Painting With Fire (From our Archives)

Bernard N. Jazzar and Harold B. Nelson Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, October 2016 |

Fig. 1. Detail of the top of the box in Fig. 11. The works illustrated are in the collection of the Enamel Arts Foundation; except as noted, photographs are by Jairo Ramirez.

Enameling and the Cleveland school.

The story of modern enameling in this country begins in the industrial heartland of the Midwest, amid blazing steel mills, smoky oil refineries, and congested railroad yards.1 From the late 1920s to the early 1940s, several forces coalesced to make Cleveland – at the time the fifth largest city in the nation – the preeminent center of enameling in America.2 The presence of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art), several other highly respected colleges and universities, and a small handful of enlightened cultural leaders and patrons helped offset the city’s industrial focus and firmly establish it as an artistic and intellectual capital.

Foremost among the individuals and institutions supporting the enamels field in Cleveland was Kenneth F. Bates, the so-called Dean of American Enamelists, who came from Boston to teach design and enameling at the Cleveland School of Art in the late 1920s. Exhibitions at and acquisitions by the Cleveland Museum of Art under the visionary leadership of director William M. Milliken also promoted the field and provided critical financial support to artists producing pioneering work in enamels. One other important factor was the presence of the Ferro Enamel Corporation (now the Ferro Corporation), the foremost manufacturer of enamel components for use in domestic, industrial, and architectural settings. The company’s president, Robert A. Weaver, provided artists such as Edward Winter access to its industrial kilns, enabling them to fire large-scale enamel-on-steel panels that would forever alter the nature of enameling and set a new standard for the field.

From its inception in 1919 to its final presentation seventy-four years later, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Annual Exhibition of Work by Cleveland Artists and
, known simply as the May Show, served as a tangible expression of the museum’s commitment to local artists in all mediums. Judges over the years included such nationally prominent artists as George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Ansel Adams. Under Milliken’s aegis enamels were introduced to the May Show in 1926 and became a regular feature in 1932. Over the years, Milliken also acquired a substantial collection of enamels for the museum and urged local collectors to purchase work from the May Show, providing further encouragement and support for Cleveland-area artists.3

Kenneth F. Bates

Fig. 2. Kenneth F. Bates (1904–1994) firing an enamel plate, c. 1955. Photograph courtesy of the American Craft Council.

A graduate of the Massachusetts School of Art in Boston, where he had studied painting and art education, Kenneth Bates (Fig. 2) was hired by the Cleveland School of Art in 1927 to teach classes in watercolor, design, jewelry, drawing, and perspective. While his own education had included a brief exposure to the work of Laurin Hovey Martin (1875-1939), one of the leading enamelists in this country in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Bates’s first year of teaching didn’t draw on this area. But a year of study in Europe in 1928 and another trip to France in 1931 solidified his commitment to enameling and to a modernist perspective. His astute design sensibilities and technical facility assured his ultimate preeminence in the field just as his commitment to education and to sharing his vast technical knowledge led to an enamels renaissance that extended well beyond Cleveland as his students pursued careers across the country.4

Bates’s work from the late 1920s was decorative and firmly grounded in the Boston arts and crafts tradition in which he had been trained. However, upon his return from France, he began to explore religious themes, presenting Christian subjects such as the Crucifixion, Deposition, and Lamentation in a modern cubist-influenced style. In the late 1930s he began to combine his passion for nature and gardening with his interest in enameling, creating vibrantly colorful plates, plaques, brooches, and three-dimensional objects that depict a wide variety of flowers, plants, and animals.

Fig. 4. Memories of Youth by Bates, 1953. Signed and dated “K. F. Bates ’53” on reverse. Enamel on copper, diameter 11 1/2 inches

The brooch in Figure 3, dated 1947, is typical of Bates’s work. A diminutive painting in enamels, it depicts a colorful interior with a vase of flowers on a table. Color also predominates in Bates’s 1953 plaque Memories of Youth (Fig. 4). Cubist in its structure, the work reflects Bates’s early memories of growing up on a farm in eastern Massachusetts and his aspirations to become an artist. It was exhibited in the thirty-sixth annual May Show in 1954.

Throughout his life Bates regularly investigated neglected enameling techniques and used them to explore subjects relevant to his personal interests. Mid Summer (Fig. 5), which was shown in the influential 1959 Enamels exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York (now the Museum of Arts and Design), is among Bates’s loveliest and most boldly experimental pieces. Comprising nine separately enameled elements attached to metal stems and arranged at different heights on an enameled background, the composition presents an array of vividly patterned butterflies hovering above a loosely rendered field of grass. In this work Bates created a richly complex construction and a moving homage to the quiet beauty of the natural world.

Fig. 3. Brooch by Bates, 1947. Signed and dated “K. F. Bates ’47” on reverse. Enamel on copper, sterling silver; 2 by 1 3/4 inches.

Bates exhibited his work extensively throughout his life. He first entered the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show in 1927 and continued to exhibit there and throughout the country for some sixty years. A talented writer, he also wrote two of the twentieth century’s most influential books on the subject: Enameling: Principles and Practice of 1951, which was profusely illustrated with images of his own work as well as that of the most prominent artists working in the mid-twentieth-century enamels field, and The Enamelist in 1967. In an age when most reproductions in books and magazines were in black and white, his work had a significant influence on the artists and viewers who saw it and were impressed by its richness and exuberance.5

Fig. 5. Mid Summer by Bates, 1958. Signed “K. Bates” at lower right; inscribed “Mid Summer” and “1958” on reverse. Enamel on copper, 14 by 12 inches.

Edward Winter

Edward Winter was among Bates’s most influential colleagues in Cleveland (Fig. 6). While Winter taught at the Cleveland School of Art for only one semester, his impact on the enamels field was wide-ranging and profound. After graduating from the Cleveland School of Art in 1931, he traveled to Austria to study enameling with Josef Hoffmann and ceramics with Michael Powolny, two of the leading figures in the contemporary Viennese design movement. His experience in Vienna solidified his commitment to modernism and to the medium of enameling. He returned to Cleveland in 1932 and exhibited his first works in enamel at the May Show in 1933. In the same year he showed in the Second Annual Robineau Memorial Ceramic Exhibition at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts (now the Everson Museum of Art) and won awards at both. Not content to work on a small scale, Winter began a partnership in the mid-1930s with the Ferro company. Thanks to his friendship with Robert A. Weaver, the company’s president, Winter was allowed to use Ferro’s industrial kilns after hours to fire mural-scale enamel panels, and in so doing radically transformed a medium traditionally associated with small scale and intimate formats to unprecedented levels of size and grandeur.

Fig. 6. Edward Winter (1908-1976) firing work at the Ferro Enamel Corporation, c. 1950. Photograph courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio.

Resurrection/Metamorphosis of 1951 (Fig. 7), which depicts the rebirth of nature in spring with its metaphorical and religious connotations, is among the finest of Winter’s large panels. He created the voluptuous curvilinear rhythms using a sgraffito technique, cutting through the enamel with a rake- or comb-like tool before firing. While this piece has a label on the back listing “Resurrection” as its title, it was exhibited under the title “Metamorphosis” in the Cleveland Museum’s 1951 May Show, where it was displayed horizontally. Seven years later, with the same title, it was displayed vertically at the Ceramic International Exhibition at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts.

Fig. 7. Resurrection/ Metamorphosis by Winter, 1951. Signed “Winter” at lower right. Enamel on steel, 63 by 40 inches.

Winter experimented freely throughout his life, fusing enamel onto a wide variety of metal surfaces, including copper, steel, and aluminum. By the early 1940s, in addition to a number of large pieces, he had produced several lines of enameled copper bowls, ashtrays, vases, cigarette boxes, and other household items that were sold in high-end department stores throughout the country. However, he continued to create unique pieces intended solely for exhibition, works that challenged the perceived notion of the medium and displayed his technical abilities while showcasing his artistic experimentation. He illustrated many of his own works in his books: Enamel Art on Metals in 1958, Enameling for Beginners in 1962, and Enamel Painting Techniques in 1970.

Doris Hall

Fig. 9. Plaque by Hall, 1957. Signed “Doris Hall 1957” at lower right. Enamel on steel, 18 ¼ by 35 ½ inches.

Ohio-born Doris Hall was among the first to use enamels in a loosely applied, gestural, and painterly manner. Trained as a painter and printmaker, she created a distinctive approach that was described by her husband and collaborator, Kálmán Kubinyi, as an almost magical form of “painting with fire.”6 After studying with the noted American portraitist Charles Hawthorne in Provincetown, Massachusetts, she returned to Ohio and graduated from the Cleveland School of Art in 1928. She began experimenting with enamels in 1941, firing her work in a kiln her husband had built in their house. Her early training in painting, as well as her awareness of the work of European modernist pioneers such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and particularly Marc Chagall, profoundly influenced her work in enamels. Fundamentally a colorist, she was attracted to the medium’s richly varied palette and its potential to suggest depth through transparent and opaque layers. The six enamel plaques on a bracelet from about 1950 (Fig. 8) may be read as miniature paintings in enamel. A large abstract plaque from 1957 (Fig. 9) is among the most experimental works Hall produced during an immensely fertile period in her career. Her access to the industrial kilns at the Bettinger Corporation in Waltham, Massachusetts, enabled her to experiment and, with the assistance of her husband, to test the boundaries of the medium in every way possible. In this large piece, one of the artist’s boldest and most progressive artistic statements, chunks of glass are combined with broad expanses of sandy granules to create a tactile and richly visual character.

Fig. 8. Bracelet by Doris Hall (1907-2000), c. 1950. Inscribed “Designed by Doris Hall Sterling” on the reverse. Enamel on copper in sterling silver setting made by her husband, Kálmán Kubinyi (1906-1973); length 7 overall, width 1 3/8 inches.

Charles Bartley Jeffery

Charles Bartley Jeffery was another leader in Cleveland’s enameling community. Born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio, in 1932 he earned a BA in education and design from Case Western Reserve University and a four-year diploma from the Cleveland School of Art, and the following year, an MA in art education. Although he started out in ceramics, by 1939 enamels had become Jeffery’s preferred medium. An art teacher in the Shaker Heights public schools for twenty-two years and at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Institute of Art, he also led enameling workshops at numerous other schools across the country.

Figs. 10. Crucifix: Last Supper by Charles Bartley Jeffery (1910- 1992), c. 1950. Enamel on silver, and ebony; 3 ¾ by 2 7/8 inches. Gift of the Jeffery family.
Fig. 11. Box by Jeffery, 1951. Walnut with enamel on copper; height 2 1/8, width 5 ¾, depth 5 ¾ inches.

Best known for his mastery of cloisonné enameling, his output consisted primarily of religious and ceremonial objects – crosses, votives, and tabernacles – that were inspired by Byzantine iconography or influenced by stained glass of the Gothic period, such as windows at Chartres Cathedral or Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris. The diminutive scale of his Crucifix: Last Supper (Figs. 10, 10a) suggests that it was intended for private devotion, the weighty magnitude of the subject exquisitely rendered in intimate format. With its distinctively delineated figures of Christ and the apostles, the plaque is set in a piece of ebony, adding to its visual power. For a handsome walnut box made in 1951 (Fig. 11), Jeffery created an enamel lid using a looser, more painterly technique (Fig. 1). Its vivid colors and bold design underscore his solid training in graphic design as well as his awareness of diverse approaches and formats. The box itself was most likely made by his friend and colleague Joseph Wooddell.

John Paul Miller

Another highly influential artist was the jeweler John Paul Miller, whose fastidiously crafted pieces depict natural creatures both large and small – wearable works in enamel and gold that are at once visually opulent and mildly unsettling. An inventive designer, he made brooches, pendants, rings, earrings, cuff links, bracelets, and elaborate necklaces that critics have likened to miniature sculptures. Deeply interested in nature – he spent summers hiking, camping, and backpacking in the mountains in the western United States – Miller portrayed nature’s tiniest, often most beautiful, and sometimes most arresting creatures, including bugs of all sorts, spiders, moths, and occasionally snails and sea creatures such as cephalopods and hermit crabs.

Fig. 12. Scarab ear cuffs by John Paul Miller (1918–2013), c. 1960. Inscribed “JPM 18K” on reverse of each. Enamel on gold, 2¼ by 1½ inches.

Born in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, Miller was raised in Cleveland. As a teenager he studied enameling with Kenneth Bates in a Saturday morning class at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He enrolled at the Cleveland School of Art in 1936 and was awarded his BA in industrial design in 1940. While there he studied basic design with Bates and industrial design with Viktor Schreckengost. He also learned about metalsmithing and jewelry design from Fred Miller, a fellow student who became his lifelong friend and colleague. After serving in the army during World War II, Miller taught design and watercolor at the Cleveland School of Art from 1946 until his retirement in 1983, and in the school’s metals department from 1970. Among his students are some of the leading figures in the contemporary metals and enameling fields, including Thomas Gentille, John Marshall, and William Harper.

Beyond enameling, Miller is recognized for introducing granulation to the postwar studio jewelry field. This ancient technique of affixing small beads of gold or silver to a corresponding substrate dates to the third century BC. Miller reinvigorated the technique in the mid-1940s and employed it as one tool in his vast arsenal, creating exceptionally beautiful forms in gold that dazzle the eye.

Figs. 13, 13a. Box by Miller, c. 1950. Enamel on copper, brass; height 1 7/8, width 4, depth 3 ½ inches. According to the artist, he made this box for Kae Dorn Cass, one of his instructors at the Cleveland School of Art.
Figs. 13, 13a. Box by Miller, c. 1950. Enamel on copper, brass; height 1 7/8, width 4, depth 3 ½ inches. According to the artist, he made this box for Kae Dorn Cass, one of his instructors at the Cleveland School of Art.

His expertise in enameling and love of nature are apparent in a handsome box he produced about 1950 (Figs. 13, 13a) with an enamel plaque set in its lid. While more pictorial and illustrative than his gold jewelry, the plaque depicts a delightful, mildly menacing array of bugs, beetles, and spiders – forerunners of the dazzling three-dimensional forms he would create in jewelry.

Miller’s bold wearable forms, while extraordinarily beautiful, were not – in scale or subject matter – for the faint of heart. His incomparable talents as both a goldsmith and an enamelist are apparent in a stunning pair of ear cuffs of about 1960 (Fig. 12). To avoid pinching the ear lobe, these cuffs were designed to be worn around the ear with a scarab-shaped form at the base concealing the lobes. Transparent layers of luminescent enamel cover the scarab, allowing visual access to the richly varied gold surface below. The lower third of the scarab as well as the gold sphere at the top of the cuff are covered in gold granulation, Miller’s signature technique, lending further opulence to this exquisite pair.

Mary Ellen McDermott

The celebrated enamelist William Harper described Mary Ellen McDermott as a “free spirit” who urged her students to experiment.7 Harper had studied briefly with McDermott at the Cleveland Institute of Art and he recalled that her loose, painterly approach to enameling encouraged him to break free of formal constraints and explore the medium’s artistic potential.

Fig. 14. Smorgasbord by Mary Ellen McDermott (1919-1998), 1952. Signed “McDermott” at lower right. Enamel on copper, 4 1/4 by 12 inches overall.

Born in Akron, McDermott earned a BFA in 1940 from the Cleveland School of Art, where she studied painting, watercolor, fashion illustration, and jewelry design. While she produced work in a wide range of mediums and taught painting, enameling, jewelry, mosaics, and drawing at the Akron Art Institute from 1949 to 1971, after about 1953 she worked primarily in enamels. In 1959 three of her compositions were included in the seminal exhibition Enamels at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, for which she was invited to create a work demonstrating the “painted enamel” technique. She was also featured in numerous May Shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art between 1961 and 1983.

With its complex composition spanning two panels, Smorgasbord (Fig. 14) exemplifies McDermott’s abilities as a designer and her mastery of enamels. Influenced in part by the cubist still lifes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, McDermott created a visual feast with all the requisite components of a Swedish smorgasbord. Her simulation of textures, particularly wood grain, is especially rich in this work.

Karamu House

Fig. 15. The King by Curtis Tann (1915- 1991), c. 1965. Signed “Tann” at lower right. Enamel on copper, 25 by 20 inches.

Founded in 1915 as a settlement house serving the needs of Cleveland’s disadvantaged communities, Karamu House was a major cultural center for the city’s African-American community in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. It offered plays by several of the preeminent writers of the time including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and also provided classes and workshops in the visual arts and craft. Among the artists who studied or taught there was Curtis Tann, whose enamel works (see Fig. 15) show his interest in combining formalist concerns with an exploration of his cultural heritage.8

BERNARD N. JAZZAR and HAROLD B. NELSON are authorities on the history of enameling in this country in the twentieth century. Jazzar is curator for the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Collection in Los Angeles and Nelson is curator of American Decorative Arts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. In 2006 they co-authored Painting with Fire: Masters of Enameling in America, 1930-1980 and they recently co-authored Little Dreams in Glass and Metal: Enameling in America, 1920 to the Present.

1 This article and its companion, “Little dreams in glass and metal: The origins of modern enameling in America” (The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2015), were written in conjunction with Little Dreams in Glass and Metal: Enameling in America, 1920 to the Present, a traveling exhibition of approximately 120 works from the Los Angeles-based Enamel Arts Foundation, which will be on view at the Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock from October 7 to January 1, 2017. 2 For more on enameling in Cleveland during this period, see Bernard N. Jazzar and Harold B. Nelson, Painting with Fire: Masters of Enameling in America, 1930-1980 (Long Beach Museum of Art, 2006). 3 For more on William Milliken and his support of the May Show, see Henry Hawley, “Directorship of William M. Milliken” in Object Lessons: Cleveland Creates an Art Museum (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1991), pp. 101- 125. 4 Bates was a skilled teacher who inspired countless students in his classroom and workshops. Among his students who went on to become leaders in the field are Charles Bartley Jeffery, John Paul Miller, Mary Ellen McDermott, John Puskas, Herbert Friedson, Norman Magden, James “Mel” Someroski, and William Harper. 5 For more on Bates, see Jazzar and Nelson, Painting with Fire, pp. 38-53; and Roger D. Bonham, “Kenneth Bates: Dean of American Enamelists,” Ceramics Monthly, vol. 15 (February 1967), pp. 13-19. 6 As quoted in Ruth Dancyger, Kubinyi and Hall: Cleveland’s Partners in Art (John Carroll University, Cleveland, Oh., 1988), p. 39. 7 William Harper, interview by Harold B. Nelson, January 12-13, 2004, transcript, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 8 Ibid.