The expression "cleanliness is next to godliness" is taken seriously by Dorothea Stover, an Arlington enamelist who says a dirty finger could ruin the pieces of art she spends hours to produce.
"With enameling, cleanliness comes first," says Stover, as she scrubs a piece of copper jewelry with scouring cleanser from her kitchen. "A dirty-fingered saint would leave smudges that would ruin this piece."
Stover, who divides her time among her jobs as treasurer for the Enamelist Gallery in Alexandria's Torpedo Factory, attending workshops through the National Enamelists Guild and teaching enameling for Arlington's recreation program, is readying the copper pin for its first coat of enamel.
"Many people still think enamel is paint," she says, explaining that it is actually ground glass that is poured on top of a piece of metal, such as the copper pin, and heated in a kiln. The result: a finely crafted piece of art that sometimes takes 30 "firings" to complete.
Using an ordinary kitchen spatula, she pops the copper piece into her tiny kiln, heated at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, for just over one minute.
When the piece is cooled, she will turn it over and do the same for the other side ("otherwise it will chip") and then start making design decisions -- decisions that hinge as much on her knowledge of chemistry as her feeling for art.
"It's true that you need at least a basic knowledge of chemistry to do this craft," she admits after a lengthy discussion of reactions between enamels, metals, foils, cleaners, etching chemicals and dirt.
"When a painter sets out with his oils, he pretty much knows what color is going to come out of each tube. But I have to test each batch of colors I get to see how they react to being placed on copper, white enamel and gold foil."
She points to rows of tiny colored plates in front of her, a dictionary of the colors she has used in the nine years she has practiced this craft.
The kind of work Stover prefers is the detailed and difficult "cloisonne" method, which dates back to Byzantine times. Cloisonne artists use tiny silver wires to hold pockets of different-colored enamels, each layer fired separately.
Once filled in, the enamel and wire surface is "stoned down" to give it a smooth, even texture. She brings out a piece she has not finished polishing: "Feel this; you can feel the wire in it. Also, the surface has a glare to it I find disturbing."
Such fine works cost hundreds of dollars and are rarely seen at neighborhood craft fairs.
What you do see at craft fairs is the easier scroll method of enameling, which starts with metal and lumps of enamel. As the enamel melts, a scrolling iron is used to draw a design through it while the piece is still in the kiln. "It's fast, it's easy, it's fun, kids love it," says Stover.
Another relatively simple technique uses silver or gold foil, which is laid down over the initial layer of enamel. A thin layer of enamel is then melted on so the foil will show through, and a design is drawn "with an underglaze enamel so fine it can be painted on," Stover says.
The cloisonne work, however, takes patience and hours of concentrated effort -- an effort that Stover says has paid off for her. "I hate to be sentimental, but really, there's so much cynicism in the world, and I think we should take the time to celebrate the beauty. This is my way of saying life is really worth living; beauty is worth striving for."
Most enameling is done on jewelry, but artists also use bowls and similar objects for their enameling work.
Stover says Washington is now one of the best places in the country to study enameling. "When I was in college, there was only one place to go to study enameling, and that was out in Cleveland with Kenneth Bates," she says.
The National Enamelists Guild, she points out, was started in Washington in 1973 by local enamelist Gwen Anderson, and now has affiliate guilds throughout the country. "Also, there are some excellent local teachers, people like Bell Kuhns, Barbara Mail and others giving workshops," she says.
And local galleries have given space to enamelists. "The Greenwood Gallery gave us a lot of support, and two years ago, the Renwick had a one-man show of Willliam Harper -- the best enamelist in the country. He's the kind of artist who can combine human teeth, enamel and metal and have it come off."
Stover makes no such claim to fame. "I'm not a very original artist," she says, "but I do think my enamels are well-crafted." This is no small feat in itself: her pieces often take more than 30 hours of work.