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Painting with Fire

MASTERS OF ENAMELING IN AMERICA, 1930-1980

Review by Marbeth Schon

 

This review is, unfortunately, only a examination of the catalog, "Painting with Fire, Masters of Enameling in America, 1930 - 1980" written by Bernard N. Jazzar and Harold B. Nelson that accompanies the exhibit of the same name currently at the Long Beach Museum of Art in Long Beach, California.  I have not yet had the opportunity to attend the exhibit to see this astounding collection of enamels. 

Enamels, like paintings, should be seen, not in books, but in reality, however, many of us never get the opportunity to travel to the great museums of the world to personally view the art we admire so we make do with the photographs and information contained in our books and catalogs. Luckily, the plates in this catalog, "Painting with Fire, Masters of Enameling in America, 1930-1980" are astonishingly large, clear, and beautiful and the text is interesting, informative, and easy to read. It is a "must have" for anyone who wishes to collect 20th century American enamels and the following article is meant to give the reader a small sample of the wonderful photographs and information contained therein.

The catalog is divided into three main sections:

"The Early Years, 1930-1940" which includes enamelists Mildred Watkins, Kenneth F. Bates, Edward Winter, Karl Drerup, and Ruth Raemish.

"Advancing the Field, 1940-1960" which includes enamelists Doris Hall, Jean and Arthur Ames, Jackson and Ellamaire Woolley, and Jade Snow Wong.

"New Directions, 1960-1980" which includes enamelists June Schwarcz, William Harper, Harold B. Helwig, and Fred Uhl Ball.

In addition to the chapters regarding the above fifteen master enamelists, the authors have included biographies of thirty-one more enamel artists.

The exhibit and catalog cover a huge span of years and incorporate more than two hundred large-scale panels, plaques, plates, boxes, and three-dimensional objects. Though many of the artists did make jewelry, there is very little jewelry presented. It is interesting to note that many couples were involved in creating enamels.  For example, Doris Hall and Kalman Kubinyi; Jeam Goodwin Ames and Arthur Ames; and Jackson Woolley and Ellamaire Woolley.

The Early Years, 1930-1940

The beginnings of art enameling in this country grew from programs at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts between the years 1900 and 1940.

Early enamelists who studied and taught at the Cleveland School of Art helped to make that city the "center of enameling" in the United States during the first half of the 20th Century.

Mildred G. Watkins (1883 - 1968) was one of the first of "a generation of Ohio-based artists who, in turning their attention to the medium, elevated enameling to unprecedented levels of beauty and inventiveness."1 

Watkins, like many of the other enamelists featured in the catalog, started as a painter who sort of "fell into" enameling. She studied portraiture at the Cleveland School of Art, but was not fond of laboring over her paintings, saying that "anything she did after the second day only served to spoil her drawing." Finishing her work quickly afforded her the extra time "lurk" in the design department and she soon decided that design was her real calling and that working with metals would be her career choice.2

The footed bowl below was one of her first pieces and it was done within the metalworking traditions of the Arts and Crafts movement--hand hammered silver with the enamel being secondary to the metalwork.

Mildred Watkins
Footed Bowl, ca.1920
Enamel on silver
7/8 x 3 ¼
Private Collection

 

Watkins was a superb colorist and she made exceptional use of blue, purple, and maroon enamels.  One of my favorite pieces by Watkins from the catalog is the whimsical bowl below titled "My Cat Whirling on a Red Cushion."

Mildred Watkins
My Cat Whirling on a Red Cushion, 1944
Enamel on copper
1 5/8 x 7 1/4
The Cleveland Museum of Art
The Mary Spedding Milliken Memorial
Collection, Gift of William Mathewson
Milliken

Master enamellist Kenneth Bates (1904 - 1994) is one of the more well-known artists covered in this catalog. The title "Dean of American Enameling" has stuck with him since he was described as such in a 1967 issue of Ceramics Monthly.  Bates taught for many years at the Cleveland School of Art and influenced a great number of artist/enamelists  through his work, his teaching, and his books.

In the introduction to his book, "Enameling Principles and Practice," Bates said that he felt a kind of "awesome enchantment" with enamels. "This feeling of ....enchantment continued for Bates throughout a career in enameling that spanned more than sixty years."

"Bates earliest dated work in enamel, a copper and enamel vessel entitled "Covered Bowl" (below) was produced in 1927...." 3

Kenneth F. Bates
Covered Bowl, 1927
Enamel on copper
3 x 4 1/2
The Cleveland Museum of Art Seventy-fifth anniversary gift of Kenneth F. Bates,
 

Bates knowledge of horticulture--his "understanding of nature and flowers--[that] informed the richly patterned, brilliantly colored enamels he produced throughout his life" is evidenced in his extraordinary floral themes.4

Kenneth F. Bates
Cinerarias, 1938
 Enamel on copper, 3/4 x 11 3/4
The Cleveland Museum of Art The Mary Spedding Milliken Memorial Collection Gift of William Mathewson Milliken

Another early force in enameling in the U.S. was Edward Winter (1908 - 1976) who graduated from Cleveland School of Art in 1931. Though not initially interested in enameling, he was prompted to try it by one of his teachers, Julius Mihalik who told him to "Study enamel work--it will become one of the great things of the future."5

On Mihalik's recommendation, Winter studied enameling and metalwork in Europe, first with Joseph Hoffmann in Vienna. Through his travels he was able to study the paintings of the leading modern masters of the time and visit some of Europe's greatest contemporary enamelists  whose influences are evidenced in his abstract, sometimes cubist compositions. He expressed his artistic beliefs in an article published in the Akron Times saying, "It is not an artist's business to paint a mere photograph of an object, he is painting what he thinks about that object." He was also interested in "breaking down the barriers between the beautiful and the useful, observing that 'modern artists who choose enameling work, pottery and metal as their mediums contend that the objects we live with daily--the bowls, book ends and so on--should be beautiful.'"6

Edward Winter
Peace and War, 1938
Enamel on copper
59 ½ x 30
Western Reserve Historical Society,
Cleveland
 

Edward Winter
Crackle in Blue and Green, 1935
Enamel on copper
2 5/8 x 20 3/8
Dallas Museum of Art
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Kenneth M.
Hamlett

 

Karl Drerup (2004 - 2000), considered one of the "leading figures in twentieth-century enameling," emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1937 to escape Nazi persecution.  He was originally slated by his family to go into the priesthood, but instead followed his intense desire to study art.

He was trained as a painter, first in Germany and later in Italy and became quite well known internationally for his work.  It wasn't until coming to the United States, however, where he saw the work of Edward Winter, that he became interested in working in enamels.

Drerup's work is often illustrative; "he was never very comfortable with abstraction" and he enjoyed working with religious subject matter such as in the enamel plaque below.

 Karl Drerup
St. Eustace, 1949
Enamel on copper
1 x 10 x 7 1/8
Wichita Center for the Arts, Kansas

Karl Drerup
Bowl with Blue Mask, ca.1947
Enamel on copper
2 5/8 x 11 1/2
Currier Museum of Art, Manchester,New Hampshire
Gift from the Collection of Elisabeth and Maurice Sunderland

Ruth Raemisch (1893-1966), whose work, along with that of Karl Drerup was sited in 1940 by New York Times critic Walter Rendell Storey as "among the most significant enamels he had ever seen in the United States" was, like Drerup, a German immigrant who came to the US before World War II to escape persecution. 7

Raemisch was trained in Europe and her enamels were done in the time honored Limoges technique but her design influences come from her studies with German Expressionist painter Karl Schimidt-Ruttluff who was a member of  the Die Brüke movement.  "Her simply rendered, crudely drawn figures [are] executed in a consciously naive, primitivizing style."8
 

Ruth Raemisch
Box with Scenes from the Story of
Undine, ca.1939
Enamel on copper, silver
3 1/2 x 5 1/2 x 4 1/2
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NewYork
Purchase, Edward C. Moore Jr. Gift

Ruth Raemisch
The Lovers, ca.1948
Enamel on copper
7 3/4 x 6
Providence Art Club, Rhode Island
Gift of Lysbeth Muncy in Honor of the
Les Gals

Advancing the Field, 1940-1960

The two decades between 1940 - 1960 saw a tremendous growth in the field of enameling in the United States.  Influenced by "the Arts and Crafts movement, Viennese modernism and the French Limoges school pictorial tradition," a new group of  artists made enameling their primary art focus.
Between 1940 and 1974, Doris Hall (1907 - 2000), produced a "rich and multifaceted body of work" in enamels. Like others before her, she first trained as a painter, studying art with Charles Hawthorne in Provincetown, Massachusetts and at the Cleveland School of Art where she graduated in 1928. While studying in Cleveland, she met Kalman Kubinyi who was teaching printmaking. They were married in 1933 and later collaborated on a long and successful career in enameling. 9

Speaking of their collaboration, Kubinyi said, "Control of color, design and most of the application of the enamel is done by Doris.  I beat out the large sculptural forms, the metal forming, fabrication, ground coats, compounding of enamels, spraying and burning of undercoats. I take the brunt of the preparation." 10

Hall's enamels often depicted people or scenes from ordinary life; her work is painterly and charming, her colors rich and expressive.

Doris Hall
Moisha with Cat, 1948-49
Enamel on copper
15 x 12
Collection of Moisha Kubinyi Blechman
& R.O. Blechman

 

Doris Hall
Nereid, 1948
Enamel on copper
1 ½ x 15 ½
The Cleveland Museum of Art
The Rorimer Brooks Anniversary Award
 

Doris Hall and Kalman Kubinyi
Portrait Brooch
Enamel on copper, silver
Diam: 1-7/8
Private Collection

Jean Goodwin Ames (1903 - 1996) and Arthur Ames (1906 - 1975) were husband and wife. Though they shared a love for the medium of enameling, each had a separate and unique approach their art.
Jean was born in California and Arthur in Illinois, however Arthur moved to Ontario California as a child so both were raised and went to school in California.  Jean Ames studied at the Art Institute of Chicago but returned to California where he received a bachelor of arts degree in education from the University of California, Los Angeles and a master of fine arts degree from the University of Southern California.  Jean met Arthur Ames while studying ceramics with master potter Glen Luckens.

Arthur Ames studied at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Both Jean and Arthur Ames were educators; Jean taught at Santa Ana High School and Citrus High School and Junior College from 1932 to 1936 and after that, graduate school. She was chairman of the art department at Claremont Graduate School from 1962-1969. Arthur Ames taught design at the Otis Art Institute for seventeen years.

Though they preferred working in enamels, Jean and Arthur Ames produced "paintings, sculptures, prints, ceramics, tapestries, murals, mosaics, and tile decorations."11

Jean Ames work was filled with "imaginary characters, including angels and fantasy-inspired creatures......While she was a modernist, intrigued by abstract, formal issues, Ames admitted that her foremost interest was in the idealized subjects she depicted rather than in her abstract compositions and designs." 12   *(see title photograph at top and its caption at the completion of the article)

Jean and Arthur Ames
Counterpoint
Enamel on copper
5/8 x 6 1/2
Wichita Center for the Arts, Kansas
James A. Parker Collection

Arthur Ames was a modernist whose work became more abstract and three-dimensional in the 1970s. Some of his early designs resemble stained glass or perhaps the work of Rouault.

Arthur Ames
Night Still Life, 1955
Enamel on copper
10 3/8 x 10 3/8
Wichita Center for the Arts, Kansas

 

Jackson Woolley (1910-1992) and Ellamarie Woolley (1913 - 1976) were based in San Diego, California.  Ellamarie had been born there, but Jackson was originally from Pittsburgh.  Jackson Woolley, a Shakespearean actor, moved to San Diego in the 1930s to perform at the Old Globe Theatre. He met Ellamarie while teaching drama at the Francis W. Parker School. 

Jackson served in the army during World War II and when he came home, he and Ellamarie decided that they would like to do something together "that would keep them in one place and that would not involve teaching." Enameling was that "something" and they began in about 1947 to create mostly functional objects such as plates, ashtrays, and boxes. 13

Later, starting about 1954,  they produced wall-mounted panels.  Their abstract designs are executed in strong, bright colors in a sgraffito technique--lines were drawn into an unfired layer of enamel, color added dry in the outlined areas and the lines cleaned out with a soft brush or pointed tool and the piece was fired.14
 

Ellamarie Woolley
Frugent, ca. 1960
Enamel on copper
12 1/8 x 18 1/8
Wichita Center for the Arts, Kansas

Jackson Woolley
Places and Things, 1973
Enamel on copper
8 1/8 x 10 1/4
Wichita Center for the Arts, Kansas
James A. Parker Collection

 

Jade Snow Wong (1922 - 2006) is best known as the author of "Fifth Chinese Daughter," published in 1950.  She was also an extraordinary potter and enamelist.  Her forms were "simple and elegant with understated yet strong finishes." 15

Jade Snow Wong was born in San Francisco of Chinese -American parents.  She was fortunate to have the opportunity to study at Mills College while working on campus. While at Mills, she met the ceramist F. Carlton Ball who influenced her decision to become a potter.  She did not start making enamel ware until after World War II when copper became more readily available. The aesthetic subtleties of her pottery transferred well into her enamel ware and she became well-known for her exquisite enamel on copper vessels.
 

Jade Snow Wong
Bowl, 1951
Enamel on copper
4 7/8 x 10 1/4
Collection of the Ong Family Trust

Jade Snow Wong
Bowl, 1951
Enamel on copper
4 5/8 x 6 13/16
Collection of the Ong Family Trust

 

Jade Snow Wong
Bowl, 1957
1 3/16 x 5 1/4
Collection of the Ong Family Trust; courtesy of Elizabeth and Edward Kent

New Directions, 1960-1980

During the two decades between 1960 and 1980, enamelists pushed the boundaries of the designs and techniques of the past.  "American enameling was characterized by an increasing interest in formal experimentation, by new investigations of richly provocative social and sexual content, and, most importantly, by a deepening commitment to exploring new directions."16
June Schwarcz (born 1918) is one of "the most highly regarded artists in the enameling field today."  Schwarcz studied industrial design at Pratt Institute in New York  from 1939-1941.  She married in 1943 and was mostly involved with raising her family until the early 1950s when a serendipitous encounter with an old friend in Denver lead her to the work of Kenneth Bates and to an interest in enameling. 

Some of Schwarcz's most interesting work involves electroforming. Because of her desire to create "strong, simple pieces with deep recesses and exciting surfaces," she used an etching process together with electroforming before enameling her vessels, a process which resulted in pieces with craggy surfaces that resemble the textures of bark, stone, or lava  or  that of other worlds--such as the surface of another planet or.....17

June Schwarcz
Bowl (544), 1969
Enamel on copper
4 3/8 x 8 x 7
Oakland Museum of California
Bequest of Mrs. Dorothea Adams McCoy

 

June Schwarcz
Bowl (626), 1974
Enamel on copper
5 x 6 ¼
Collection of Martha J. Fleischman

 

William Harper (born 1944) has been producing  "exquisitely crafted and powerfully evocative [enameled] objects" for over forty years.  He is especially know for "highly inventive three-dimensional forms......incorporating intricately enameled designs along with gold, wood, and various other precious and, in some cases, distinctly non-precious materials." 18

Harper studied enameling with Kenneth Bates at the Cleveland Institute of Art and later with Mary Ellen McDermott, however he credits the work of June Schwarcz as his primary influence.

Harper's work is distinctive in its sexually charged depictions of male and female forms that he says were "inspired by the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 70s."19

William Harper
Odalisque with Peeping Tom, 1969
Enamel on copper, acrylic
2 7/8 x 5
Collection of the artist

 

William Harper
Pagan Baby #11: Blue Scarab , 1978
Enamel, gold, silver, garnet, pearl,
carapace
4 1/4 x 2 x 3/4
Collection of Ann Voulkos

 

Harold B. Helwig (born 1938) has been producing his imaginative, detailed enamels since 1965.  His is known for his poetic enamel figure drawings that "transcend the functional origins" of his vessels. 20

Helwig was raised in part by his grandparents from whom he learned survival skills that  forever influenced the way he approached life's challenges. His art was impacted by an interest in reading, especially books on philosophy such the writings of "Friedrich Nietzshe, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Cams"  He spent part of the 1960s in Germany with the U. S. army and there studied the works of Albrecht Durer and Giambattista Tiepolo, artists whose use of allegory and storytelling was an added influence.

"In 1968, Helwig married the artist Lenore Davis" with whom he began to explore new territories in artistic expression. His work after his marriage became "more sexually liberated, his compositions developed into more intricate narratives, and his technical experimentation led him to some dazzling surface treatments." 21
 

Harold B. Helwig
Youth, 1965
Enamel on copper
1/2 x 5 7/8
Collection of the artist

Harold B. Helwig
Angelic Devils, 1968
Enamel on copper
1 x 11
Museum of Arts & Design, New York
Gift of the American Craft Council, 1990. Donated by Johnson Wax Company to the American Craft Council

Fred Uhl Ball (1945 - 1985) was born in Oakland, California. His father was the well-known American studio potter Carlton Ball.  Fred Ball moved to Sacramento with his mother in 1951 and, at the young age of eleven, was already producing enamels  and "giving demonstrations in the 'Artists in Action' program at the California State Fair."22 At the age of fourteen he had his first solo show at the Sacramento City archives.23  

After high school he attended Sacramento Community College and in 1966, was awarded a scholarship to "World Campus Afloat, a program organized by Chapman College in Claremont" that gave students a chance to travel the world to study different cultures. In 1971, Ball earned his bachelor of arts degree and, in 1973, his masters of arts degree.  He authored several articles that appeared in magazines such as Ceramics Monthly, Art Week, and Craft Horizons. 24

Ball quickly became an internationally recognized enamelist--his work was experimental and unconventionally beautiful.  His book, "Experimental Techniques in Enameling," published in 1972, influenced a "generation of young enamelists." 25

His most monumental and ambitious project titled "The Way Home" is the one of the "largest murals ever created in enameled copper." The mural's subject matter "was derived from aerial views of the Sacramento River Delta." In an abstract manner, Ball used colors ranging from red to earth tones to blue to "reflect the [Delta's] various seasons." The mural was installed on the western facade of the municipal parking garage on Third and L Streets in Sacramento. 26

Sadly, at the young age of 40, Ball died from injuries suffered when he was assaulted and beaten outside his Sacramento studio in 1985.  People who knew him remember him as much for his generosity and kindness as for his seminal work with enamels.

Fred Uhl Ball
Untitled, ca.1984
Enamel on copper
7 1/2 x 12
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Washington D.C.
Gift of Susan and Thomas Willoughby in
memory of Fred Uhl Ball
 

Fred Uhl Ball
Untitled (square with opaque diagonal pattern), 1985
Enamel on copper
12 x 12
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Gift of Susan and Thomas Willoughby in memory of Fred Uhl Ball

*Title photograph:

Jean Ames
Star Angel, 1950-1951
Enamel on Copper
10 x 10
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, Claremont, California
Gift of Mrs. Jean Goodwin Ames

back to the top

_____________________________________

 

1 Bernard N. Jazzar and Harold B. Nelson "Painting with Fire, Masters of Enameling in America, 1930-1960, pg. 31.
2
Ibid pgs. 31-32
3
Ibid pg.40
4
Ibid pg.43
5
Ibid pg. 55
6Ibid pg. 57
7Ibid pg. 83
8Ibid pg. 85
9Ibid pg. 95
10Ibid pg.120
11Ibid pg.134
12Ibid pg.139
13Ibid pg.149
14
Ibid pg.153
15Ibid pg.167
16Ibid pg.181
17Ibid pg. 214
18Ibid pg.223
19Ibid pg. 225
20
Ibid pg. 237
21Ibid pg. 242
22
Ibid pg.251
23Ibid pg. 252
24
Ibid pg. 252

25
Ibid pg. 254
26
Ibid pg. 260

Order "Painting with Fire, Masters of Enameling in America, 1930 - 1980" from the Long Beach Museum of art at  http://www.lbma.org/


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www.mschon.com


Photographs courtesy of The Long Beach Museum of Art
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