WILLIAM HARPER stroked the glittering fetish and said, "I try to make enameled objects so seductive that you will be enticed to fondle them. I want to lure you into picking them up and handling them, feeling their eroticism."
Harper remembers the very day, the hour, the minute when the central philosophy of his work was revealed to him. "My wife and I were standing in the Cleveland Art Museum looking at statues of saints in the medieval treasure room. And I suddenly realized how much I wanted to touch them, to caress them.
"It was the time of the new morality - 'Oh, Calcutta,' 'Screw' magazine. When I touched that statue, it was as if a light had been turned on in my head. I suddenly knew that I wanted my work to have that quality of sensual pleasure." It is not surprising that Harper's studio is a part of his bedroom.
Harper is 33, a small man with delicate but finely molded features rather like his handiwork. He talked as he gave a final polish to the 54 enameled objects of his now on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Arts.
Harper's enamels are precious objects. He disdains the making of useful enameled works. He thinks of an enamel ashtray as an obscenity, a debasement of the material, the sow's ear made out of the silk purse.
The form and fancy of the enameled works are complicated. Harper, after he has, as he says, seduced you into holding his fetishes, captures your eyes and makes them follow all the intricate curves and curlicues of the enameled designs. The eye rejoices in the richness of the colors while trapped by the strange pathways of the designs.
Harper's enamels are votive objects, inspired, he likes to say, by tribal pieces he has seen from Zaire. He gives them names that suggest magic: "Ancient Amulets - Male and Female"; "Rattle for Medusa"; "Feather Fetish"; "Pagan Baby No. 4 and The Serpent."
Though the forms may have some link to Africa, the enameled decorations are much closer or Persian paintings, Indian necklaces, the Book of Kells - not only in the diminutive size and enormous complexity of the designs, but also in the glittering precious metals.
Harper's work is all cloisonne. Michael Monroe, Renwick associate curator, organized and installed the show with great success. He writes in the introduction to the checklist that the word "cloisonne" is derived from the French cloisons meaning "partitioned areas," referring to the way "each enamel color is enclosed in a space or cell formed with wire."
He continues: "William Harper creates transparent or opaque pools of color caught in silver and gold cloisons and then unexpectedly places them in juxtaposition with such disparate materials as shells, bones, teeth, feathers, mirrors, hair and Plexiglas."
The earlier works are the largest; the puzzles, rattles, dominos - the mysteries. Harper said he tried to make unique objects that would catch people off their guard, so they would look at them without a preconceived idea of what they should be. The later objects are smaller, wearable as jewelry. They are only smaller than the larger pieces, not really different in other ways.Harper calls them, indeed, "wearable fetishes."
"I resisted the idea of making jewelry for a long time, even though people kept asking me to make it. Only when I realized it didn't have to be different, except in size, from my other work, could I go ahead with jewelry."
Harper thinks a woman needs to be strong in her mind and determined in her personality to be able to wear such assertive objects.
"It doesn't have to do with her size. My wife is tiny, under 5 feet 2, and less than 100 pounds. She wears the pins on her turtlenecks with her blue jeans to the supermarket, and it doesn't bother her one bit when someone asks 'what is it?'"
Most of the jewelry has been bought and worn by young women, under 30, even though the pieces are expensive ($500-$2,000). They pay on time. "But there is one wonderful woman, about 70, who bought a bead necklace. She wears it every day. I always make a Plexiglas case for each object, so it can be displayed when it isn't worn," he said.
Harper and his wife when both were in school at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "I came from a small town in Ohio," he said. "My parents had never been to college, so when I said I wanted to study art, they said, 'all right, but get a degree in art education.' I was fortunate to go to Western, because they had an agreement with the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Museum so I took all my art classes with them. I was able to get a master's in art education without having to take more than just a few education courses.
"It was all accidental, but so lucky for me. There was only one art teacher in my little town, and she said, 'well, the only nearby art school is Western.' That was good fortune, because Cleveland didn't make any distinction between arts and crafts. They didn't think of painting and sculpture as a prestige thing, and crafts as something less. They just figured you should choose the medium that expressed what youwanted to do. They weren't snobbish about crafts at all.
"I don't understand the Metropolitan Museum, for instance. All their most popular shows here recently - the Scylian Gold Show, the Russian Costumes, the Chinese show, King Tut coming up - all those shows are of craft objects, even if they are antique crafts.Yet the Metropolitan, and the fancier New York art galleries, don't pay any attention to contemporary crafts.
"But people do. People understand the art crafts. Crafts are much more humanistic. Contemporary art has lost its universal appeal, and I think that's bad. I don't believe, though, that I have been hurt by lack of recognition for my technique. I chose enameling because my pictures can only be done in this way.
"Even as a boy, I always constructed things. I made a series of puppet shows - scenery, theater, costumes, everything. I even wrote the plays. For a while I thought I would even like to be a writer."
And he is. His book. "Step-by-Step Enameling," has sold 80,000 copies and been translated into several languages. He uses it in his classes at Florida State University in Tallahassee. His wife teaches elementary school there. They live in a wonderful house, designed by Paul Anthony, with a three-story-high central atrium, a closed fortress facade and a rear opening up to the southern sun and the sub-tropical view. His workshop is indeed one wall of their bedroom, with his principal work counter in the open. The kiln and the storage and other dirty work are in a closed-off area, with an elaborate venting system.
Harper's show is the second (Albert Paley's ironwork was the first) in the innovative effort of Lloyd Herman, director of the Renwick, to give the craftspeople of the United States the same sort of impetus and recognition that a major museum show has always conveyed to an easel artist or sculptor. The focus, not only on one artist but on one material, introduces the public, perhaps for the first time, to unknown materials and unfamiliar beauty.
The show is open through March 26 at the Renwick Gallery, 17th Street at Pennsylvania Avenue NW.