Acclaimed enamel artist Alexandra Raphael comes home to Society for Contemporary Craft


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Alexandra Raphael, a gifted enamelist who is also daughter of the organization's founder, will give a free talk at 6 p.m. March 30 at the Society for Contemporary Craft, Strip District.

The artist, who lives in London, is internationally known and awarded for her intricately designed, expertly crafted cloisonne jewelry, goblets and bowls. She will speak about the plique-a-jour technique she employs and about how being the child of SCC founder Elizabeth Rockwell Raphael has influenced her artwork.

The event is part of the SCC's 40th anniversary year celebration that will continue into the summer. A reception will precede the talk at 5:30 p.m., and questions and reception will continue after until 7:30 p.m.

Ms. Raphael's talk coincides with "Transformation 8: Contemporary Works in Small Metals," the eighth biennial Elizabeth R. Raphael Founder's Prize Exhibition. The prize series was initiated in 1997 to mark the SCC's silver anniversary and to honor their mother at the suggestion of daughters Alexandra, Cathy and Margaret Raphael.

"Betty was an incredible visionary who was so passionate about the arts. If you want to know about Betty, you have to put all of her three daughters together," said Janet McCall, SCC executive director. "They are all modest and unassuming and amazing women in their own right."

Alexandra was named for Alexander Calder, a family friend, who made a small pull toy for the baby comprising two wheels, a duck and a spool. She has perfected her cloisonne and plique-a-jour (backless enamel) techniques over three decades, drawn by the vibrancy of the glass colors and the challenge of the process.

She begins by bending and shaping thin silver and gold wire, fills in the delineated spaces with a fine layer of ground glass, and fires at 800 degrees Celsius. More layers of translucent enamel are applied and fired, gradually building the depth and dazzle she aims for. Finally, the piece is polished.

"It's painstaking," Ms. McCall said. "The level of skill that's required to do enameling without backing comes from years of passion and focus."

Often the works incorporate symbols significant to the artist or the person for whom a work is commissioned. A necklace created in memory of her mother includes imagery of an eclipse of the sun with the date of the artist's birth; windows from the family's first house; zodiac signs; an acorn representing their community, Oakmont; a bee, for her always busy-as-a-bee mother; the letter B; water; phases of the moon; stars; the word STAY; and the artist's hand holding a drop of blood.

Her work is in such collections as the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, London; the Museum for Decorative, Applied and Folk Art, Moscow; and the Musee de L'Horologerie (museum for clocks and enamels), Geneva.

An exhibition of her work is in the SCC studio through June, and some pieces will be available for purchase in the shop.

The SCC had its origins in 1971 when Elizabeth Raphael opened The Store for Arts and Crafts and People-Made Things in Verona as a venue for goods made by residents of the depressed mill town. Later, nationally made crafts were also sold. Now located in the Strip District, the SCC is a nationally recognized venue that showcases innovative art/craft, and exhibits local, national and global artists.

The Store was an admired destination when Ms. McCall moved to Pittsburgh to work for Carnegie Museum of Art after graduating from Bowling Green State University, Ohio. New to town, she asked where she might shop for a gift and was told, "Oh, you must go to The Store," she said. "Anyone of a certain age remembers being directed out there." Elizabeth Raphael ran ads in national media offering free transportation from the airport. "Her daughters would drive the family station wagon out to pick up clients," said Ms. McCall.

When Elizabeth Raphael died in 1998, her three daughters continued an active relationship with the SCC.

"They continue to very generously fund the Raphael Prize," said Ms. McCall, "which is a tremendous gift to this organization because it allows us to do a more ambitious program for the prize than we could otherwise do. They came up with the idea of making a video [of each winning artist] and making it available to the artist to use for promotion. They felt very strongly that the exhibition should have a catalog. They support the $5,000 award, and the option to purchase the winning piece [for the SCC collection]."

The sisters have all participated in the jurying for the Raphael Prizes, and Margaret Raphael was present when the finalists were chosen for the current exhibition. "Margaret was so lively and funny," Ms. McCall said. "She was often drawn to pieces that incorporated animals or nature. The guest jurors enjoyed the family dynamic of the sisters together."

Many readers will have known Margaret, who died in December, through her love of animals and dedication to healthy eating. She was owner of the gourmet vegan restaurants Maggie's Mercantile, in Stahlstown, Westmoreland County, and on Craig Street near Carnegie Museum of Art.

She and her daughter and son-in-law, Cayce Mell and Jason Tracy, opened OohMahNe Farm, a sanctuary for abused, abandoned and neglected farm animals, in 1996 near Greensburg, Westmoreland County. Margaret Raphael's small organic farm grew to supply her restaurants and other local venues.

Her sister Cathy, who lives in Squirrel Hill, was trained as a metalsmith. She has been a professional storyteller and conducted corporate and individual workshops on the importance of play as a creative activity in life. She established the Nuin Center, a holistic and integrative wellness center, in Highland Park.

Each carry the sparkle of creativity and sense of service to community instilled by their mother and reflected in the mortar and brick memorial that is the Society for Contemporary Craft.

"Transformation 8: Contemporary Works in Small Metals" continues through June 30 at 2100 Smallman St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is $5 suggested donation. To make reservations for the talk, learn about enamelling workshops, or for general information: 412-261-7003 or www.contemporarycraft.org. To see more of Alexandra Raphael's work, visit www.araphael.co.uk.

Malawian benefit

Paintings and drawings by Malawian orphans will be sold from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday during a wine and cheese fund-raiser at Elizabeth Castonguay's Creative Arts Studio, Riverpark Corporate Center, Terminal Street, South Side (off East Carson Street between Third and Fourth streets). Entry by donation. All proceeds will support the Trinitas House Orphanage nutrition program, which local arts patron Laura Horner's father runs.

"Canvassing Clutter"

A "Canvassing Clutter" exhibition, comprising works by 20 Pittsburgh and national artists, is being held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Posvar Hall, University of Pittsburgh, 230 S. Bouquet St., Oakland, to raise awareness of the problem of hoarding. The show is sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Hartford Partnership Fellowship, which supports excellence in geriatric social work. Works vary from photographs of "hoards" to representations of emotions felt by hoarders or family members to recycled material pieces. Free and public.

Dlugos on Ludwig

The evolution, process and formal qualities of the late artist David Ludwig's colorful abstract wall reliefs is the topic of a free public talk by Kathleen Dlugos at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Greensburg Art Center, 230 Todd School Road, where his work is exhibited through April 20. Ms. Dlugos is associate of fine arts program director and associate professor art at Westmoreland County Community College. Information: 724-837-6791 or www.greensburgartcenter.org.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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