Non-jewelry enamelists who do art fairs are not only not common, they’re kind of screwed. We are homeless orphans who do not fall into any of the standard art show application media categories. With the exception of the ACC which is, as far as I know, the only organization running a show with an enamel category, we don’t fit in. The ACC, in fact, has two enamel categories: one for jewelry, and one for everything else. Note for later: the enamel category that is not jewelry is actually a sub-category under the parent heading of “metal.” Remember this. It’s important. Second note for later: The ACC does have a mixed-media category and enamels are not in it.
No category to apply under makes applying for art fairs kind of tricky. I discovered as much this season when I started trying to do it. Clearly I’m not a woodworker. But am I a glass artist? I shop at glass supply stores. My media magazine has “Glass” as the first word in its title. I have more glass than anything else on my studio supplies shelves.
While most of the glass art work I see at shows is 3D, stained glass works for the wall clearly qualify as glass. I don’t think stained glass artists struggle with an identity crisis every time they fill out a show application. Likewise ceramicists. Many is the clay artist who works in non-functional 2D for the wall, and I assume they don’t get reclassified as something else just because they don’t throw pots.
Woodrow Carpenter not withstanding, I am virtually 100% certain that if I applied to art fairs under the “painting” category, despite doing painterly work, I would receive a stern letter from the show organizers telling me I’d better not pull that nonsense again, and thank you for the $40.
So what about metal? My first instinct was to apply to shows as a metal artist, because I have to know a lot about metal in order to enamel it; I use metalsmithing techniques like chasing and fold forming; metal is, by volume, the bulk of my finished product as well as the most expensive component; and it was my start in metals that moved me into enamels. Remember that note? ACC classifies enamels as a subset of metal. But many, many, many were the art show web sites I scoured looking for art that looked like mine that was accepted into the metals category. There wasn’t any. Judy Hedblom’s work comes close: it’s 2D, it has color, it is non-functional (and, of course, gorgeous). In fact, up to the point where we color it — Judy heat colors, I
enamel — our technique is pretty similar. But Judy ends up with work that looks like metal. My work, when it’s all done, doesn’t. In fact, sometimes it’s a battle convincing people they aren’t looking at ceramic.
It could also be argued that for many enamelists, metal is pretty much just a shinier-than-usual substrate. It isn’t the work, it’s the canvas for the work. Calling myself a metal artist, given that, is as dubious as a painter calling herself a fiber artist because she painted on (and stretched, and understood, and worked with) canvas.
Enamelists doing both wall work and art fairs are, evidently, the ivory billed woodpeckers of the art world: exciting to see but hard to find. When I was sitting at my computer looking for some kind of clue about what category my media was in, I could only find one, and she wasn’t doing any fine art fairs. But I was desperate, so I did what she did in the one show I saw her at. I labeled myself a mixed media artist, even though I’m no such thing. (and, frankly, neither is she)
And thus I applied, for the entirety of the 2012 show season, as a mixed-media artist. I don’t think I’ll be doing it again.
Many enamelists are probably also mixed-media artists. But the problems with blanket categorizing enamels as mixed media are significant. First of all, there’s no getting around the fact that mixed media has a vibe — it’s got cultural connotations and an image all its own. A Google image search confirms this fact in spades. Whether intentional or not, mixed media leans dark, and kind of creepily weird . I don’t do dark and creepily weird, so I don’t particularly want to be lumped in with that crowd.
Second, there’s the kind of obvious fact that my media aren’t mixed. In fact, my medium is very unmixed. To return to my earlier example, calling an enamelist a mixed-media artist because they have glass on metal is like calling a painter a mixed media artist because they have oils on canvas or watercolors on paper or acrylics on hubcaps. Or to reference yet another example, it would be like calling a ceramicist a painter because they apply color to a substrate using a brush. I find this particularly frustrating because my medium is over three-thousand-fricking-years old and people still don’t seem to know what it is.
If you talk for any length of time to an enamelist, she will tell you that the medium is undergoing a revival. This is certainly true in jewelry. If it’s true in nonfunctional work then that fact hasn’t made itself quite so clear yet. But if it is becoming true, then I’m not going to be the only artist from my tribe feeling unwelcome at art fairs over the next few years. Maybe asking for our own category is asking for too much at the moment (although ACC doesn’t think so. Of course, they also have a separate kaleidoscope category so maybe this argument only goes so far.) In any case, we deserve to be judged on our own terms. Art fairs don’t combine painting and drawing, likewise sculpture and 3D mixed media often get separate consideration. There’s a reason for this. One doesn’t try to compare apples and car batteries.
I worry there might be some vicious circling going on here: enamelists don’t have a category so they don’t apply to shows, so shows don’t give enamelists a category because there aren’t enough of them applying to shows. Okay, so it may be a thin field at first. Nobody’s arguing that a show has to accept any enamelists at all, only that they need to be judged fairly. If you’ve got any other ideas about how to achieve that, I’m all ears.