Art: Bringing Enamel Home

Art in hand: El Cerrito enamelist Judy Stone, who has helped revitalize the craft of enamel art in former Soviet Georgia, at home with one of her vessel pieces. On the table are Stone’s enamel light-switch plates. Photo by Phyllis Christopher.

All Fired Up
Judy Stone taught herself the art of enameling. Then she traveled across the world to bring the craft back to life in one of its birthplaces. By Brian Kluepfel

The world was aflame in 1968 with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the student uprising in Paris, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the escalation of the Vietnam conflict. But it was heat of another kind that drew the attention of young Judy Stone, then a Fulbright scholar studying comparative German literature in Bochum, West Germany.

“Everybody was rioting all over the world, and they were burning bras in the States,” recalls El Cerrito artisan Stone, who was too immersed in German literature to notice much else at the time. A fellow student informed Stone that the university had purchased a kiln for enameling. Stone hadn’t the foggiest idea what enameling was, but she took a break from her studies to check it out. (She had always considered herself “arty” as a child, making things like eggshell mosaics.)

“The moment I walked in the door of the rec room, something was coming out of the kiln,” she recalls. “It was molten hot, red, and when it cooled it got this luscious, gauzy color to it.” It didn’t take long for Stone’s focus to shift from the classroom to the kiln. “I was hooked,” she admits.

While managing to fulfill her scholastic requirements, she spent as much time as possible deciphering the centuries-old process of enameling—bonding powdered glass onto metal surfaces—an obsession that consumes her to this day. “There were no books or teachers,” she says. “I just bought supplies and experimented.”

Today, three decades later, two kilns warm her El Cerrito backyard studio. Stone has gone from teaching herself an ancient craft to, unexpectedly, bringing the craft of enameling back to life in one of its countries of origin, half a world away.

Because the world of enameling is small—Stone estimates that maybe 1,000 to 3,000 people across the globe do it—it wasn’t hard for the nascent enameling community in former Soviet Georgia to discover Judy Stone through her Web site. Although her style differs greatly from the Georgians, her body of work and status was enough for Ia Dvali, an art critic and a representative of the Georgian Center for Popular Culture, to invite her to Tbilisi for the first-ever symposium for Georgian enamelists.

Stone’s trip, scheduled for December of 2003, was stopped dead in its tracks by revolutionary activity reminiscent of 1968. In November 2003, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was deposed during the peaceful “Rose Revolution.” By January 2004, new elections had stabilized the situation and Stone was able to reschedule her trip for February.

Just weeks before Stone arrived, she discovered that the whole symposium was going to revolve around her. “I was flattered and absolutely appalled,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m just a schlep. Why me representing all of Western enameling to this country?’”

She was lucky to arrive smack in the middle of a cultural revival. “When Georgia broke away from the USSR in 1991, there was a great move to reclaim their culture,” says Stone. One aspect of that was enameling. Four centuries of fighting against the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian empires had left Georgians little time for enameling.

“Georgians work mostly in cloisonné, and the work has pretty much developed in isolation,” says Stone. (For a description of different enameling techniques, please see the sidebar page 7.) “I think that’s what makes it so special.”

Art critic Dvali calls contemporary Georgian cloisonné “very popular and interesting, but far from the ancient traditions [of the country].”

The earliest examples of Georgian enameling date to the fifth-century BC. Stone says the Golden Age of Georgian enameling took place from the ninth to the 15th centuries. After that, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans and the uniquely Georgian way of enameling—using a very thin gold background and sometimes adorning the edges with freshwater pearls—died out. To add insult to injury, the Russians plundered Georgian iconography during the Soviet era, and most of the country’s artistic treasures are in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Stone’s visit to Georgia a year ago may have been a first step in reclaiming this rich cultural heritage. She developed a special bond with the Georgian enamelists that transcended cultural and language differences. “I became so animated while working with the students that I forgot that we had a language barrier,” she says. “Language is not so important when you are sharing visual things such as how to put enamel on a three-dimensional surface.”

The Georgian enamelists’ enthusiasm for the art form and for Stone’s work was on par with American’s idolizing of sports stars. Stone was flabbergasted by the attention. “I got a sense of what it would be like to live in a world where what I did mattered. The Georgian enamelists know that they are carrying on a very important tradition,” she says. Stone can’t imagine the U.S. public, or press, duplicating what happened on opening night in Tbilisi.

That evening, in the biting winter weather, more than 1,000 Georgians queued up for the show’s grand opening. Further, Stone’s status as artist won her an introduction to the new Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, his wife, and a range of diplomats. (The weeklong event included classes, an awards ceremony, and a formal showing of some of the enamelists’ work.)

Ia Dvali, Stone’s first point of contact in Georgia, had great praise for the intrepid enamelist and says Stone is warmly remembered by all who met her. “She taught us about new tendencies in enameling,” says Dvali. “As a result, Georgian artists started to develop their art in a new way.”

When Stone moved to the Bay Area in 1972, she reunited with some old Indiana University friends and temporarily delivered phone books to make ends meet. From humble beginnings, Stone began her enameling career on a dental kiln. Two years later, with a group of like-minded folk, she joined the newly formed Northern California Enamel Guild.

Today she has found her niche here making decorative vessels, bowls, and light-switch covers. Stone creates both rectangular switch covers—in purple with white dogwood blooms, in dark blue with white stars and crescent moon—and some in irregular shapes, with pastel and vibrantly colored abstract designs and landscapes. Galleries from Sebastopol and Provincetown to New York City and North Carolina carry her crafts. She’s exhibited her work throughout the U.S. and Europe, most recently at a show close to her heart—the Celebration of Craftswomen at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, which Stone co-founded 26 years ago.

Nancy Goodenough, the past president of the Northern California Enamel Guild, says Stone’s influence on the small universe of enamelists has been profound—particularly her ability to organize conferences. “She turned our biennial juried show into something with a definite international presence,” says Goodenough.

Despite her success, Stone found the economics of an artistic endeavor to be challenging and saw fellow artisans grappling with the same issues. In the ’90s she began teaching the business of craft, a class which focuses on helping artisans improve their business sense and make a living.

But bringing these notions of entrepreneurship and profit-making to her Georgian colleagues hasn’t proved easy. She hoped to instill the gospel of fiscal survival, but says that so far, the Georgians haven’t been ready to listen. “They want everything done for them,” she laments. “They’re kind of slaves to the old Soviet system.”

The two main enameling galleries in Tbilisi, for example, “have no sense of marketing or PR,” explains Stone. She also indicates that an interesting enameling article in the Georgian national airlines in-flight magazine had no contact information for the galleries mentioned and that few of the artists have business cards or Web sites.

Mary Cochram, the Program Director for Africa and Europe at Aid to Artisans, a Hartford, Connecticut nonprofit dedicated to creating economic opportunity for craftspeople in places like Georgia, echoes Stone’s sentiments. “Most of that part of the world is still pretty depressed, and people are looking at anything as a survival strategy,” says Cochram. “Artistic vision is really important in Georgia, but then again, so is feeding your family. You need to make products that are marketable—and be able to market them—to use enameling or other craft to put food on the table.”

Stone believes it can be done because there’s a demand and a market for enameling, especially religious iconography. Georgian Orthodox monasteries, for example, are asking for contemporary iconography.

Stone is frank about the prospects for her kindred kiln people across the globe. “Unless they take it into their own hands, they won’t get seen out of country very much,” she states. A few Georgian enamelists, however, are successfully selling their work in Germany and France. Stone has assisted a handful of other artists by having their work displayed at the Northern California Enamel Guild biennial juried show, held at Berkeley’s ACCI Gallery last September. There, artists like Tina Nachkebia, Nana Gigolashvili, Ia Gigoshvili, and Maia Zarandia had their intricate work seen by American eyes for perhaps the first time.

Although no Georgian enamel sold, ACCI director Sasha Rabin said the show was successful in another sense. “These artists had been working in seclusion—alone in their studios,” says Rabin. “For the first time they were able to display their work alongside their (international) colleagues.”

Stone is happy, at least, that those who took part in the Tbilisi show are in the process of training other artists in new enameling techniques.

Dvali, too, is realistic about the marketing outreach by Georgian artisans. “Some have won prizes in international contests, but I couldn’t say that [they] are selling their work successfully abroad,” she says. “We are in the process of searching for a market for Georgian enamelists, and Judy helps us.” Both Stone and Dvali note that although the market for religious iconography could be a rich vein, it is also limited, and Georgian artisans will need to look beyond their borders to generate sales.

Judy Stone’s legacy in the relatively small universe of enameling, and the slightly larger one of crafts, has been far-reaching. She estimates that more than 300 American students have passed through her business of craft workshop over the years, and many, like Goodenough—who in addition to enameling, creates glass bead jewelry and metalwork—have thrived. Goodenough, who left a career at IBM in 1999 to sell crafts full-time, says, “I pay my mortgage with the money I make from my crafts and I owe it all to Judy.”

The nuts-and-bolts classes Stone presents on topics like retail versus wholesale, working with sales representatives, printing cards and brochures, and shows available to artisans, are exactly what many new craftswomen need, adds Goodenough.

Stone’s life remains a whirlwind of activity. She continues to teach classes in enameling, and recently contributed chapters to two books, The Art of Fine Enameling (Sterling) and Enameling with Professionals (self-published). Her work can be viewed and purchased at Judy Stone’s web site.

Although her work is primarily enamel-on-copper, Stone has recently begun to work with steel, commonly known as “industrial enameling” for its applications in elements such as signage and cookware. The physicality required for this technique was a new wrinkle for the just-turned-60 artist. But she welcomes the challenge and even had the opportunity to work inside local industrial enameling factories to produce large-scale commissioned wall installations—quite a bit larger than her usual light switch covers.

She talks about her community of craftspeople and the legacy they’ve created. It’s talk that reminds one of 1968, indeed.

“We are the true revolutionaries in this society because we value the work of our hands; we value tradition and history,” says Stone. “We understand very deeply that the handmade object is what connects us to the people who buy from us. The object is imbued with our souls.”

Brian Kluepfel is a writer who has lived in the Bronx, Bolivia, and now Berkeley. He is a graduate of the University of San Francisco’s Writing Program and has authored one children’s book and hundreds of magazine articles.

Reprinted with permission from The East Bay Monthly, Volume 35, No. 4, January 2005. Copyright © 2005 Berkeley Monthly Inc.