When Averill Brockelman Shepps ’53 was introduced to enameling, an ancient, exacting craft of firing glass onto metal, she was instantly taken by the beauty of the colors and the play of light. That was more than 50 years ago, and since then she has been exhibiting and selling her work, winning awards, refining her techniques, and teaching others how to enjoy enameling in creating both decorative objects and jewelry. She is the current president of the Enamelist Society, and her enameling demonstration on YouTube has garnered upwards of 40,000 views. The Alumnae Association recently talked with her to learn more about her work.
What is enameling?
The simplest definition is that it is glass fired onto metal [using either a kiln or torch]. Enamel is a specially formulated glass in ground form for artists and jewelers to use. To apply it, I sift it onto plates or other objects. You can use copper, silver, or gold; you can also use steel, but you lose the vibrancy of the transparent colors over polished metal. I use copper primarily—one reason is cost, but more importantly, the transparent enamels I use most often are really beautiful over copper. Copper has a softer, warmer color to it. You see the light as it goes through the glass; it hits the copper and is reflected back, producing a really intense color. Silver, which is used commonly for making jewelry, gives cool colors.
How did people figure this out?
The earliest known enamels date from the Mycenaean period. Other cultures have developed it. It flourished during the Byzantine Empire, and more recently in various European countries such as Germany, France, and Italy, where it was supported by the Church or by royalty. Still more recently, fine examples have come from Russia. Asian cultures have also produced enamels; China, Japan, and India have all made great works.
What inspired you to get into this?
When I was about 10 years old, I was reading something in the encyclopedia, and I remember the moment it was clear to me that I wanted to go into either art or science—that seemed to me the best way to find out about the world. I decided to major in geology at Smith; there was only one other geology major in my year. Unfortunately, after graduation I found that employment in geology was virtually closed to women. Since I couldn’t get involved in geology, I started pursuing the arts and exploring crafts. Then, I took a five-day workshop in 1958 on enameling and just fell in love with it. The color is so intense; there really is no other color quite like it. I’ve been doing it ever since and I’ve been able to make a living from it most of my life.
You’ve earned an award from the Enamelist Society for your work to help promote the field of enameling. Tell us a little bit more about the field.
I learned that although I might not be able to work in geology, I could work for the arts as a volunteer. I have spent time through most of my life working for various organizations in arts and crafts, and, of course, in enameling.When you get into enameling, the first thing you find out is that there are not many people doing it, so by default you’re doing it on your own and figuring it out. It’s difficult and it’s not taught frequently. When the great explosion of crafts came along in the ’70s, the schools would hire someone to teach metals and jewelry, and that person might spend only two weeks doing enameling. Being an enamelist almost requires you to educate the public about the medium, because it is not well known or understood.
So it has had limited exposure.
It just didn’t get the exposure that other crafts did. There also was a dismal period where it was looked down upon because many enamelists were working on copper plates or wall pieces, and many enamelists don’t shape their own metal in the same way as others who work with metal. There was a prejudice against it. This idea hurt the medium for quite awhile, although enameling is now undergoing a resurgence.
What makes enameling an appealing art form?
It’s all about the color. In our lives, color makes an impact on everything we see. Enameling also involves texture—you can use foils and metals of different thicknesses to get variations in color and texture.
How did Smith play a role in your interest in art?
When I went to the Ethel Walker School, the art teacher there discouraged me from going into art because she said I didn’t draw well enough. Regrettably, she didn’t take into account that I was two years younger than the other people in the class, and two years can make a big difference in drawing ability. When I entered Smith at 16, I was still interested in art. So I started taking art history courses, and I ended up having a minor in art, which at the time was unusual in a science major. The main thing I loved about Smith was that I was free to follow my interests with faculty who were fine educators in their fields.
I sell work mostly through the Enamelists Gallery at the world-famous Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, VA, a former torpedo factory turned into a successful, thriving center with artists’ studios, galleries, workshops, and a museum. I’ve also signed a contract with a small manufacturing company called Bovano, who is reproducing some of my jewelry designs.
Any new experiments?
I’ve done a series on environmental pollution that reflects my love of the outdoors and my concern about seeing nature harmed. I won an award for one of the pieces, “Three Mile Island Cooling Towers.” It uses an overfiring technique that produces a dark, oxidized area—a huge contrast with the beautifully transparent enamels I mostly use—so it makes a statement about pollution. An industrial enameling company was able to take a detailed image from my piece “Air Pollution” and transfer it on to enameled steel—similar to a printing process. That has huge potential—the final size of the piece is 16 by 24 inches—a lot larger than a plate.
Any advice for aspiring artists?
Don’t give up. Follow your passion and take the time to do it. Women especially get pulled in many different directions in their lives, and they can get pulled away from something that they love. I encourage women to find their passion and get out there and educate people and tell the world how great it is.