For decades, enamel was something of an underappreciated medium – at least compared with ceramics and glass, those other arts of the fire. Now, as a traveling exhibition illustrates, that’s all changing.
“Little Dreams in Glass and Metal: Enameling in America, 1920 to the Present” features 121 pieces by 94 makers who, in sometimes unorthodox ways, use enameling to create compelling works of art. The show runs through December at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock after stops at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, Fuller Craft Museum in Massachusetts, and the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles.
“The range and potential of the medium is as varied and rich as the imaginations of the artists,” says Harold B. Nelson, who, with Bernard N. Jazzar, co-curated “Little Dreams.” (The title was borrowed from the late Karl Drerup, a featured artist in the show who once used the term to describe his work.) The duo also co-authored the accompanying book, which highlights works from the collection of the Enamel Arts Foundation, the nonprofit organization they founded in 2007.
Layered depth, luminousness, opulent color – there’s no denying the uniquely seductive visual allure of enameling, the craft of fusing ground glass to metal at high temperatures in a kiln. What interests Jazzar and Nelson most, though, is how those qualities translate into artistic content. “What we’re trying to do is understand enameling as an art form, one that has rich layers of meaning, resonance, and profundity,” says Nelson. “While extraordinary craftsmanship is often involved, ultimately the finest work is not about that.”
The pieces in “Little Dreams” run the gamut: from small jewelry to large wall panels, brilliant colors to muted palettes, representational to abstract, highly refined to raw and gutsy, classic cloisonné to enamel combined with found objects. Young and emerging makers are represented along with mid-career masters and early pioneers. There are themes of nature, spirituality, and whimsy, but also edgy takes on feminism, sexual identity, and other social concerns of today. “The emphasis is on content – the issues and ideas the artists wish to express,” says Jazzar. “The medium they happen to be expressing it in is enamel.”
The two scholars are based in Los Angeles, where Jazzar is curator of the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Collection, Nelson curator of American decorative arts at the Huntington Art Collections. They fell in love with enamel art more than 20 years ago, when they started spotting pieces in antique stores.
“We wanted to learn about this medium. We tried to find information on artists in books, but we couldn’t. There were lots of technical books, but no historical survey of the field,” Jazzar recalls.
Trained as art historians, they decided to do their own research. Over about eight years they traveled around the country, visiting museums and historical societies, artists, relatives of deceased artists – any source for a piece of the puzzle. Their detective work was hands-on and meticulous: Once, to verify an artist’s date of death, they tracked down her gravestone in a cemetery.
“After a while, we had this vast amount of information,” Nelson says. “We felt something needed to be done to put it out there.” The result, in 2007, was their first landmark exhibition and book on the subject, Painting with Fire: Masters of Enameling in America, 1930-1980, which examined in depth the work of 15 seminal artists (all of whom reappear in “Little Dreams”) during an era of great popularity for the craft. The book explained how, by the 1970s, that very popularity had undermined the medium, as it came to be seen as a hobby rather than serious contemporary art.
“Renaissance” may be an over-statement, but the field since then is vibrant once again, and museums, collectors, and critics are taking note, according to Jazzar and Nelson. “We champion this field because we feel it hasn’t been given its due. Ultimately we’d love to see enameling – and all the craft media – fully integrated into the life of institutions and collections,” says Nelson.
Having mined the past, they’re now looking to the future. As Jazzar says, “This has also been the story of our evolution. We started with the historical material, and now we’re moving into current work.” Nelson adds, “Our goal as a foundation is to raise public awareness of enameling, especially for young artists and creative individuals who are looking for avenues to express themselves.”
They note that the field is wonderfully intergenerational – a supportive network of artists of all ages. The epitome of the master who embraces the new was their close friend June Schwarcz, the endlessly innovative grande dame of enameling, who died in 2015 at the age of 97. “She was so nurturing and encouraging of emerging artists,” says Nelson. Adds Jazzar, “She was a model of what an artist is. She used this medium in so many different ways.”
Jazzar and Nelson have become the foremost experts on modern and contemporary enameling, recognized in the enameling community as tireless, passionate advocates. For them, it’s been simply a labor of love.
“Our hope is that, through all of our combined efforts, we will make a difference in this field, that more people will become aware of the amazing potential of enameling,” Nelson says.
“Little Dreams in Glass and Metal” opens October 7 at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.