San Diego Enamel Scene / LAMA

San Diego Enamel Scene

by Dave Hampton

During the mid to late 1950s, the Art Center in La Jolla was becoming an important hub for area artists and designer-craftsmen, including those working with enamels. When Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley began to focus on the medium in 1948-49 they lived in a unit at Rudolf Schindler's El Pueblo Ribera (above), (along with other Allied Craftsmen group member Harry Bertoia) and their important groundwork helped inspire a whole community of San Diego artists, including Barney Reid, Phyllis Wallen, Joann Tanzer, James Parker, Margaret Price and even the young sculptor Jack Boyd, all of whom eventually did significant work with enamel on copper. 

Jackson and Ellamarie Woolley

Certainly, the Woolleys defined and propelled this wave of enameling by San Diego artists, however, within just a couple of years of each other (1955 and 1957 respectively), Kay Whitcomb and June Schwarcz arrived in La Jolla to infuse the surrounding art community with the additional technical depth and creative diversity that marked a truly exceptional moment in the history of mid-twentieth century American enameling.

Kay Whitcomb at the Art Center in La Jolla with daughter Debbie and son Ricky

Kay Whitcomb came to enameling before the Woolleys. While studying jewelry making at Rhode Island School of Design she observed Ruth Raemisch making enamels with the jewelry department's kiln and then, following wartime service, Whitcomb apprenticed from 1946-47 with enamelist Doris Hall in Cleveland, the industry center for enamel production. She'd been selling her enamels on the East Coast since 1948 and was quickly offered a one-person exhibition at the Art Center in 1956 where she subsequently taught enameling classes until 1959. 

Today, the late June Schwarcz remains California's most prominent enamel artist. When she moved to San Diego for a short but key developmental period, she lived close to the Art Center on Westbourne Street. After studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pratt Institute she worked as a textile designer and had only recently begun to concentrate on printmaking and enameling, in which she was self-taught.

Whereas Whitcomb felt she was "blacklisted" by the Woolleys and was denied membership in the Allied Craftsmen for a decade, June Schwarcz entered the group promptly and without incedent. She got along with both sides of the Woolley/Whitcomb divide and participated in the 1957 Allied Craftsmen show at the Art Center, where later that year she had her very first solo exhibition. Schwarcz combined prints pulled from etched copper plates together with her early enamel on copper bowls and box tops in the exhibition. In The San Diego Union she declared: "The etcher who makes prints is concerned with the quality of line, but I am concerned with the characteristic of the plate itself."

June Schwarcz print made in La Jolla, 1957

Beatrice S. Levy was Another Art Institute of Chicago alumnus in the neighborhood. A seasoned printmaker, she began to adopt abstract imagery late in life after moving to La Jolla. Levy was an active Art Center exhibitor when Whitcomb introduced her enameling classes and when Schwarz had her first show the next year. As a fellow printmaker it's likely that Levy was inpired by Schwarcz' example, as she too began to exhibit enamel panels and box tops with maze-like abstract motifs. Levy ultimately took over Whitcomb's class, becoming the Art Center in La Jolla's enamel teacher late in 1959.

Beatrice Sophia Levy in La Jolla 

Both Ellamarie Woolley's Double View and Kay Whitcomb's easel-sculpture, made the very same year (1972), reflect a particular creative stage and set of concerns that independently occupied each artist during the early 1970s. 

For the Woolleys, after all those plates and bowls (made, it's worth noting, before 1955) and the increasingly substantial wall panels and finally the demanding architectural commissions of the following decade, everything needed to change. "An upheaval, a new start, a fresh eye were needed," according to Ellamarie.

They were just two people, after all, working in a small, truly spartan, home studio. Their lives were rigorously scheduled around their working routine. They almost never had an assistant and even their largest commissions were made from hundreds of small pieces (each of which might be fired several times) that could fit inside their modest kiln.

Lot 213 Ellamarie Woolley, Double View 

The shaped wall panel Double View typifies Ellamarie Woolley's new work of the late 1960s and early 1970s, more personal and intimately-scaled and playfully optical but seriously reductive. She wrote that fresh sources of inspiration came:

"by taking a new look at our everyday city environment - at traffic signs, commercial emblems, store fronts . These all said: simplify, clarify, unify. I turned away from illustrating forms on and within the panel to making the shape of  the work itself the form."

Woolley made a sub-series of chevron-shaped panels from about 1970 to 1972 that were well-exhibited and given names to highlight their mirror-image effect like Double Squares, Twice Over and Twice Told. The chevron pieces seem related to New York gallerist Lee Nordness' attempts to market small editions by some of the artists he included in the landmark 1969 traveling exhibition Objects:USA, since his mail order brochures included an image of Ellamarie's Twice Told. Double View was shown in 1973 at one of California's most prominent craft exhibition series, California Crafts VIII at Sacramento's Crocker Art Gallery which also included woodworker Tom Tramel's intricate Wood Wall Relief. 

Overall 1972 was big year for the Woolleys as they each settled into new pursuits. For Jackson, that first meant hefty polychrome wall constructions of wood and polyester resin followed by geometric sculptures made with layers of colorfully transparent sheet acrylic. The Woolley's latest work was given a major two-person show at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in New York. Back at home they even opened a gallery space just across from the water in hippy-surf-bohemian Ocean Beach where their wearable pieces, leather fringed and fiber compositions would have hit the spot.

Kay Whitcomb served as a mechanical draftswoman in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve stationed north of San Diego at Camp Pendleton during World War II. Interestingly, Ellamarie Woolley also worked as a draftswoman during the war. When Whitcomb returned to the West Coast in 1955 she arranged for the La Jolla based architect Henry Hester to design a redwood-clad modern home for her family on Mimulus Way, across from his own residence. She said that in California her designs changed and acknowledged that  her own 

"competitive spirit and knowing of June Schwarcz' search for surface additions led me to experiment with the chemicals used in enamel formulas... Thus the chemical crust gave an accent to my enamel on copper panels which also used the base coat learned as an apprentice"

 Like the Woolleys, Whitcomb's studio was in her home and her income came from selling her art. Neither the Woolleys nor Whitcomb were professional educators, aside from occasional workshops and in Whitcomb's case, her four years teaching at the Art Center, but Whitcomb served on a number of non-profit boards including the San Diego Art Guild and the Southern California Designer Craftsmen. 

She developed an utterly distinctive design language with a  graphic quality instilled from her mechanical drafting background that remained consistent across different media, from drawings and prints to the content of her enamels–words, phrases, proverbs, figurative fragments, heraldic emblems, bird forms–and even extending to the architectural features or sculpture she contrived to go with the finished panels. If Picasso was the Woolley's most overt derivation, Whitcomb's, self-admittedly, was Paul Klee.

In the early 1970s Whitcomb set out to explore a variety of architectural settings for her flat enamel on copper or steel panels. For the most part, these works were neither exhibited nor sold like her smaller enamels, except for the highly publicized set of doors made in Belgium in that she exhibited at California Design 11 in 1971. Some panels were set into deliberately crude plaster castings for maximum contrast and another group framed in painted wood surrounds. Most striking was a series of sculptures that articulate her familiar graphic motifs three-dimensionally in black painted steel.  From this group, her one of a kind easel-sculpture was fabricated by a Tijuana metalworker to her careful specifications. It displays an enamel on steel panel bearing Whitcomb's signature geometric letter blocks in French with a stenciled quotation in English by MB Eddy.