Thank you for the pleasure of being here today and the privilege of sharing a little knowledge of the art and craft of copper enameling. I readily admit to being not an expert, but an enthusiastic follower of this art form which has a history of over two thousand years, and has in the last few decades developed a tremendous interest in the U.S. In past centuries, enamels were thought of more as a precious stone or jewel and often used to embellish the house of God. And again today you will find many works by contemporary enamelists used as altar pieces, crosses and chalices. From the 6th century B.C. in Greece, enameling has been an art practiced on metals including gold, silver, copper and brass by all the great civilizations, and although it is older than the art of pottery, for some reason pottery is more widely understood. There are many works in our museums today that attest to the permanency and importance of enamels from all the magnificent periods in history. Each age contributed its own aesthetics and inventiveness. Limoges, in France, became famous for enamels done there in the 15th century. Cellini and Fabergé created fabulous works of unsurpassed craftsmanship. The enameling work being done today is certainly derived from the work of the past, but the experimental approach is a distinctly contemporary contribution and it is in this area that the important work of today is being done. This possibility for experimentation, the rich and pleasing color and design possibilities, has lured many artists from the paint and canvas realm to that of glass and metal. From the tiny enameled snuff-box made during the reign of Louis XIV for some Duchess of the French court, to one of our modern enameled murals covering many square feet, or a contemporary rough-textured, free-flowing, burned-edge abstraction is a long step, but this fascinating medium will no doubt remain a challenge to creative minds and pass through many more phases in centuries to come. Today it has become so popular a medium for expression that enameling has been made a part of the curriculum in many high schools and is a course offered in art schools, craft schools, universities and in evening adult education programs. While the artist-craftsman may decry the amateur's approach, yet enameling gives much satisfying experience to both the beginning dabbler and the experienced craftsman. The primary factors which make enameling pleasurable is the speed of firing time required, the appeal of color -- there are several hundred colors available from leading manufacturers -- and the simplicity of the basic technique, which can lead into an exciting area of exploration. Even those who have worked for years with this medium feel its possibilities have barely been touched, and this attests to its richness. So much for history and introduction, now let us examine the process itself.
Copper enameling is basically the art of fusing glass, usually in granular form, sometimes liquid, to a copper shape. The enamel is composed of feldspar, quartz, silica, borax, lead and mineral oxides for color, all ground into fine particles. It comes in transparent, opaque and a few opalescent colors, and is applied in various ways to the article to be enameled, and then fired at a temperature of about 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat causes the enamel to melt and unite with the surface of the copper. Since glass melts at a lower temperature than copper, this seemingly impossible marriage takes place. Colors in enamels, when fired, are enduring. The enamelist may fire a piece many times before completion and end with many layers of enamels one on top of the other. The finest examples appear to be within the surface rather than on top of it and create a beautiful illusion. The more times transparent colors are fired, the richer they become. The enamelist must become familiar with his medium by testing and timing, in order to reproduce a chosen color scheme as he desires it to be. The firing process is always suspenseful. Overfiring or underfiring can make decided differences in the results. Some colors are harder or softer than others, and so take differing firing times to mature. Transparents may be mixed before firing, like blending paint, but opaques do not mix and would produce a salt and pepper effect when fired. Firing transparent color over opaque gives more depth to the overall effect. They are also most beautiful fired directly over the copper. The copper piece should be enameled on both front and back, for a thick coat of enamel on the front without counter enamel on the back would crack eventually.
Before it can be enameled, the copper piece is cleaned by annealing, which means it is placed on a rack and put into a 1400-degree or more heated kiln until it turns black. Removed from the kiln, it is cooled immediately in cold water and then immersed in an acid solution to remove the fire glaze. Some rubbing with steel wool may be necessary. Then rinsed and dried, it is ready for enameling, and should be handled only by the edges. First the piece is sprayed with a liquid adhesive called agar, and the enamel is sifted onto the dampened surface in an even, thin layer, sprayed again with agar and resifted at least once more. It must be dried thoroughly before firing and handled carefully. It is then placed on a firing rack, which is lifted with a fork and placed gently in the kiln heated to about 1500 degrees F -- at which temperature the heat will be a bright orange color. If too hot, the color is a golden orange or yellow. Most of the larger kilns, which are similar to ceramic kilns except with a front-opening door, come with a pyrometer which indicates the temperature. A tiny opening in the door allows the enamelist to peer into the chamber and watch the progress of the firing. When the enameled surface is smooth and shiny, rather like an orange peel, it is ready to be removed. Firing usually takes two to three minutes. The piece is removed on the rack with the fork and allowed to cool on a fireproof surface, away from drafts. As it cools from red-hot, the colors gradually appear and it is exciting to watch. Now with only one side enameled, the other must be cleaned in acid again, and the edges filed, before it is enameled. Most often two fired coats are best for good coverage of a base coat. Small pinholes in the fired enamel indicate the need for a second coat.
>Now with the base coat and the counter enamel fired, there are several ways to decorate the enameled surface. We'll touch briefly on the better-known of these, and illustrate these methods with a few examples of work. These examples are not outstanding works, and I would urge you to visit the Craft Alliance shop on McPherson just east of Euclid to see some really lovely and varied art objects in enamels. Or watch for enamels in exhibitions of art work and at the jewelers, Jaccards for example. There are enameled works appearing now even in the department stores, mass-produced but interesting.
Designs can be applied by wet inlay, using a spatula to spread moistened enamels in a pattern, or even sprinkled on with the fingers. There are endless ways of experimenting with the many enameling products available. These are but a few of the ways to proceed. I hope to have been able to impart some understanding of this art and craft which will enable you to identify and enjoy it.
As to my personal approach to enameling, learning and gaining some mastery of the various time-honored techniques and then trying a painter's approach within the limitations of the medium has been the goal. I do not seek to change, but rather, to use, the character of the enamel itself. It does not afford the greater flexibility of paint, but the richness of color, texture and design that can be achieved with enamels is a challenge and an inspiration. Not having the technical patience and skill of a true craftsmann, I prefer to not be inhibited by the established do's and don'ts of the purists in this medium. Quoting from author Kenneth Bates, author and internationally known enamelist for forty years, also a teacher and exhibitor, "The artist must know a recipe for art, and must have imagination, the one facet of the intellect without which he feels life is not worth living." So, agreeing with Mr. Bates, I have learned the recipe, and now I'm changing it by adding a pinch of this or that, and having a great time watching the results. If what comes out of the kiln leaves something to be desired, then something is added and back in it goes. Sometimes as simple a trick as firing a flat piece in a slanted position will bring a dull composition to life. See if you can find the one which had that treatment when you look at these on display later, as I hope you will do.
Enameling is not a process difficult to learn, and in only a few lessons one can produce very satisfying, if simple, attractive objects. In case you are ever tempted to try it, may I warn you before you start: enameling does exercise a strange fascination, and once having started, you may never be able to give it up, and so spend a good part of your life bending over a hot kiln in a basement workroom. But we who are "hooked" think it's exciting!