There are few artists who can subtly control the relationship between what they perceive and the manner in which this perception takes form. The ability to communicate an idea tangibly is a thoughtful, emotional endeavor, dependent on a clear sense of purpose and an unencumbered understanding of one’s own work.
An artist committed to object making is restricted by certain formal limitations and influenced by the history of that object. A vessel, for instance, deals with particular aspects of containment, which impose technical and material limitations. There is also a past sense of form, shape and scale associated with the vessel. There are images and psychological inferences related to the vessel. This has been recorded through the history of that object and cannot be denied.
Bowl 867, electroplated copper foil, blue-purple enamel inside, oxidized iron plating outside, h. 6½”, d. 9¾”, 1982
These restrictions can be assets, however, for in the artist’s hands objects can transcend their roots to emerge as intense visual experience about beauty, emotion, intellect, order and form. Being a bowl or box seems at times merely coincidental. However, as a vehicle of expression, the nature of the form in which the idea takes shape must be understood by the artist. This understanding is crucial to the consequence of the object, whether the intentions are practical or metaphorical. Eventually, this object will be considered within a historical context and its contribution will be judged against what has preceded it. Beyond the artist’s concept and expressive ability, a sense of place must be clear if the object is to emerge with its own presence.
Panel 815, electroplated foil, 1981. Photos: June Schwarcz
Many historical artifacts maintain this presence. When we observe the primitive feathered capes from Oceanic and Peruvian cultures there is a feeling of power and ritual. The fact that they are garments is not independently significant. The power of the object is also dependent on the sensitivity of the artist to material, texture and pattern with place and time. Moving from culture to culture, we can witness marvelous forms which transcend usefulness, surviving with a force and life of their own. Each of these objects pays homage to history but should exist as if it was the first of its kind.
Bowl 799, electroplated design on spun and hammered bowl, copper oxidized black with dots of color on the outside, golden brown enamel on the inside, h. 3⅜”, d. 6⅜”, 1980
In our time and culture it is difficult to find the potential of such objects. Perhaps we are not clear minded in the making or perhaps it is a bit premature to try to identify significant works from an existing time period. Whatever the case, certain artists have been able to survive our complicated existence and have produced singular, honest works. I believe enamelist June Schwarcz to be among these artists whose work has maintained integrity without sacrificing individual exploration.
This conversation with June Schwarcz focuses on her relationship with her work and the role it plays for her.
You have worked simultaneously with several themes, among them the vessel and machine like wall reliefs. Could you discuss the relationship of these themes?
I usually do work with several different themes. I love many different kinds of objects I consider beautiful, be they fine art or craft, utilitarian or decorative, ancient or contemporary, Western or Eastern. I love the clean geometry of drawings of machinery as well as the organic forms found in nature. Some aspects of these objects stimulate and influence me. Classic art and the European art influenced by classic art excite me the least. I collect as many of the things I love as I can afford and our house can digest.
Bowl 818, plique-à-jour, electroplated foil with iron plating on the outside, enamel on copper inside, h. 5⅜”, d. 8″, 1981
Do you see any conflict in working with both?
I like to work in different directions at once because it is more interesting that way. I also think it keeps my eye fresher. I am primarily interested in electroplated foil bowls, but if I thought only of them I am afraid I would grow stale.
Could you talk a bit about how you begin your pieces? How do your ideas materialize?
Many ideas come from things I see in nature or other art. Often just a detail of color, pattern or shape is enough to trigger an idea. I see them through the techniques I use which will transform them into something quite different from the original idea source.
Have you ever gotten too close to your resources?
Sometimes my work has been too close to the design source and has become a repetition in a different media, or so close in feeling to the original source that it didn’t have a character of its own. These results make me very unhappy and I try very hard to prevent that from happening.
Other ideas grow out of the characteristics of the materials and methods I’m using. This is particularly true of my foil bowls. I play with paper patterns until some manipulations interest me.
My techniques are very slow. It takes at least a week to plate a bowl. I plate only one bowl at a time. I get an idea and can hardly wait to see what it will look like. If something is too predictable it isn’t interesting to me. I get ideas easily. The work is so slow that I have forgotten most of them before I can get around to working on them. If I sit down to work without a specific idea the object usually turns out to be pretty dull.
Do you consider yourself an intuitive worker?
I don’t know. I suppose all art must be intuitive to some extent. Most of my ideas do grow from things I see. It is then up to me to turn them into something with a life of their own. Maybe it is intuition, maybe it is a trained eye.
Vessel 863, electroplated foil, iron plated on the outside with some corrosion, gray and golden brown transparent enamel on the inside, h. 7⅝”, d. 5¼”, 1982. Photos: M. Lee Fatherree
What do you think of changes in your work?
Changes in my work are what keep me stimulated and excited. I recently learned about brush plating. I am teeming with ideas for new potentialities.
The whole notion of fine crafts, the commitment to the object, seems to be very ambiguous. I think of people such as Dominic De Mare, Dale Chihuly, Bill Daley and yourself among artists who are clear about this commitment. Could you discuss what role you feel the object plays in our culture?
Abstract art and abstract sculpture, in particular, taught us to look at the form of an object without consideration of its original use. I have a large Japanese mortar for pounding rice and a Northwest Coast Indian paddle. I love them because of the Brancusi sculpture I first saw at the Museum of Modern Art over 40 years ago when I was an industrial design student at Pratt Institute.
The beauty, life, vitality, essence, spirit, or whatever it is, is what matters in the things I want to own and make. It doesn’t matter what they are made of, if you sit on them or hang them on a wall. The effect upon a receptive observer is all that matters. My objects are mostly bowls, but I do not expect them to be used as containers. I love the vessel form. It has been a very basic form for all mankind with a rich history. I like to feel a part of that continuing tradition.
Vessel 821, electroplated foil bowl, inside reddish brown enamel, outside enameled dark blue collars, 1981. Photo: June Schwarcz
Are you ever distracted by technique and process?
Technique and process stimulate me. I think through them. Their very limitations give me ideas. I am uncomfortable painting because there are not enough limitations. I think those of us who work in the craft media do so because we love the materials and processes. It is the same kind of enjoyment some people get in solving puzzles and problems. We can get effects through our materials impossible in any other way. That is exciting. I do not want to do anything anyone else has done. My husband’s technical help enabled me to do things I couldn’t have done by myself.
You are held in high regard by most enamelists yet you break many of their rules. Could you speak to this?
I was a product of early progressive education. I wasn’t taught any great respect for rules. I learned to enamel from Kenneth Bates’s Enameling: Principles and Practices. I didn’t study enameling with anyone and I didn’t realize that there were rules. I will do anything I can to get the effect I want. I am still frustrated by my ability to control opalescents the way I want. Perhaps I can learn from Connie Brauer’s low-firing techniques.
I sense a great honesty in your work and a willingness to take risks. Is risk taking inherent to development?
Yes, risk taking is inherent to my development. There are others who refine a technique and have a continuously fresh flow of ideas within these limitations. So many of my ideas are so interdependent with my experiments that I can’t work without this exploration. It isn’t necessary for everyone. Beautiful drawings have been and will be made with pencil and paper.
Bowl 866, electroplated copper foil bowl, various grayed colors inside, iron plated and oxidized on the outside of base, transparent red cuff on outside, h. 7%”, d. 5k’,1982. Photo: M. Lee Fatherree
What are some of your priorities? You seem to balance your personal life and work very well even in the light of being a new grandmother.
I am a compulsive maker of things I hope will be beautiful. This can be making a garden, clothes (I think of them as art objects if they are good enough) or enamels. I have a feeling of peace when I’m working that I don’t have at any other time. Nevertheless, my priority and main pleasure in life has been my family. However, I often felt very divided when the children were growing up. There wasn’t enough time in the day to do all I wanted to do and had to do. I hurried every minute that I wasn’t worn out. I wish I could have managed it all more calmly.
June Schwarcz lives and works in Sausalito, California. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including one woman shows at the Schmuckmuseum, Pforzheim, Germany, 1972; Museum of Contemporary Crafts, 1966; Museum Bellrive, Zurich, Switzerland, 1971. Her work is in the public collections of the American Craft Museum, New York; Oakland Art Museum, California; Minnesota Museum of Art; Johnson Wax Collection; Denver Art Museum and many others. Recent group shows include Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles, California; “Enamelists, Wall, Schwarcz, Harper” 1982; EIements Gallery, 1981, New York, “Enamels ’82,”; George Washington University, Washington, D.C., 1982
Jamie Bennett is on the metal arts faculty of Boston University’s Program in Artisanry, Boston, MA and a contributing editor to this magazine