If I wanted to be a painter, I wouldn’t have sprung for the kiln

Posted by on Apr 27, 2012 in your brain on art | No Comments
If I wanted to be a painter, I wouldn’t have sprung for the kiln

Woodrow Carpenter, in the pages of Glass on Metal, has been waging a one-man campaign to get enameling recognized as a form of painting.  His premise, which I agree with, is that enameling can be every bit the fine art that painting is. His frustration, which I share, is that the medium isn’t well recognized. His opinion, which I think has merit, is that enamelwork for the wall needs a better name. His conclusion, with which I completely disagree, is that the new name should be “painting.”

oxidized circles on acid treated enameled copper1 300x300 If I wanted to be a painter, I wouldnt have sprung for the kiln

The oxidized circles on this piece, as well as the fused glass bead circle, could never have been achieved with mere paint. Neither, for that matter, could the acid-treated copper surface.


The argument, as I understand it, is that enamelists — those who work in 2D at least — are using color on a flat surface to to create a piece of art. This process could be said to describe, very roughly, what painters do. Therefore, enamelists must be painters too. At least of a sort. The sort that produces “enamel paintings.” The argument fails in part, I think, because it doesn’t acknowledge that there are plenty of 2D fine arts in the world that not only are not painting, but don’t seem compelled to apologize for it. They have their own names and they stick to them.

Another problem, and it’s kind of a biggish one, is that painters actually paint. Using a substance easily identifiable as  paint. When you admit that fairly fundamental fact, you realize it makes no more sense to classify enamelworks for the wall as “paintings” than it would to classify pastel or ink or crayon works for the wall as “paintings.” I suspect most pastel artists wouldn’t want to be reclassified as painters. I think they might protest. And so might the painters.

Which isn’t to say that enamels, enamelers, and enameling don’t have a PR problem, and maybe even a bit of an identity crisis. I suspect, by contrast, photographers don’t suffer in this regard, despite their form being in its infancy compared to ours. Or, more saliently, sculptors. Because sculptors have what 2D artists don’t: a simple, well-understood word to describe the kind of work they do, regardless of the materials they use to do it. Wood, marble, glass, bronze, or garbage can lids — a sculptor sculpts. And people get that. 2D, whether we like it or not, has no such catch-all term. And “painting” just won’t do.

I spend most of my time at shows slogging through  people’s misconceptions and mistaken notions about what enameling isn’t. Fighting the assumption that enamel is paint is something I have to do every time I show my work. “Enamel paint,”  I’d guess, is the phrase by which “enamel” enters the lexicon most frequently in these United States to begin with. Unless you’re talking about nail polish (and I wanted to call myself “the enamelista” for this blog, but the name was already taken by a manicurist) people hear “enamel”, and they think “paint.” So in a way, we may already be heading in the direction Mr. Carpenter wants to go.

Thing is, all respect to painters, but I don’t want to be one. God knows it would have been a cheaper medium to get into if nothing else. But  I like the technical aspects of melting ground glass to metal. I like the problem solving associated with getting molten silica to harmonize with a sheet of copper that is so fully annealed it wants to behave like putty. Painters don’t have to do these things. That doesn’t make them better or more rarefied or more “artistic” or “fine” or cool than me. With them it’s all “technique” and no “technical.” I’m proud of the fact that I manipulate more than a mere brush when I create, and I don’t need to join the painter’s club to get my props.

There’s a difference, though, between understanding what we do and taking it seriously. Lay people don’t understand what we do. I think Mr. Carpenter is trying to make a case for his belief that the art world doesn’t take us seriously, probably because we’re “mere crafters.” He hopes a word — painting — that comes preprogrammed with an elevated cache, will lend some of its prestige to our efforts. I think we’re going to have to do that ourselves. Meanwhile, to fix the admittedly awkward labeling issue, I’m taking suggestions.