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Time to Kiln : Thirty Years Ago, Mary Sharp Became Intrigued by Enameling. Today, It Is an Obsession.

August 10, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

In a bow-and-arrow factory built in 1921, not far from Los Angeles International Airport, Mary Sharp makes exquisite works of enamel on copper and also holds classes in her art three times a week. The room she works in is 150 feet long; in it, archers would test the bows and arrows on targets. Eleanor Roosevelt's archery equipment was made here. Extras from "Ben Hur" came to the otherwise not-too-grandiose house to be instructed in bowmanship. Later, the room became a workshop for manufacturing hand-stitched sails for yachts.

Sharp's mother, Wanda Sweet, who will be 100 in February, sits in on the classes. Her hearing is not too good, but she is keenly interested in what comes out of the enameling kiln.

Sharp first became fascinated by enameling 30 years ago when she saw four examples at a festival held by a Los Angeles Methodist church. "I had gone through several other phases of art--watercolors, oils, pottery and so on--but they weren't enough for me," she says. "When I hit enameling, that was it."

She scoured Los Angeles for someone who could teach her the art. She found a few high school evening classes, but "nothing that was truly professional." Then she attended a month-long New York City seminar given by Charles Jeffrey, a leading enamelist who had written a book on the subject, and a University of Tennessee seminar directed by Kenneth Bates, another enamelist author. Her education was completed in Heidelberg, Germany, under Kathy Rothenberg, an expert in soldering.

Sharp paints with enamels on copper (the Limoges technique, named after the medieval French center of enamel work) and practices the cloisonne method (cells, or cloisonnes, are formed by sticking silver wire to a copper base and then are filled with enamel). But perhaps her most distinguished work is in champleve. The design is painted onto the copper in a resist, usually asphaltum. Then the piece is dunked in nitric acid until the non-resist parts are deeply bitten into. The asphaltum is washed off and the craters filled with enamel. "Then the hard work begins," Sharp says. "You have to grind down the surface with a Carborundum stone under water until the enamel is flush with your metal bite, and you have the choice of leaving a matte finish or restoring the sheen in your kiln."

Today, Sharp is recognized as one of America's foremost enamelists. Her work ranges from a pyx (a small box with a roof-like lid, based on a medieval reliquary), decorated with panels of biblical scenes, to wall panels, ashtrays and light-switch covers for hotels, to earrings and other enameled jewelry. She has also done some delicate restoration work on nameplates and radiator emblems of old cars--for street rodders and, in 1973, for the Bill Harrah Automobile Collection in Reno. Sharp is represented in Los Angeles by Hudson-Rissman, a decorative-accessories company located at 8430 Melrose Ave.

Ten years after her stringent, self-imposed apprenticeship was over, Sharp started her class in her current location. She rarely teaches more than eight people at a time. Most of them are women, though one star pupil is male--Gim Fong, who now makes plique-a-jour enamels (transparent enamel framed by wire) and also holds classes. Sharp moves from pupil to pupil, giving help where and when it is needed. Barbara Saxon, who has been studying with her for five years, says: "When I first came here--my first lesson--Mary just took charge. I didn't know anything. She said: 'You're going to need this and this and this,' and she put the things down in front of me and gave me a pad and I had to write everything down that she told me I would need." The things she needed included sifters for refining the colored-glass powders used in enameling. Saxon has a large sifter made out of a tuna can with gauze from a carburetor filter stretched across one end; she has smaller sifters, like elegant silver tobacco pipes, which are made by Johnny Kolesar, who supplies the atelier with virgin copper.

On her first day, to her surprise, Saxon finished a coaster and two plates. "Mary helped me a lot," she recalls. "I'd put the enamel on and she'd say, 'Well, that's goo-o-d,' but then she'd tap all the enamel off and do it herself, because it was too uneven. For a long time, she also fired the pieces for me, but eventually she said, 'If you're going to have your own studio and your own kiln, you're going to have to learn how to fire.' " Saxon now has four kilns in her home. She will soon be moving to Big Sur and hopes to make her living by enamel work. She will be able to attend the class only once a month, instead of weekly, as she--in the company of her dog, Drifter--does now. Saxon showed me a fine, nearly finished cloisonne enamel bowl decorated with a dolphin swimming underwater through seaweed. "I sold one to a friend for $35; but it costs me $35 to make it. In the future I shall ask $100."

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