In this article, renowned enamelist Leila Tai discusses her many motivations and inspirations as well as her creative process in making her award-winning works.
When and how did you become involved in enameling?
I took classes at the Kulicke-Stark Academy in 1975. This is when I met both Jean Stark and Robert Kulicke. Working with Jean on the cloisonné enameling technique was inspiring. It was my first encounter with enamels. I immediately felt comfortable with the technique, despite its difficulties.
What is your background/work experience/education?
My father was an extremely skilled machinist and mechanic, so I grew up in a home surrounded by tools and appreciation of craft. I graduated with a Bachelor in Art Education from the American University of Beirut and a Masters in Arts from the University of Wisconsin, with a specialty in Metal work. In New York, I met the late Donald Clafflin, head designer of Tiffany’s, in 1976. He encouraged me to become a jewelry designer. Donald’s beautifully rendered designs gave me the inspiration to start my own long and productive career in designing. Creating a simple and elegant look became my life-long endeavor. I was an in-house designer for almost thirty years. fu an artist, though, I have always been drawn to the bench. I have a great love for tools, metals and gems. Eventually, I went back to my first love: making unique pieces.
What qualities do you find appealing in enameling and why?
The most appealing feature in enameling is that once the process of firing starts with a newly designed piece the magic begins. The colored glass applied to metal is like a man made jewel. I simply love working with transparent vitreous colors. It is like alchemy!
Why enameling compared to other mediums of expression?
The process of melting glass on metal and working with such a wide range of colors is a constant celebration of life. Molten glass and metals with gems is what our earth is made of. It is really art of the fire and I am very comfortable with it.
What enameling techniques do you employ?
When I started, I mostly worked on cloisonné pieces. Today, I favor the filigree and the plique-a-jour technique. Depending on my inspiration I may use other techniques in the future. In 2002 had my first tour de force show in plique-a-jour at the Faber gallery in New York. It was entitled “Wings of Color” and was a study of real species of butterflies and moths. The wings were all hand fabricated and enameled. Each wing was individually lapped to a shiny transparent finish. The species were exhibited in what looked like butterfly collectors’ boxes. I wanted by that to encourage people to own one of these species as a real jewel to wear and also hang in their home as art work.
Do you favor some techniques over others and why?
I am open to most techniques and don’t really favor one technique over the other. However, I feel that one should work within what they can excel at in terms of self-expression.
Can you describe in detail how your work evolves, from start to finish?
I usually start with a sketch and multiple drawings until the idea matures in my mind. When it does, I proceed to making a model. My models are very often in multiple pieces. Some parts have movement and I usually design them, mechanically, so that they can be disassembled for repair (which is rarely actually needed – since enamel is stronger than it looks). Once all the parts are ready to assemble, I start the enameling process. The finished enameled parts are set last into the piece. One way in which my plique-a-jour technique differs from the traditional is that some parts of the design are entered into a CAD system then made by a 3D printing process. However, not all the parts are done this way and I do always start with a design that I have drawn by hand.
How do you go about choosing color?
I do all my color selection on paper using watercolor pencils and transparent vellum over the final black-and-white drawing. Once I decide on a combination of colors, I begin matching the watercolor pencils with the enamels. All -y enamel color samples are fired on mica for clarity of color.
How does an idea for a work begin?
The idea usually begins with an inspiration. My main source of inspiration is nature and its seasons. Nature studies are essential to my creativity. For example, I have spent hours in the American Museum of Natural History looking at species of butterflies and moths.
Do you start with sketches, or is your work very spontaneous?
I always start with sketches and am very spontaneous in my sketching. But before I commit to starting a piece, I select a small number of my sketches, render them fully, and finally decide just what I am going to do before starting work on the actual piece. But sometimes I end up making changes even while the piece is in progress, for either artistic or technical reasons.
Describe your studio/equipment/workspace.
My studio is at home and occupies a small area of a work room. I have a wonderful bench with all its comforts, drawers and a lot of space for tools. The work area of the bench is big enough to solder on and keep an Ultra Lite kiln that heats up to 1550 degrees F for enameling small works. Not far from the bench is a separate large desk for drawing and doing waxwork when I need to. The enameling area is kept clean. I keep other equipment, such as milling and polishing devices, in a separate corner.
What inspires your work and why?
My main inspiration is nature) but my work is also inspired sometimes while working with or talking to other artists, or even just asking friends for opinions. Somehow, sharing with another creative mind encourages one to push harder on ideas and directions that normally one is unsure about expressing.
Have other artists or persons been inspirational to your work?
Jean Stark and Donald Clafflin. Valeri Timofeev is another, more recent inspiration. Valeri is an exceptional Russian artist and engineer who immigrated to America in the early 90’s. He works mainly in filigree and plique-a-jour. Valeri is to my knowledge the first to transform the ancient filigree traditional designs into contemporary interpretations that are just breathtaking when combined with enamels. His enameled metalwork cups and bowls are impeccable and magnificent.
Have you read any books that have affected your work?
Yes. “Elements of Design’ by Gail Greet Hannah is one of my favorite books on design and art. Books on art and design affect me. I find them fascinating, since I love teaching design. However, in my own work I am inclined to read about the Art Nouveau period its metal work and jewelry. That period in history is all about creating our modern world, it was at a time of big change, like the one we are going through today.
Do you sell your work?
Yes. I sell my work through Mobilia Art gallery in Cambridge Mass. and my website. I also have gotten many responses from showing last spring at the Forbes Galleries and the JA show this past summer. I was the winner of the New Talent Award from the American jewelry Design Council. (AJDC) The prize was a free booth at the JA show and a trophy made by Michael Good.
Do you belong to any enameling groups, associations or other guilds?
Yes. I am a member of the Enamellist Society and belong to other associations. Glass on Metal is a publication I am very fond of.
Do you teach enameling?
I do not teach enameling but foresee doing so in the future. I presently teach Design and Rendering at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), a part of SUNY (State University of New York). I also teach Jewelry Design as an adjunct at Pratt Institute.
Have you attended conferences, workshops, exhibitions in Enameling?
Recently, I have taken two workshops with Valeri Timofeev.
Where do you see the future of your work going?
I am aiming at having my work become heirlooms of the future and would like to keep on experimenting with color, shape and form. I am hoping to grow very old and still have the same enthusiasm I had when I started with this work. Experiments in design are of great interest to me . Enameling – glass on metal is my passion.