The recent exhibition, “Metal Under Glass,” at the Southwest Missouri State University, exemplifies some of the ways in which studio enameling, a craft “tenaciously tied to its traditional skills and interpretations,” has changed since the mid-twentieth century. “There is ample evidence of a desire in recent enameling,” writes Glen R. Brown, in his review of the exhibition, “to transcend traditional conceptions of the medium, to abandon the purely decorative and technically proficient in pursuit of less exhausted possibilities…” In addition to an increased emphasis on theoretical discourse, the most significant of these possibilities is concern for the underlying form of the piece. With few exceptions, beginning in the late 1950s, this was not always the case.
Although expert enamelists from the 1930s through the mid-1950s adhered to the principles and practices of modern aesthetics, they regarded enamel primarily as surface decoration, without full consideration of the object beneath. Enameling was for the most part a two-dimensional, painterly expression, equally akin to glaze on ceramic as paint on metal, Several ceramists, including Thelma Frazier Winter, Franz Bergmann, Win Ng, and F. Carlton Ball also did enamels. Annual ceramics exhibitions, such as The Ceramics National Exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, and the Wichita Art Association’s Decorative Art Ceramics Exhibition, included enamels. Virtuoso enamelist Karl Drerup lamented this fact, stating: “I…would like to see enamels far more related to metal craft than to that of the ceramist.” The mid-twentieth century was, nonetheless, a period of heightened activity for enameling, with institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh in 1950 and Cooper Union in 1954 organizing enamels exhibitions that included contemporary work. It was an enormously popular craft and ran the gamut from brilliant to banal. Addressing not only the quality, but the quantity of enamel work, Thomas S. Tibbs, then director of New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts, in his catalogue entry for the museum’s 1959 exhibition, “Enamels,” referred to it as “…something of a phenomenon.” Unfortunately, the requisite skill was too often lacking.
Due to the commercialization and availability of small, inexpensive kilns and kits, along with excellent how-to books by Kenneth F. Bates, Edward Winter and Oppi Untracht, enameling was one of the most popular crafts practiced by home hobbyists in the 1950s. Master enamelists such as Drerup, Bates, and Jean Ames bemoaned the situation, with Bates emphatically stating: “I do think that the results of the ‘play-at-it’ hobbyist deserve condemnation, and that as time goes on our art jurors are attempting to discourage that kind of approach.” Eleanor Roberts, acting curator of education at the St. Paul Art Gallery and School of Art, in her overview of its 1959 “Fiber, Clay and Metal” exhibition at the gallery wrote: “The most disappointing entries were the enamels, which were of such uniformly poor quality that the jurors had to rely upon invited work to fill this…niche.” Amateur enthusiasm served a purpose, nonetheless, as illustrated by Jean Ames’s comment decrying the burgeoning growth of post-World War II enamelwork as “rampant and vulgar,” while at the same time taking heart in the “sponsorship and pride in the finer achievements” that such interest fomented.
All of the historic techniques were explored cloisonné, champlevé, baisse-taille, grisaille, Limoges, plique-à-jour, encrusté and en résille.To these were added dry inlay, sgraffito, slush, and the incorporation of firescale, burnout, and oxidation. Enamelists used not only copper, silver, and gold as foundations for color, but steel, iron and even aluminum. Some experimented with repoussé and hammered, crushed, and patinated copper grounds. Others investigated large-scale architectural applications, such as murals. Occasionally they combined both. “Perhaps the most important development [of mid-century crafts],” wrote Hedy Backlin, curator of decorative arts at the Cooper Union Museum, in New York City, in her review of “Enamels,” “is the entrance of enamels into the architectural field.” As a frequent art juror, Drerup held distinct opinions about the state of contemporary enameling and was no fan of its architectural application. “Enamels are an intimate medium,” he stated, “and to conceive of enamels as large decorations is unthinkable, unless we…invent something new and get away from these flat-looking sprayed pieces that are being put out in the name of so-called architectural enamels.”
Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, enameling, which had come in and out of favor since the sixth century B.C., became somewhat dormant in the United States, save for a few small Arts and Crafts studios. It gained momentum during the 1930s, due, for the most part, to Bates, Drerup, and Winter. Cleveland, Ohio, home to Bates and Winter, in addition to such stellar practitioners as Doris Hall, Kalman Kubinyi, Mary Ellen McDermott, Charles Bartley Jeffrey, Mildred Watkins, John Puskas, Fern Cole and John Paul Miller, was, at that time, perhaps the most important center for enameling in the United States.
Cleveland’s leadership in enameling was due to two men: William Mathewson Milliken, then director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Kenneth F. Bates, who taught design and later enameling at the Cleveland Institute of Art. During 1930 and 1931 , Milliken acquired part of the Guelph Treasure, a remarkable collection of early medieval cloisonné, champlevé, and goldsmithing.
Kenneth F. Bates, who was born in North Scituate, Massachusetts, in 1904, had studied enameling with Arts and Crafts master Laurin A. Martin in Boston in 1924. Soon after he went to Fontainebleau, France, to study with Claude Lemuenier. In 1927 Bates was hired as an instructor of design at the Cleveland Institute (then School) of Art. The following year, he traveled to Paris, where he was inspired by the medieval enamels at the Cluny Museum and the Louvre, along with an exhibition of Byzantine cloisonné at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. When he returned to Cleveland, Bates “decided to take up the study and production of enameling as a life work.” Bates’s style most often reflected botanical motifs. An amateur botanist, he considered flower and plant life “[a world of] magical enchantment …of…undeniable value to the designer….”. His early work was soft and organic, while his later output displayed broken, dislocated, and faceted surfaces and eventually collage and assemblage, incorporating found objects within the enameled surface.” Due to his authority, Bates received the appellation Dean of American Enamelists in 1987.
One of Bates’s most successful students was Edward Winter, who, although merely four years his junior, studied design under him at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Winter, a native of Pasadena, California, who attended the school from 1926-1930, would also teach there, and in fact taught the first enamels course in 1935. From 1930 to 1931, Winter studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna with Josef Hoffmann. Although his original focus was to be pottery and sculpture, Winter became enthralled with enamels and upon his return to Cleveland decided to devote his life to expanding the craft’s parameters. Unlike Bates, whose output centered on small domestic objects, Winter, along with his wife, Thelma Frazier Winter, whom he married in 1939, produced not only household items, which were sold through department stores and specialty shops from coast to coast, but also largescale indoor and outdoor architectural murals, using copper, steel, and later aluminum as a base. Winter used airbrushing to achieve a fuzzy, softened surface for his abstracted natural shapes, as well as painting and even dripping or pouring.” An empirical worker, he took advantage of break-ups, speckles, and other textural incidents, sometimes melting glass balls, rods, or strings into the enamel surface.
Pockets of activity flourished throughout the country, especially in California, where makers worked independently, without institutional affiliation. These included Jean Ames and her husband Arthur, Franz Bergmann, Dextra and Charles Frankel, Barney Reid, JoAnn Tanzer, June Schwarcz, and Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley. Talented practitioners working in other parts of the country at the same time were far too numerous to mention. Other enamelists of note, however, include Margret Craver in Boston; in New York, Earl Pardon in Saratoga Springs and Paul Hultberg in Stony Point; Hortense B. Isenberg and Oppi Untracht in New York City; Virgil Cantini in Pittsburgh; Virginia Dudley in Rising Fawn, Georgia; Dorothy Sturm in Memphis; Joseph Tripetti in Center Tuftonboro, New Hampshire; Mildred Lee Ball in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Mary Kretsinger in Emporia, Kansas.
Karl Drerup was, perhaps, the most delicately romantic enamelist of the era. Born in Germany, he had been trained as a painter there as well as in Italy, where he also learned ceramics, creating them for his own amusement after coming to the United States and settling in Rockville Centre, New York, in 1937. He hoped to make a living from pottery, but soon turned to enamel instead, because it was far less expensive to produce. Having no prior experience with the technique, Drerup was completely self-taught. In 1945 he relocated to Thornton, New Hampshire, where he became active in the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, a seminal American crafts society. Drerup’s enamels are closest to traditional painting, particularly that of the Northern Renaissance, of any mid-twentieth century enamelist. He especially admired Pieter Bruegel’s distribution of light and dark and adapted, for enamels, his method of underpainting tonalities to achieve pictorial structure. Drerup held several of his contemporaries in high esteem, particularly admiring John Paul Miller’s jewelry, calling it “probably one of the highest attainments in enameling art,” as well as panels by West Coast couples Jean and Arthur Ames and Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley.
The Ameses, painters who specialized in murals made from ceramic mosaics, were, in fact, first inspired to try enameling after viewing an exhibition of Drerup’s work at Scripps College in Claremont, California, in 1940. According to Jean Ames, “[M]aterial, kilns, and methods were then unknown in California.” When Arthur returned home after serving in World War II, they began experimenting with jewelers’ enamel in a small kiln, built for them by a ceramist friend. Like Drerup, their manner of working was slow and based upon the deliberate buildup of transparent over opaque enamel. The couple worked both together and individually. Jean’s style, inextricably linked to subject matter—angels, sprites, and “enchanted” birds and beasts—was delicate and ephemeral, while Arthur’s was bold and abstract.
Like the Ameses, Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley were introduced to enameling at Scripps College, where they met while pursuing graduate degrees in art. They became fascinated with the technique after viewing a demonstration at the school in 1947. Since there were no courses offered, the Woolleys taught themselves, aided eventually by Enameling: Principles and Practice. They perceived enamel’s potential and became determined to make a living through the craft. During this period they created more than 5,000 household items such as ashtrays, bowls, platters, and boxes. Prominent makers in the San Diego area, they were founding members of Allied Craftsmen of San Diego, a group with whom they exhibited. In the late 1950s the Woolleys began working on a larger scale, making framed square panels of multiple enameled units which fit together like jigsaw puzzles. The work became increasingly more three-dimensional, involving sculptural repoussé and eventually folded and hammered copper; transparent enamel was used to allow the form to be prominent, a harbinger of contemporary methodology. By the early 1950s they turned to huge architectural commissions that include a twelve-by-thirty-six foot exterior mural of partially enameled and partially patinated hammered and textured copper, over the main entrance of the First National Bank of San Diego. By the end of the decade Jackson had abandoned enamel on copper for industrial materials such as wood, masonite, and plastics, while Ellamarie continued to use the technique. By the 1970s, however, she combined it with wood, polyester resin, and even fiber. Both ultimately adopted completely nonrepresentational styles, Jackson finding inspiration in waterfront detritus—parts of ships and machinery—as well as constructivist sculpture, Ellamarie in traffic and commercial signage and “street furniture” such as lampposts and fire alarm boxes.
June Schwarcz was another artist who, like the Woolleys, pushed enamel far beyond what was thought possible at the time. She began enameling in the early 1950s while a young housewife in her native Denver, encouraged by friends who had taken a course taught by a student of Kenneth Bates at the Denver Art Museum. Schwarcz’s reference was, like the Woolleys, Bates’s invaluable technical book. Although her early works were traditional enamel on simple, spun copper vessels-this changed dramatically when she moved to Sausalito, California, in the mid-1950s, where she became enamored of the local terrain. While others were using enamel in a painterly fashion on symmetrical containers, Schwarcz sought irregular shapes and highly textured surfaces, informed by the natural formations that surrounded her. She wished to express the very essence of crusty marine life, craggy rock erosions, and organic vegetation. To achieve the desired form, she would cut the copper with shears or a motorized saw, or forge the metal on a rudimentary wooden stump. She employed baisse-taille, for which she is best known, but also used cloisonné and plique-à-jour, as well as experimenting with added adulterants such as sand, clay slip, and/or thin metal wires. Later, she employed electroforming to achieve roughness, along with etching and engraving. Both the interior and exterior of the bowls were enameled, each often completely opposite in character. Later in her career, she would enamel only the interior, keeping it smooth, while plating, patinating, or otherwise treating the outside to render it raw. By the 1980s Schwarcz’s love of textiles dominated her aesthetic. Ethnic costume and contemporary basketry, as well as fabrics by Japanese designers Issey Miyake and Junichi Arai, provided inspiration. She pleated and folded copper foil, which she would often “sew” with copper wire, then electroplate and enamel. At the age of eighty-four, Schwarcz is still working and is, in fact, represented in the Exhibition in Print.
Not unlike June Schwarcz, Dorothy Sturm vocabulary for enamelwork. In the early 1950s, while part-time art instructor at the Memphis Academy of Arts in Memphis, Tennessee, she attic and became intrigued with the medium. Her propensity for collage led her to discovered some antique enamels in the school’s fuse enamel with sizable portions of found glass shards onto a copper base, allowing the batch to randomly combine, crackle, and craze. The abundant, uncontrolled effects created results reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist painting; and, although, other enamelists might have worked in a similar manner, few achieved Sturm’s luscious, avant-garde results.
Jewelry played a major role in the history of mid-twentieth-century enamelwork. While Eleanor Roberts criticized enamels in general, in her Craft Horizons article on “, Clay Fiber and Metal,” she praised the jewelry: “Failures in larger pieces of enamels submitted did not extend to the use of enamels in jewelry…. Here enamels were handled superbly….”. Yet there is hardly any evidence of wearable pieces by Bates, the Ameses, Schwarcz, or Sturm. The Winters and Woolleys did produce some pendants, brooches, earrings, and cufflinks, possibly due to their salability, rather than a commitment to the jewelry format. Drerup made jewelry that was marketed, along with his tabletop objects, through Georg Jensen. Enameling: Principles and Practice, however, illustrates jewelry by only three enamelists: Mildred Watkins, Virgil Cantini, and William DeHart, and other books from the period show equally few. In the literature at least, vessels, plates, and panels were clearly emphasized over wearables. There was, nonetheless, remarkable jewelry being made.
John Paul Miller, who learned enameling from Kenneth Bates, used cloisonné enamel on gold to create gorgeous pendants that depict sea urchins, insects, and birds. In the late 1940s Miller began intensive studies into ancient Etruscan granulation that he combined with enamel to create some of the most technically proficient jewelry ever made. Margret Craver also experimented with a historical method: en résille, an obscure seventeenth-century technique originating in France , with few extant examples, whereby small enameled metal bits “float” upon a transparent surface of rock crystal or clear enamel. Earl Pardon produced jewelry that spanned styles as diverse as whimsical Paul Klee-like chimeras and tiny geometric units “punctuated” with enamel dots. In the late 1970s William Harper, a student of Bates and Miller at the Cleveland Institute of Art, combined cloisonné enamel with gold, semiprecious stones, baroque pearls, shells, and found objects to create powerful, talismanic brooches, pendants, and neckpieces. Many other prominent jewelers, although not specializing in enamelwork per se, incorporated enameled jewelry into their oeuvres. These included Imogene Geiling and merry renk in San Francisco; Adda Husted-Anderson and Fred Farr in New York City; Miyé Matsukada in Boston; Ronald Hayes Pearson in Rochester; and Ruth Penington in Seattle.
This Exhibition in Print shows a wealth of contemporary enamelwork. Other than a general adherence to basic techniques and methods, however, this fine display, for the most part, does not appear to possess any direct causal relationship with the pioneers working fifty years ago. Contemporary studio enamelists working in the United States have created some of the medium’s most exciting results to date. Those visionaries from the mid-twentieth century must be credited with refocusing attention upon the art and inaugurating an enameling Renaissance in America, one that has led to the stunning work being done today.
Toni Greenbaum is a New York City-based art historian, specializing in twentieth-century jewelry and metalwork.
Kathleen Browne, “The Stigma of Beauty,” in Metal Under Glass (exh. cat., Springfield, MO: Southwest Missouri State University, Art and Design Gallery, 2002), 13.
Glen R. Brown, “Metal Under Glass” (review), Metalsmith 22 (fall 2002), 49.
Oppi Untracht, “Karl Drerup: Enamelist” (interview), Craft Horizons 17 (January-February 1957), 15.
Thomas S. Tibbs, “Introduction” in Enamels (exh. cat., New York: Museum of Contemporary Crafts, 1959), 6.
Kenneth F. Bates, The Enamelist (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1967), xiii.
Eleanor Roberts, “Fiber, Clay, Metal,” Craft Horizons 20 (January-February 1960), 19.
Jean Ames, “Jean and Arthur Ames, Artist-Craftsmen of California, A Personal Narrative,” American Artist 19 (December 1955), 58.
Hedy Backlin, “Contemporary Enamels: A National Survey,” Craft Horizons 19, (November-December 1959), 33.
Kenneth F. Bates, Enameling Principles and Practice (Cleveland: World Publishing, second edition, 1951), 19.
Mel Someroski, “Introduction” in the Cleveland Enamelists, 1930-1955 (exh. cat., Kent, OH: Kent State University School of Art Gallery, 1988), 14.
“Edward Winter Opens Up New Decorative Vistas,” American Artist 11 (September 1947), 39.
For an valuable account of Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley, see Susan Peterson, “Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley,” Craft Horizons 32 (June 1972), 16-19.
For an excellent account of June Schwarcz, see Lisa Hammel, “June Schwarcz: Enamelist,” American Craft 41 (October-November 1981), 18-21.
Karen Blockman and Kathleen Doyle, “Master Metalsmith, Dorothy Sturm,” Metalsmith 3 (summer 1983), 10.