Copper in the Arts

February 2020

The Legacy of Copper Enameling

By Lisa Scheid

For Diane Wallace copper enameling is a family affair. The skill has allowed three generations of women to have their own unique expression and style through copper.

Wallace was born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where copper mining was an important industry. Wallace’s mother, Violet Miller, came from a well-known family. She grew up on an island in Lake Superior named Isle Royale. It is now a National Park. 

868735.jpgThe Spiral, Copper Enameled Art by Diane Wallace.
Photograph courtesy of Diane Wallace.

“My grandfather, Holger Johnson, was a commercial fisherman and they sometimes spent whole winters snowed in on the island,” Wallace said. “This is described in a book called ‘Diary of an Isle Royale Schoolteacher.’ “

Wallace, 67, now lives in New Mexico, and focuses on sharing her knowledge and experience in copper enameling, which she has been doing for more than half a century. 

“I learned about enameling from my mother when I was about 11 or 12, which was in the mid-1960’s,” said Wallace, a retired social worker who has sold her enameling for many years. “I am not sure how she found out about it as she and my dad (Eino) were lapidaries. They cut and polished rocks and made jewelry and other items like bookends. I think she learned about it from books and trial and error. Later she taught classes at her local art council.”

Wallace’s father also worked in copper.

“He didn’t believe in covering up the copper with enamel so he hand fashioned copper bowls and plates and sometimes etched designs in them with acid,” Wallace said. 

Copper enameling is the process of applying a thin coat of powder glass to a metal, then heating both to a high temperature (1500 to 1700 degrees Fahrenheit) so the glass melts and fuses to the metal. 

Wallace said she prefers copper, at least in part because of her family heritage.

Wallace said she and her mother had totally different styles but found inspiration in similar ways. Her mother would see something she liked such as a sunset, a picture in a magazine, or a colorful design, and imagine how it would look as an enameled piece.

Wallace and her mother sold their work at a gift shop, Keweenaw Agate Shop in Copper Harbor. After Miller retired and her husband passed away,  she moved to Kansas to be near Wallace. They sold items at a place called Kansas Originals and at art fairs.

While Violet Miller tended to be precise and exact and included a lot of cloisonné, Wallace is more abstract. 

“I enjoy using the painting technique,” Wallace said. “My daughter’s style tends to be more 3-D and she often puts pieces in a frame. She says she uses a mixture of all the styles. So we were all very different.”

Wallace’s pieces are often made with a certain person in mind.

“I would make a healing mandala with something that was personal to that person, like an animal totem,” Wallace said. ”I believe that the mix of copper and melted glass creates an alchemical reaction which is enhanced with the energy of the artist. That is why I recommend only working when the mind is at peace because negative energy will be transferred to the finished projects.”

Her daughter, Alexandra Wessel, continues the legacy, with her own line of copper jewelry commissioned enamel works. She lives in Kansas using the kiln that was her grandmother’s. 

Resources:

Diane Wallace, New Mexico

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