For those in southeastern North Carolina who were unable to attend and all my followers and friends out of state, this is a digital version of my solo show in Wilmington. The images are arranged in the same order a visitor would have seen them and the captions are the same text used in the printed guide made available at the show. Enjoy.
UNTITLED: This plaque is one of my earliest ceramic wall pieces and I recall being surprised at the way in which it took on its own decorative style, almost against my will. The underglaze colors are suggestive of those used in many ancient European cave paintings, while the spiral is a design element seen in prehistoric art worldwide. $48.00
ATMOSPHERES: This and the next two pieces were part of a short series intended purely to explore form and color. They both feature underglaze decorated slip cast ceramic tiles mounted on wood slats painted with acrylics. $45
UNTITLED: This is a more elaborate version of the exploration of form and color expressed in the previous work. In this piece, I’ve mounted two large tiles between slates of wood painted in copper colored acrylic. The colors on the tiles come purely from underglazes, fired at temperatures well above what they were designed for and causing them to vitrify. In the narrow space between the tiles is a section of foam board that I marbled with acrylic paints. Marbled papers have always fascinated me and this piece provided an opportunity to have my interpretation of that old art form intersect with my interest in abstraction; in this case, the tiles. $65
ANALAGOUS: Like the previous two pieces, this work explores form and color and features underglaze decorated slip cast ceramic tiles mounted on a wood slat painted with acrylics. $45
UNTITLED. In my “day job” I am a dealer in ancient Mediterranean and related antiquities. Because most ancient works of art have come down to us in a broken or incomplete condition, I wanted to explore in my own work the nature of broken things: Why are we drawn to them? Should or can they be made whole again? How did they come to be broken? By extension, these same questions may be asked of human lives. This piece involves pieces of stoneware and porcelain glazed after being broken, assembled on a wooden slat, with an unfinished enamel pendant suspended by copper wire. SOLD.
SANCTITY OF THE OLD. Much of my work in ceramics and other media is inspired by my background in dealing with art history and antiquities. My father was a librarian specializing in rare books and manuscripts and early printing, so I grew up with a reverence for such documents. This piece suggests calligraphy on old textured papers in a couple of imaginary languages. It is a suggestion or feeling based on childhood memories transformed, expressed here in clay. $60
HOW CAN I BE SILENT? This ceramic and multimedia work addresses the plight of the Assyrian minority in Iraq (I am half Assyrian) which has been reduced in size by over half – many fleeing to Canada, Australia, the UK and the USA. The central tile features ancient Neo-Assyrian cuneiform with the title: How can I be silent? Ceramic (stoneware) with melted red and green glass, copper wire, colored glaze and acrylics $85
DOUBTS EVEN HERE: This work is part of a series created to explore pure, raw emotions – specifically, my own. The stoneware slab has three terracotta tiles affixed to it, all of them enhanced with colored frit, molten copper and, in the central tile, a large sheet of copper foil melted into the terracotta. This was an attempt to visually represent the ways in which so many people fear taking risks in their relationships with others, leading to regrets later in life. $65
The two masks that follow are part of a larger group that I made about 18 months ago. They were all intended to be representations of real people I knew but during the act of making they transformed – some became personifications of ideas while others became representations of completely different persons from those originally intended to be. The creative process is always full of such surprises.
UNTITLED MASK: The hair of this piece was my attempt to loosely imitate the hair and crowns often depicted on Romano-Egyptian mummy cases and masks. In this case, I made the hair out of paper mache and covered it with underglaze. When it fired, the underglaze solidified while the underlying paper burned away, leaving a fragile but intricate head of “hair.” I will leave to the viewer’s interpretation the reason this female face has a band aid across her mouth. $48
UNTITLED MASK: This female mask with “big hair” started out as my interpretation of one person but transformed into another person entirely, someone very important to me, over the space of a few weeks. Unlike most of the other pieces in this show, it is purely ceramic with colored underglazes – no paints or other materials that would make it a mixed media work. $60
SHANNON SEATED: This final piece is simply a means of demonstrating that ceramic art can be so much more than pretty pots and coffee mugs. Ceramics offer limitless possibilities. In this case, a simple slab of brown terracotta has been used as if it were a canvas. Using underglaze, one may “paint” on pottery and ceramic of all types, in any form from portraiture to total abstraction. Indeed, ceramic artists have been doing so in one way or another for thousands of years. In this work, I have used no glaze but have fired the underglaze twice – once at bisque temperature and again at glaze temperature to vitrify both it and the terracotta.
Here’s a quick roundup of some recently completed works, mostly metalwork and jewelry, not shown in my recent blog posts. The images don’t really need any descriptions. Watch for some new ceramics and printmaking pieces in the coming weeks and thanks for following.
I was quite pleased to have had a very successful evening at the 4th Friday Gallery Night here in Wilmington. Every 4th Friday from 6:00 to 9:00 PM, Wilmington galleries, as well as restaurants and other venues featuring local and regional artists, open their doors to all visitors, offering an opportunity to meet the artist(s) while enjoying a glass of wine or other refreshments.
My current solo show is being held at The Foxes Boxes New American Restaurant in the Brooklyn Arts District of Wilmington, NC through September 24. I spent the evening meeting with visitors, discussing my work and also offering a generous supply of my handmade enamel on copper, bare metal and ceramic jewelry. I was especially pleased to have sold one of the wall mounted ceramic and mixed media pieces in the show (also shown as the featured image for this post), as well as quite a few examples of my jewelry. Below are images of the mixed media piece from the show, as well as some of the jewelry.
I recently began work on a project to re-purpose a small collection of antique Persian silver objects dating to the period of about 1890-1900. These were mostly small tabletop items and tableware that had been badly damaged in a previous move. Despite being Persian (from what is today Iran), the silver, which is only about 80% pure with the rest being mainly copper, is not subject to current U.S. government trade restrictions because it has been in the U.S. since prior to the Iranian Revolution and because it is not being offered for sale outside the U.S. There was no sense in trying to have the damaged pieces restored but I did see an opportunity to salvage some elements of these pieces to create new wearable art.
I started with something simple. Using a jeweler’s saw, I removed a small handle from one side of what had been a tabletop smoking set (for holding matches, an ashtray, etc.). Where needed, I sanded the edges and lightly polished the high points, being careful not to remove all of the old black patina. Using a drill press, I drilled holes on either side and strung a black faux leather cord through, along with 2 wood beads removed form an old set of Middle Eastern prayer beads, along with 2 vintage multifaceted black glass beads. The result, seen in the next 2 images below, has something between a modern “goth” or steampunk look and a Victorian mourning jewelry style. An unexpected but appealing result, based on reactions from those who have seen it.
That first piece was relatively simple. The next piece in the series, in the images below, offered more of a challenge. From the same badly broken desktop smoking set, I was able to identify 2 undamaged panels of decoration. The craftsman who created these had used a mixture of respousse, chasing and fine punch mark and incision work to create the detailed decorative patterns seen on the front side of each panel. To access these, I used heavy tin snips to cut through to the undamaged areas, then used a jeweler’s hand saw to slowly cut neat straight lines through the silver, thus removing the thin panels. I prepared the panel in the images below in much the same manner as the handle described above. But in this case I folded about one quarter inch of the panel back onto itself on the back (concave) side and filled the shallow recessed reverse with a thin layer of clear acrylic to give the silver added stability. Finally, when suspending the panel from a faux leather cord with a slip knot, I also added a small handmade silver nut that I was able to detach from a silver screw holding part of the damaged object together. I think the overall effect is quite pleasing.
The decorative elements used on this silver panel have deep roots in Persian art history. The central foliage design of interlaced palms and stylized flowers goes back as far as the first Persian Empire of the Achaemenid Dynasty in the 6th Century BC. But in the form depicted here its more immediate roots may be found on Persian glazed ceramic tiles, such as the early 17th Century Safavid Dynasty example shown below, as well in manuscript illumination, book covers, carpets and other media. The 2 wings with crosshatching shown at the top of the design on the silver panel can be seen in much earlier Persian art; specifically, the crowns worn by rulers of the Persian Sassanian Empire, from the 3rd – 7th Century AD. A clear example is shown in the bottom photo below, on a silver coin of King Khusro II, 590-627 AD. At the time my silver panel was made, many Persian artisans were taking an interest in the finest of Islamic Persian arts, such as the Safavid Dynasty, as well as Persia’s ancient history. The choice of using the Sassanian crown wings in this case is strong evidence of this.
I find it satisfying that my interest in finding connections between the arts of the past and those of today has brought me and these small objects together, and provided an opportunity for me to share with others the rich history of art itself.
My most recent post, one week ago, offered images and descriptions of jewelry I’ve been creating based on the forms of Medieval and post-Medieval book hardware, including hinged clasps and hasps, bosses and plates, as well as the original hardware that inspired these pieces. I’ve now completed the series and am posting images, descriptions and links here of the remaining pieces in this series, as well as some additional sources of inspiration.
This large pendant is seven inches in length but not quite as heavy as some of the previous pieces. It imitates the clasp and hasp metal rods and plates used to keep a tome closed – though here without hinges. One copper plate decorated with etching in a vaguely early Saxon style and one bronze plate decorated with etching in the form of a bird-like fleur-de-lis of my own design, which has accumulated residual copper during the etching process (happy accident). Both plates soldered to a rod of forged copper. The hasp now accommodates a faux leather cord for wearing. It may be found in my Etsy shop here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/551696453/large-bronze-and-copper-pendant-wearable?ref=shop_home_active_2
With the final piece in the series I’ve allowed my imagination and art history background to roam freely. This piece incorporates etched, chased and repoussed bronze, ceramic stoneware with underglazes over fired until they vitrified, various beads and faux leather cords. The original bronze component is based on a Medieval book catch plate (hasp) that would have accepted a clasp. The hasp now accepts the cord from which the piece is worn. I’ve joined this piece to a ceramic stoneware pectoral shaped ornament that I covered in low fire colored underglazes and fired at high temps, allowing the underglaze to vitrify. From the corner openings I’ve strung a mix of simple modern glass and wood beads with a semi-antique West African sand cast bead at center, in colors complimenting the piece. The overall result does have an unmistakable anthropomorphic, face-like quality. It’s also a very large piece and anyone wearing this on a night out would be making a very bold statement. It may be found in my Etsy shop here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/537966572/large-bronze-ceramic-and-glass-multi?ref=shop_home_active_1
With this final piece my thoughts turned to some additional cultures and time periods for inspiration, among them the ancient Sican and Chimu cultures of coastal Peru and the elaborate burial masks made for high ranking members of their societies. Here are a few images of these:
Above: Sican gold alloy burial mask, 10th or 11th Century, with inlays, polychromy and attachments, from coastal Peru.
Above: 13th Century Chimu gold alloy burial mask with inlays, polychromy and attachments. Getty Images.
I’ve always had a great interest in antique manuscripts and early printed books and, in particular, the elaborate covers and metal hardware associated with them. Several months ago I began work on a short series of jewelry pieces that were based on the forms and functions of metal hardware often used in large manuscripts and books. Before offering images of my pieces, I thought it might be of interest to readers to see how some of the original hardware looked and functioned.
The next four images are good examples of Late Medieval to Post-Medieval manuscripts and printed books utilizing metal hardware. In the first image, immediately below, note how a brass chain is affixed internally beneath the manuscript’s leather cover, to a title plate, and how brass strap ends snap into brass openings to keep the manuscript closed. The hand written manuscript shown is in the Schoyen Collection and dates to the early 1400s.
In the next image, small, decorative hinged brass plates are affixed with rivets to the board over which leather has been stretched, stamped and tooled to form the book’s cover. The hinges can be seen here and the additional components of this hardware continue around to the other side of the volume. There, they either snap or lock into place with additional hardware, keeping the book securely closed and pressed tight. This example is Alexander de Ales’ Summa universae theologiae, printed in Pavia and now in St Andrews University Library.
This impressive set of brass hardware serves several purposes. The elaborate corner pieces, decorated in cutout work, repousse and chasing, help protect the book’s cover from damage. On the right side of the volume are two clasp and hasp sets one of which is partially open, showing how the two parts fit together to keep the book tightly closed. This image and the cover image for this blog entry are from an Incunable printed in Strasbourg in 1495.
Lastly, the image below is of a comparatively modern book, a Dutch New Testament printed around 1660 in Leyden. Its excellent state of preservation helps display the form and function of the brass hardware very clearly. Elements include corner pieces, a central decorative boss and a pair of hinged clasp and hasp pieces; in this view the attachment plate for these and the hinge are visible. By applying pressure with the hand on the other side of the book cover, the clasp and hasp would separate and the book could then be opened manually.
My own set of jewelry based on the type of hardware presented above includes examples of all these types but I’ll focus here on just three examples. In the first of these, immediately below, I’ve borrowed the form of a hinged plate that would have been attached to the leather covered boards of a Medieval to post Medieval book. The rivets used here no longer serve the function they would have on the original object, of attaching the metal to the leather and board, but are purely decorative. Parts of the surface have been textured and patinated to merely suggest age, rather then to try and imitate the effects of time. The etched surface decoration consists of a four-armed central boss with equal horizontal linear elements to either side, a swag beneath, and vertical linear elements below that. In and around these I’ve punched a small floral design ten times. The hinge components on the back allow a silver colored cord to pass through for wearing. The piece is large, 3.75 inches tall by 2.0 inches maximum width, and would make a bold statement when worn.
This pendant below is based on protective corner pieces from such Medieval to Post Medieval book covers. But instead of using the two rivets to attach the piece to the book cover, here the rivets allow the piece to be worn. The shape, including the miniature, reversed trilobate Gothic windows, was cut by hand using a jeweler’s saw, the copper rivets added and the punch mark decoration done with letter punches (letters O and X). The piece was also given a light layer of patination to suggest age. It is currently strung on a copper colored cord. It measures 2.50 inches in width by 1.25 inches in height.
In this final example from the series, I’ve adapted the form of a plate clasp that would have received a hasp, holding a book closed or opening easily when pressure was applied to the book cover. It is decorated with simple acid etched designs, chasing and repousse (repousse is a French term for the technique of raising decoration on a heated and malleable metal surface by hammering or punching from behind). The overall surface of the piece has been left without patination, except for what little patina was created through applying heat to the metal surface. The clasp component visible on the back of the piece allows a faux leather cord to pass through for wearing. It measures 2.50 inches tall by 2.50 inches maximum width. Another large and rather bold piece of jewelry.
I am not at all embarrassed to state that I still hold in the highest esteem the many works of Sir Kenneth Clark, the great British art historian. While most art critics, art historians, artists and social commentators would today describe his books and television programs, such as THE NUDE, THE ROMANTIC REBELLION and CIVILIZATION, half a century on, as totally discredited, in light of profound social, political and artistic changes, particularly in the West, I still adhere in many ways to his core principals. And I make this statement in full knowledge that many readers of this blog, as well as many of my closest friends and associates, would probably describe my personal politics as radical left.
I can recall very clearly, in my early teens, being enthralled with reading Clark’s CIVILIZATION, having seen the BBC television series when I was even younger, and marveling at the ideas he put forth in THE ROMANTIC REBELLION, such as the notion that hiding inside every Romantic painter was a lover of Classical art, and vice versa. After decades of absorbing, selling and more recently making art, I see no reason to contradict such notions. Indeed, I propose that the “Classical ideal” is experiencing something of a rebirth, with the energy and originality of so-called “outsider art” and various forms of in-the-moment pop, shock and blatant image appropriation art having largely run their course.
Let’s start at the beginning; specifically, the words of Kenneth Clark in CIVILIZATION: He stated that the Classical ideal was “invented in Greece in the fifth century before Christ and was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history, so complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye, that it lasted practically unchanged for over six hundred years. Of course, its art became stereotyped and conventional…If you had gone into the square of any Mediterranean town in the first century you would hardly have known where you were, any more than you would in an airport today.”
I would argue that the Classical repertoire was so successful that it never really dropped out of sight, even in the darkest days of the early Middle Ages, and that artists working in many mediums today continue to find new inspiration, interpreted in new ways, from that Classical ideal. But this has happened before. Look at the image below. It is one small portion of the figure sculptures incorporated into the west front of Chartres Cathedral. These were carved around the year 1200 and with their individualized faces, elongated bodies and textured flowing robes, represent a very clear attempt to capture, for the first time in many centuries, the vitality of Greek and Roman sculpture. It’s worth noting that even in 1200 in this part of France there would likely have been quite a few fragments of Roman sculpture still laying about, giving the artists models from which to draw inspiration.
Much more recently, in the late 18th Century, the brilliant artist and technician Josiah Wedgwood drew directly upon the popular appeal of classical vases to create lines of affordable, mass produced (by the standards of the time) ceramic tablewares and decorative wares that were accessible to a broad cross section of the British and overseas public. In the late 1700s, with excavations in full swing at Pompeii, Herculaneum and many other Roman sites, as well as ongoing discoveries of Etruscan burials, the aftermath of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and a host of other archaeological discoveries ongoing, public interest in Classical and other ancient imagery was reaching a fever pitch. Designers of all sorts, as well as painters, sculptors and other artists, drew upon these rich new sources of imagery for inspiration. Wedgwood did so more successfully than perhaps anyone else. The two images immediately below represent, on the left, an elaborate pottery funerary vase made at one of the Greek colonies in southern Italy around 330 BC and, on the right, a pottery vase made in Athens around 450 BC. Both are now in the Getty Museum collections. These pieces are typical of the beautifully decorated pottery that every European on the Grand Tour of the Mediterranean world wished to bring back home.
Wedgwood’s great achievement was to create relatively affordable, equally beautiful and functional ceramics imitating many of the decorative styles of Classical antiquity. The Wedgwood company continues to thrive well over 200 years later, and still produces many products that borrow directly from Classical Greek and Roman forms, images and decorative techniques. An early and especially fine example is the “Black Basalt Ware” vase below, made shortly before 1800 at Wedgwood’s factory at Stoke-on-Trent, England, the form and decoration of which are directly copied from Classical Greek red figure pottery of the 5th Century BC.
The more recent artistic movements of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, while quite different from one another philosophically, both drew heavily upon Classical imagery, as well as other more recently unearthed images from antiquity, especially from Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. One of the most iconic sculptures in America dates to the peak of American Art Deco, Paul Manship’s 1934 gilt bronze “Prometheus” at Rockefeller Center in New York, depicted below. Not only is it a depiction of a figure from Classical mythology, it is absolutely Classical in inspiration and uses cast gilt bronze as its medium, following in the great sculptural achievements of both the Greek and Roman worlds.
Today, artists working often in new materials, inspired by new political, philosophical and social ideas (and ideals), a great many of them women, continue to draw upon Classical ideas of form and beauty, interpreted in new ways, to convey their message. New York artist Monica Cook’s work was described by one reviewer as highlighting “the parts of ourselves that we guard in an attempt to make ourselves feel conscious and in control – emotionally, the lust and urges; physically, our biological makeup, the veins and the translucent skin.” What could be more classically inspired than her 2014 work depicted below, entitled “Phosphene,” made from a mix of resins, plaster, steel, paints and a range of exotic organic and non-organic materials.
Similarly, ceramic artist Coille Hooven from Berkeley, California, who now works primarily in porcelain, creates figures of pure white with only a clear glaze, reminiscent to me of Classical statues long since stripped by time of their original pigments. Her work has been described as challenging porcelain’s “classical European forms and associations with women’s work…in fairytale-like scenes that appear light and playful at first blush, though they surface deeper and darker meaning with prolonged viewing.” See her work below entitled “Howl.”
With the ultimate failure of so many shock and pop styles of art from the past quarter century and, I would argue, their damaging effect of driving art further away from the reach of the public at large, it should come as no surprise that so many really talented artists are turning back to the representational forms that ultimately derive from the Classical tradition. I fully expect we will some expansion of this movement in the near future and I hope to offer further commentary on it here.
As a child I was exposed to antique prints, illustrated books and manuscripts, rare documents and fine printing by my father. He was a librarian with a background in special collections – not much money to be made in that field but antique prints, books, maps and the like were very cheap in those days and he was a minor collector in his own right. I can recall at a very young age being spellbound by early elephant folio European printed books – running my fingers over the heavy hand made paper and feeling the impressions left by the type, copper plates or wood blocks – marveling at the multi-colored calligraphy and illuminations in medieval Islamic manuscripts and staring intently at the fine details in engravings and wood block prints by such masters as Durer and Piranesi. When the opportunity presented itself a couple of years ago to learn some basic printmaking techniques, I naturally jumped at the chance.
As an adult (I’m in my mid-50s now and those childhood memories are still quite vivid), and a dealer in Mediterranean and related antiquities and ancient art, I still have a great fondness for European prints that feature scenes from antiquity. I offer as many as I can in my online shops. The image below is a good example. It is a large fold-out copper plate engraving, made in London in 1737 for M. Cornelius Le Bruyn’s “Travels into Muscovy, Persia and Part of the East-Indies,” and is titled Figures & Caracters Sur L’Aile De L’Escalier A L’Ouest. It represents the first reasonably accurate printed views of the ruins of the great ancient Persian capitol city of Persepolis.
During the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, printed books with black and white or hand tinted illustrations, usually wood cuts, copper plate or steel engravings, depicting exotic lands, classical and other ruins and the antiquities found among them, were enormously popular. With the early excavations of Pompeii and other Roman sites on the Bay of Naples came entire pattern books of new images that had a great impact on the design of furniture, architecture, the decorative arts and even fashion styles. In the early to mid-19th Century, with discoveries at Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern sites such as the Assyrian City of Nimrud in Iraq, now destroyed, came a new wave of decorative patterns that again influenced everything from wall paper to glass blowing. The growing use of photography would eventually bring the demand for these print images to an end but their impact on Western culture and beyond at the time cannot be overstated. The hand colored steel engraving below, dated to 1840 and also printed in London, shows the now vanished Late Roman to Byzantine city walls of Antioch, the Roman and Byzantine Imperial Capitol of the Province of Syria. From the Renaissance onward, humble, inexpensive images such as this played a crucial role in documenting ancient remains prior to the widespread use of photography.
Perhaps no other print maker is so well known for documenting antiquities and ancient ruins as Giovanni Battista Piranesi. His monumental work Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome), really one in a long series of engravings depicting various ancient monuments and other images of Rome, became a must for collectors from throughout the Continent, England and the Americas while on the Grand Tour, of which Rome was the great hub. Below is Piranesi’s depiction of the Pyramid of Cestius, a tomb from the time of Augustus that was later incorporated into the Aurelian Walls, Rome’s defensive walls of the late 3rd Century AD. Compare its overgrown state in the mid-18th Century to my photograph below it, taken several years ago on my last visit to Rome
Of course, upon learning something of printmaking myself I immediately turned my attention to the prominent “monuments” around me. In the linocut print below, I depicted the fishing pier at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina at Sunrise. The linocut, made by carving in relief on a block of linoleum, has largely superseded woodblock printing as the most common method of modern printmaking. But it shares with the woodblock method a simplicity that can create stark, clear results, as in this case.
While the clarity of both woodblock and linocut printing appeal greatly to me, I also feel compelled at times to explore completely unconventional methods of printmaking. Today the traditional methods of woodblock, drypoint and mezzotint, among others, now share the stage with newer techniques, such as collagraph, photogravure and various means of monotype printmaking. Artists today are challenging traditional notions of what a print is by printing on unconventional surfaces such as birch bark, fired clay, aluminum flashing and various fabrics. Other printmakers are exploring multimedia approaches to printmaking, using such mediums as hot glue, silks, cardboard, layers of plexiglass or acrylic skins. Look at my monotype below, just recently completed, entitled “When monotypes and kitchen utensils collide.” It involves no printing ink at all, only tempera paints applied using a sponge and acrylic paint applied with a spatula. In the absence of inks, is this a print? Is it a painting? Is it a multimedia work? Whatever it is, it fits into a broad new range of techniques in non-traditional printmaking.
There are many websites with useful information about printmaking but one of my favorites is the site for the annual London Original Print Fair, normally held each May. This year’s fair has ended but the site contains a downloadable catalog, information about the exhibitors and much more. Overall, it runs the gamut from Renaissance woodblock prints to completely modern works utilizing a variety of unconventional methods. Here is the link (opens in a new tab or window): http://2017.londonoriginalprintfair.com/
Another is The Boston Printmakers (an international association of artists). Their next Biennial is scheduled for January 27 – March 4, 2018. Their website includes links to all their past Biennials and students shows, as well as excellent glossaries and a tremendous collection of links. Here is their home page (opens in a new window or tab): http://www.bostonprintmakers.org/
The striking image above is a detail from the Battersea Shield. Found in the River Thames in 1857, it is actually the bronze covering from the front of a wooden shield that dates to between 350 and 50 BC. Among the decorative elements are 27 studs of red enamel, several of them visible in this image. The idea of affixing colored glass to metal or other surfaces was not new when this extraordinary object was made. Glass, Egyptian faience or other vitreous materials had been known since at least 4,000 BC. But to apply them to copper, bronze, silver or gold required some means of mechanical attachment. What makes enameling different is that the vitreous material is actually fused on to the metal surface at very high temperatures.
The first true known example of enameling comes from the Island of Cyprus, that great crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean. Six golds rings and a gold scepter and orb, dating to the 13th Century BC, were found in a Mycenaean period tomb on the Island. The enamel decoration included green, pink and white and was applied with such skill that the technique must have been in use for at least a short time prior to the creation of those objects. It is widely assumed that enameling spread from Cyprus to the Greek mainland (though Greece never became a major center for enamel art) and then to Europe. In Gaul (basically modern France and parts of Germany), Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) and Britain, during the Iron Age the enameling arts flourished. The Battersea Shield is just one of many examples of exceptional craftsmanship from this period.
With the absorption of Northwestern Europe and Britain into the Roman Empire, Celtic enamel techniques continued to evolve but often in ways that conformed to new decorative styles and the decoration of new, previously unknown types of objects. The small bronze object shown below is a Roman fibula (brooch) of the 1st or 2nd Century AD found in Roman Britain. It features carefully controlled applications of red, white, black and yellow enamels, in which the colors are not kept separated from one another by wires or other obstructions but allowed to fuse not only to the metal surface but also to one another. Brooches and other small objects of personal adornment were often enameled in the western provinces of the Empire. The image just beneath it, found in Spain and now in a private U.S. collection, is a small decorative stud in the form of a shield. It may have decorated a small piece of furniture or a box or it could have been part of the horse trappings of a Roman cavalryman. In this example, the artisan has set white and blue enamel powder into small cast cells in the bronze, allowing the enamel to melt just enough to fill in the cells smoothly and fuse to the metal. It is an early forerunner to true cloisonne technique.
Larger objects could also be enameled, such as the Cirecester Cockerel shown below. Discovered in a child’s grave at the Roman town of Cirencester during excavations in 2011, it is the most complete of several such pieces which seem to have been crafted in Britain and exported throughout the Roman world.
With the decline of the western provinces of Rome in the 5th Century, enameling became gradually more common in the eastern provinces centered around the new Imperial Capital of Constantinople. There and in other centers around the late Roman and Byzantine Empires, enameling reached brilliant new heights using mainly the cloisonne technique. Particularly from the 9th through 12th Centuries, Byzantine artists applied enamels to precious metals, often setting small roundels, such as the example pictured above, into larger objects such as chalices, processional crosses, and especially book covers; these were often dispatched to distant lands as diplomatic gifts. Byzantine enameling styles also had a long term influence on Medieval Italian art. With the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade by the Venetians and their allies, a great number of ancient and contemporary art works made their way back to Venice and other Italian ports. One example is pictured below: An icon of St. Michael the Archangel, 10th Century AD, now in the Treasury of St. Marks Cathedral in Venice. While the Byzantines would retake their Capitol from the westerners several decades later and continue working in enamel for some time thereafter, the craft never fully recovered. Technical innovations and new styles in enamel would next develop in the Islamic world and in western Europe.
The extraordinary glass bottle above was made in Egypt, probably Cairo, in the late 13th Century AD. It is a strong example of the art of enameled glass that reappeared first in Syria during the Ayyubid Dynasty and then shifted to the new Mamluk Dynasty’s capital at Cairo. Enameled glass had been known in the Roman Empire but for many centuries thereafter was a great rarity. But for about two centuries, Islamic glass makers in Egypt and Syria practiced a technique of applying enamels in multiple colors, sometimes accompanied by gilding, to large blown glass vessels and fixing the enamels to the glass in a single kiln firing. Examples were exported to Europe, mainly though Venice and other Italian ports, and the technique was emulated there
The glass bottle above was made in Venice between about 1500 and 1525. Like the earlier Islamic example above it, this glass features both enameling and gilding. The vessel above emulates the Islamic pilgrim bottle form, thus showing how craftsmen in Venice and other maritime Italian republics had both adopted and adapted Islamic techniques. By the 1400s, Venice had assumed the lead role in producing finely enameled objects of glass, while France and England, which both had maintained their long tradition of enameled metals, became leading centers for the art of enameling on gold, silver and even copper and copper alloys. Enameling became increasingly common in Europe after the 15th Century and new techniques ultimately lead to its use on all manner of everyday objects and for industrial purposes, such as enamel surfaces for pots and pans.
Both the Art Nuoveau movement, from about 1890 to 1910, and the roughly contemporary Arts and Crafts Movement, from about 1880 to 1920, embraced the art of enameling. Enamel decoration frequently appears on silver and copper utilitarian objects in these styles. It was this that ultimately gave rise to the mid-Twentieth Century resurgence of studio enameling and its widespread appeal today. The enameled copper tray above is the work of the Mexican enamel artist Miguel Pineda Godoy and dates to the early 1960s. The modern work shown below is by the Georgian artist Khatuna Roinishvili, who works in cloisonne enamel (the technique of setting enamel in small cells formed by tiny metal wires). This piece reinterprets Gustav Klimt’s famous painting “The Kiss.”
Striking a more contemporary note is the pendant below by American jeweler and enamel artist Daria Salus. In this example, she uses a photo etching process on the metal and combines this with transparent enamel. This typifies the great range of new techniques, and variations on old techniques, available to today’s enamel artists.
My own work in enamels seems rudimentary in comparison with not only the sophisticated products of today’s top enamel artists but even in comparison with much ancient enameling. I jumped at the opportunity to learn enameling a couple of years ago because I wanted to learn firsthand something of the technologies and techniques used in ancient Roman enamel art. More than any other impression, what I’ve come away with is a sense of the skill, patience and dedication to their craft of ancient enamel artists. One must keep in mind the tools and technologies available to them. The difficulties of obtaining fuel for their kilns, maintaining reliable firing temperatures, obtaining and processing materials for pigments and countless other factors must have been enormous. I felt privileged indeed to be able to simply switch on an electric kiln and work with powdered or liquid enamels provided in neat, presorted containers that arrived in the mail.
In the spirit of attempting to emulate ancient Roman enameled objects, the small copper fold-formed tray shown above featured six different colors of enamel, with small glass canes melted into the black and white enamels in the bottom of the tray. Combining small glass items such as beads, chips, canes or rods with enamels by allowing them to melt into an enamel background quickly became a favorite technique of mine.
I have a strong penchant for abstraction in most forms of art I practice. Enameling offers the artist (especially the less skilled artist, such as myself!) the opportunity to work in an abstract style with no limits on what may be produced. The two pieces shown above focus simply on strong colors and lines in space, while the round pendant below uses a combination of transparent enamel in the background with opaque powdered enamel and a melted yellow glass bead to create an atmospheric, almost astronomical vision that appeals to many viewers.
In another attempt at paying homage to the stunning enamel and glass creations of the distant past, particularly Ptolemaic and early Roman Egypt, I created the pendant shown below. Using an unusual shape, I attempted to capture some sense of the intensely pure white used in many ancient enamel and small glass objects, and set against this background a multi-color glass cane. A friend who does torch work, making exquisite glass beads and combining them with her silver jewelry, was conducting a demonstration of her techniques. When finished, she had a small pile of variously colored glass cane fragments left over. I asked if I could use them and the result was the piece shown below and others like it. Very pretty but I don’t think it does justice to the craftsmanship of the ancients.
Many college and university art departments and art schools offer courses in the enamel arts. For anyone with a personal drive to create and an interest in enamels, glass and related materials, I certainly recommend seeking out a course in this field or even asking to apprentice to or assist an enamel artists in your area. Who knows where it might take you.
Slip decoration on pottery is a very old technique. In the Mediterranean and Near Eastern ceramic tradition it goes back to at least 2,000 BC. Slip decoration involves applying a trail of thick, wet clay to the surface of a pottery vessel prior to it being fired. The slip may be in a contrasting color to the body of the vessel, and more than one color of slip may be applied. The still slightly fluid slip may then be trailed or combed with hand tools, creating feathering, or moved from side to side, allowing gravity to form patterns resembling marbling.
Once fired, the result is a pot, plate or other object that features bold and colorful decoration as well as texture. Slip may be applied in a number of different ways, including the use of a large syringe, a pastry bag with a fine tip, a balloon shaped applicator to which various sized nozzles may be affixed or even a squeeze bottle like those used for ketchup or hot sauce. Whatever the tool, the basic technique hasn’t changed much in many centuries.
I’ve long been fascinated with a variety of slip decorating techniques used extensively in England from about the mid-1600s through mid-1800s. The wares on which these techniques were used contrast strongly with the emergence at around the same period of imported porcelains from China and Japan, soft paste porcelain and other high fired, hard bodies ceramics such as stonewares made in Europe, and new decorative techniques, including enamel painting and image transfers. The earthenwares on which slip decorating was practiced were marketed to and used by the lower and middle classes of society in England. Their bold styles hold much appeal to modern studio potters, artists and collectors.
While slip trailed pottery of this period may have been used in a more humble setting than imported and domestic porcelains, at it’s best it could be visually stunning. In my own ceramic work I have tried not only to loosely reproduce some of these decorative techniques but also to reinterpret them, as have other modern studio potters in England, the U.S. and elsewhere. Even in Colonial North America and for decades after American independence, potters from as far north as Maine and as far south as North Carolina adapted the slip trailing techniques to their own wares, usually made with red bodied clays.
The famous British potter Bernard Leach, who helped launch the modern studio pottery tradition in both the U.K. and U.S., often turned to the old, traditional English pottery making techniques before delving into the world of Japanese style pottery. Many other English studio potters to this day utilize traditional slip decoration, often on pottery forms that also look back to the late Medieval and post-Medieval periods.
In my own attempts at emulating or reinterpreting the best of English 18th Century slip decorated wares I’ve tried a number of techniques. For the simple hand built plate shown below, I recreated as closely as possible the colors used in a couple of different but contemporaneous 18th Century platters with combed slip decoration. But instead of combing or feathering, I applied the slips using a thick paint brush while they were in a watery consistency. Working quickly so as not to allow the slips to dry, I then used a ceramics needle tool to drag small areas of one slip into the adjacent color, creating something like a marbling effect.
By contrast, in this similar hand built plate, I applied the slips with a thick brush, then dragged a common toothed sculpting tool, the type used in both ceramic sculpture and wax modeling, across the surface, allowing some overlapping and blending of the sharply contrasting colors. While not resembling closely anything I’ve seen in 18th or 19th Century English slip wares, it did prove to be a bold and satisfying design.
Finally, here’s a big stoneware charger I made by pressing a very thin slab of clay into a mold and applying all the slip decoration before firing. In this case, I started not so much with trails of colored slip as with spills of it, then wobbled the charger from side to side, allowing the colors to blend, overlap and create organic, fluid forms. While original English examples would have only allowed a more formal design, with less blending of colors, in both my example and the originals the effect is somewhat akin to psychedelic art of the 1960s.
In future entries I hope to explore the relationships between other media I work in and the same media as expressed in ancient and medieval art.
As an antiquities dealer with an archaeology background, I’m always conscious of the “condition” of objects, be they ancient artifacts or modern art. Ancient objects that are in damaged condition are quite normal; that is to say, a complete ancient sculpture, pottery vessel or other artifact, with no restoration, as seen in a museum or auction house, is a rare thing. When offered for sale, an incomplete, damaged object has a lesser market value than a complete example but is still marketable. A modern work of art would never be offered in a damaged or incomplete state. But in theory, there is no difference between the two. Some ancient objects that are broken are assigned a special type of reverence for that very reason. Examples include the 8 foot tall, headless, 2nd Century BC Nike (Victory) of Samothrace at the Louvre in Paris, and the famed Belvedere Torso at the Vatican Museums in Rome, representing either Ajax or Herakles, famed because it helped start the Classical revival in Rome and for Michelangelo’s refusal of Pope Julius II’s request to restore it with new limbs and head. Both are shown below.
Nike of Samothrace
I’ve been attempting to explore more deeply my own and other’s reactions to broken objects. Why are we drawn to them? Should or can they be made whole again? How did they come to be broken? One method of investigating these questions is to create new works made entirely out of deliberately broken objects. As an artist one of my primary materials is ceramics so it seemed only natural that I should begin this exploration using that medium. My first results are depicted below. All three works shown here are untitled and all are designed to be wall mounted.
The work shown above is the smallest of the three and the second one started. Overall I’m quite pleased with it. Some viewers see a cuckoo clock in it, though that resemblance was unintended. The addition of a damaged and unfinished enamel pendant to the piece offered a glimpse of “brokenness” in another medium, as well.
The piece shown here was the first of the three works started and the last finished. I struggled with finding a suitable method of depicting broken ceramics and fiddled with this first attempt off and on for 2 months, finally finishing it after the other two, more successful works were completed. It includes wood board, acrylic gel, acrylic paints, glazed stoneware and porcelain.
This was the last piece of the three to get started and proved to be the most successful, in my view. Stoneware slab with porcelain and stoneware shards adhering to it and acrylic paint for the background. In all three works, large fragments of both stoneware and porcelain were glazed, sometimes in combination with underglazes, then broken with a hammer or by a process similar to flintknapping after firing to achieve the right shapes and sizes. All are available in my Etsy shop.
Because the state of “brokenness” is so fundamental to my role as an antiquities dealer, I have no doubt that I will return to the subject in my own work in any number of ways over time. I will, of course, post here when those times come.
One of the inspirations for starting this Blog was a series of two articles written in my longstanding Clio Ancient Art Blog in January and April of this year, in which I attempted to underscore the usefulness of establishing connections between the art of the distant past and the sometimes confusing art of today’s world. These may be viewed in my Clio Ancient Art Blog here:
My main point in writing these was my concern over the apparent disconnect between so much modern, “pop” and shock art and art appreciation among the general public, as well as a disconnect, and sometimes a disdain, between many younger art viewers and artists with the arts of antiquity. Writing these brief articles took me in new directions, as I had made a conscious effort to keep my new identity as an artist quite distinct from my career as an antiquities dealer. I found, and accepted the fact, that it would no longer be possible for me to keep these identities and subject distinct any longer if I wished to explore both to the fullest. And that was the genesis, to a large extent, of this blog.