Artist June Schwarcz, Produced by KQED Spark

  • NARRATOR: Declared a living treasure by the California State Assembly, June Schwarcz is an artist in a league of her own. Her house in Sausalito has been a creative refuge for her since 1954. It’s like a museum dedicated to her collection of art and books, and the enamel vessels that are unmistakably June Schwarcz.

    JUNE SCHWARCZ: This is made out of very thin screening, and I really treat it like fabric, you know. This is another bowl made out of screening, but I enameled the inside. This one is sort of a dark purple. I do like subtle things.

    NARRATOR: Enameling is the art of fusing glass on metal through a high-temperature firing process. June’s work is represented in some of the most important art collections in the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Craft Museum in New York City. Also, the National Collection of Art at the Smithsonian, in Washington, DC.

    In January, June’s sculptures were featured in the first major retrospective of American enamel art in the US since 1959. The show at the Long Beach Museum of Art brought the three most renowned and influential enamellists in the country together under one roof.

    HAROLD NELSON: In this period between 1960 and 1980, experiment really characterized the work of so many American enamellists, and particularly the experimentation was led by these three artists. Bill Harper began to use cloisonné enameling techniques unlike anyone else had used it previously. Bill Helwig began to explore traditional techniques, grisaille techniques, but began to portray subject matter that was enigmatic, mysterious, exciting, and provocative. And June, in her fashion, began to bring elements of construction, forms that were highly inventive, in some cases somewhat raw, and with high energy, with the extraordinary color effects of enameling in a way that had never been done before.

    BILL HARPER: I decided to concentrate on cloisonné, and I thought, “Alright, I’ll give myself two years with it, and I’ll see where it goes in direction.” Well, I’m still doing it. I wanted to make enamel that did not look like Christmas tree ornaments. How to bring out a real subtlety and use the line of the cloisonné in a new way where you can look at the surface and see one thing, but then you can look under the transparence – the same thing happens with June’s work – and there’s something else going on.

    BILL HELWIG: I like to invent things that will pull you in, get you inside, and then let your mind take over. I started out basically with grisaille work, which is the application of white enamel on black, and then we jump from that grisaille work into the typically impasto Limoges techniques. All that sculpting is done in the relief of the enamel that I apply first on the surface of the copper, so that it is in relief. But enamel to me, like Bill says, it’s got to be glass.

    BILL HARPER: This is my June Schwarcz phase piece. June Schwarcz liberated me in terms of the material. Here was this person that I had never heard of before, doing these most amazing, amazing things that basically changed my life.

    JS: This bowl, I cut it out of copper and hammered it into shape, so it has about every technique I could think of at that time. There’s etch lines all over it, transparent enamels and opaque enamels inlaid over it.

    This is a Pique à Jour bowl, and that means that there are enamels that don’t have a metal backing and you can see light through it.

    BERNARD JAZZAR: What makes these artists stand out is, they had that creative impulse to take techniques that were available to everyone and made them uniquely theirs.

    NARRATOR: At 88, June is as productive as ever. She keeps a regular schedule in her studio with numerous projects in the works. Some of the new pieces will be featured in an upcoming show in San Francisco.

    JS: I work my pieces out in paper. Once I get an idea, I’ll make just a quick little something to make me remember it three-dimensionally. I work in thin copper that’s later electroplated. Then, I sew it up with very thin copper wire. The hardest thing with this is just, I want to turn it inside out without tearing it. I should have sewn it from the inside. Very avant-garde. I think this is going to be a wild one.

    I like vessels partly – you’ve got an inside and an outside. I like things hidden. I love textiles and I love clothing. I get lots of ideas for vessels from clothing, because the body’s a vessel and a dress is a vessel and so is a hat. I don’t make vessels as containers. I think I’m doing abstract art. It’s what I’m trying to do.

    This has been cut out and sewn and plated until it’s heavy enough to use.

    NARRATOR: Each piece needs to be electroplated to make it rigid enough to be enameled.

    JS: Well, the enamel is ground glass. It expands and contracts to be compatible with the metal.

    I’m very drawn to subtle colorations and the quality of light, maybe because I live with a lot of fog. Lots of people wish I’d do brighter, stronger things, but by now I figure, I’m old and I can do what I want.

    NARRATOR: June was first introduced to enameling in 1954.

    JS: A friend of mine had been taking a class at the Denver Art Museum in enameling, and I said, “What’s enameling?” and I was fascinated not by what they produced, but the complications of the technique itself.

    NARRATOR: June gained recognition very quickly. She didn’t know it at the time, but her earliest improvised pieces incorporated an ancient technique of etching the metal surface, and giving the illusion of depth. June later pioneered the process of enameling electroplated gold, silver, and copper forms.

    JS: I certainly didn’t think I was being a pioneer. I did what I thought of and what I wanted to do, and I’m profoundly grateful that people are interested.

    Well, the more you fire it, the more transparent it gets. It’s the transparency and the action of the heat on them that kind of interests me, because I’m never quite sure. It always seems a little like magic.

    NARRATOR: June finally tempers the shiny surface by sandblasting it with carborundum.

    JS: Creativity is certainly a compulsion. It has always been to me, all my life, even as a small child. If you can lay an egg that may be golden, that’s nice, and there is always that urge.

    NARRATOR: After more than five decades of groundbreaking work, the matriarch of contemporary American enameling still continues to be a major influence in the field.

    JS: I’d be happy if people like it a hundred years from now, but I hadn’t thought of it before.

    Learn how June Schwartz has used subtlety to become a legend in enamel art. Original air date: July 2007.