessels, Perkins employs the physical surfaces of her “Triple Cups” to disrupt a figurative superficiality. By making the works impossible to grasp easily, she has therefore transformed them from simple attractive objects to symbols of frustrated desire. The only surfaces of the “Triple Cups” that can be touched, the tips of the projecting wires, are neither particularly desirable nor even proper surfaces.

Western Offering, 2001
Silver, Enamel, Pearls, 18k gold
Contents: rose petals, sage, charcoal
2 x 5 x 10″

Perkins’s explorations of material desire and the less tangible desire for ceremony also became the subjects of two more recent series, begun in the fall of 2001 following her return from an emotionally moving trip to India . The “Itradans,” the first of these series, consists of trays bearing sets of three small enameled-silver cups, the gold-leaf interiors of which contain powdered minerals or substances such as rose petals, sage, or charcoal. While the purpose of these ensembles is not specified, their inspiration is in the groups of small bowls containing powdered pigments that Perkins observed in the entryways of some Indian homes. Accompanying her vessels are long, slender forged gold or silver implements spatulas, tweezers, or simple rods – suggesting a myriad of possible applications but committing to nothing definite. The implication of a ritualistic purpose is critical, but the actual use to which the sets might be put is tendentiously ambiguous. Perkins’s goal is to elicit through her work an elusive desire for meaning. Above all, the conceptual aim of her vessels is not a positive presence but a sense of perpetual lack, a need that cannot be fulfilled any more than it can be ignored.

Mae (Teapot), 2000
Silver, Enamel, Ebony, Citrine
5 1/5 x 8 x 4″

This sense of lack is explored more directly in another recent series, the “Beggars Bowls,” enamel-on-copper vessels that address a more immediate, physical need. Related to Perkins’s observation of the effects of poverty in India , these pieces assume a certain morally contemplative tone and are equal Iv about human ingenuity, the ability to put discarded objects to an effective use. “I was thinking about people who are desperately poor but may have one possession that keeps them alive,” she explains; “something that was once fine and is still functional, but in a way that might be different from its original purpose.” To suggest both deterioration and restoration in her “Beggars’ Bowls,” Perkins has variously cut slits into the rims or punched holes in the walls, then sutured these wounds with copper wire, leaving the sharp points to project outward in thorny fields or to converge inward into treacherous nests of spikes. The exterior surfaces, in which sand or pumice has been added to the under-fired enamel, seem roughly weathered–far from precious in a material sense, although their implicit use as beggar’s bowls suggests their indispensability to those who daily tread the narrow path skirting death.

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Calabash Beggar’s Bowl. 2001
Copper, Enamel
3 x 6 1/2 x 7″

To attempt to combat the stereotype of enamelware’s superficiality simply by using the medium to reflect upon poverty and hunger would, as Perkins is the first to acknowledge, be itself only a superficial gesture. If her most recent series draws its initial inspiration from actual beggars’ bowls, it does not attempt to imitate them visually any more than it pretends to offer itself for real utilitarian purposes. The reference to Perkins’s experiences in India is only a starting point for a more profound violation of the enamelware surface, one that has its primary impact upon the use of the medium itself. In all her work the recurring subject is lack-lack of ceremony, lack of seriousness, lack of accessibility, lack of material requisites-and this lack is presented as eternal, insurmountable. The conceptual effect is that her work seems less about presence-the immediate, indulgent, satisfying but ultimately only material presence of traditional decorative enamelware-than about a vague but gnawing absence. Enamel is made to associate with issues inherently unresolved rather than with hardened clichés, and to reveal unfulfilled desire as a fruitful point of departure.

Glen R. Brown is an associate professor of art history at Kansas State University.

By Glen R. Brown - © Metalsmith Magazine - Spring 2003
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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