Invented by the Persians 4,000 years ago, and adopted by the Chinese, who used it to decorate vases, enamelling is alive and well in Crawford Bay. For many people, paint comes to mind when they think of enamel, although the term originally meant “glass on metal”, precisely the method Lorna Robin and Helene Carter use to create their unique and colourful art.
Abstract images, scenery and animals cover a variety of pieces by Fireworks Copper and Glass, from light switch covers to earrings to wall clocks, all made of glass melted on copper.
“It’s a good conductor of heat,” said Robin. “And it cools slowly, so the glass doesn’t break.”
The process begins with a design drawn on cardboard, which is then traced and cut out of a sheet of copper. (In the case of repetitive shapes, such as earrings, the copper is bought preformed.) The piece is sanded until it’s shiny and a little rough, so glass will adhere to it.
In its pre-melted form, the glass is a powder — in over 100 colours — which is sifted or brushed onto the copper. Placed in a 1,000 C (1,832 F) kiln, the glass melts in about a minute. Once the piece is cool, additional layers may be added, with up to a half-dozen in some of the more complex designs, although too many layers may cause the edges to lose clarity.
Because the melting process takes only a minute, results are visible fairly quickly, said Robin, “but there’s a lot of preparation and planning, and finishing” to prevent mistakes.
Both artists work through the winter, although the shop only keeps regular hours during the summer tourist season, when visitors are welcome to watch the duo at work in their shop at 16095 Highway 3A.
“It’s fun to have visitors in the summer,” Robin said. “Customers come in a lot and say, ‘I never imagined that was how it was made.”
“People like to see something being made and have that connection to buying it,” said Carter.
The Nova Scotia-born Robin started copper enamelling in 1990 as an offshoot of Kootenay Forge, which she started with her husband, John Smith, in 1979 on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula. They moved to Crawford Bay in 1981, and sold the business to their daughter and son-in-law a few years ago.
“The enamelling started with the idea of adding colour to the black metal,” Robin said. “I ended up doing a lot of experimenting and creating my own techniques.”
At least one aspect of the experimenting stuck — in the beginning, Robin used the company’s forge to fire her work, and when she bought a kiln for Fireworks, she cut a hole in the side, turning it into a forge.
Four years ago, Carter bought half of the business from Robin, part of Robin’s plan to keep Fireworks running after her eventual retirement.
The partners have known each other for 20 years, and used to be neighbours. Carter, who studied fashion design in college and has a background in weaving, textiles and felting, was a logical choice to join the business.
“I’ve done workshops twice,” said Robin, “and both times she was the first to sign up.”
In four years, Carter has learned a great deal from Robin, and that hasn’t stopped.
“It’s a constant learning process,” said Carter, who grew up near Vancouver. “I’ve been doing it for four years and I wouldn’t say I’ve stopped.”
While learning, she discovered her favourite aspects of creating this type of art.
“I like combining colours, and using nature as an inspiration,” said Carter.
The colour is a favourite for Robin, too, as is the variety found in the work.
“There’s so much to choose from on any given day,” said Robin. “Colour experimentation is always fun. I think you’ll find that with anyone who works with colours.”