Ruth Ball is an artist, designer and enameller based in Southport, Merseyside.
Attracted by the versatility of enamel, artist Ruth Ball fell in love with the material, and "its range of possibilities", whilst studying jewellery design at Middlesex University. "Enamel is a fascinating material in the fact that you can create with it on many scales. From a small jewel to a piece of domestic silverware, through to an architectural sized piece for a public art installation." Making by hand she utilizes engraving under layers of enamel, capturing subtlety, refinement and meaning in each of her very collectable pieces. Ball is recognized internationally as being practiced in a variety of enamel methods and has been the recipient of a number of prestigious awards and honours during her impressive career. Most recently, in 2009 she received a British Society of Enamellers Bursary to study large scale enamelling and in 2011 she achieved Commended in the Goldsmiths Craftsmanship and Design Council Awards. We sat down with her to find out more.
What is your design background?
After a foundation course in Art & Design at Southport College, I studied jewellery design at Middlesex University, graduating in 1987. Whilst there, I was extremely fortunate to be taught by several well known designers; Caroline Broadhead and Pierre Degen were tutors who influenced a fine art approach to my making, and I was also classically taught in enamelling by Alan Mudd and Keith Seldon who trained me in the fine aspects of enamel on silver. In addition, I was very lucky to be tutored in my final year by enamellers Jane Short and Ros Conway. Since university, I have benefited by attending workshops run by the British Society of Enamellers (BSOE) and the Guild of Enamellers and courses at West Dean with Pat Johnson. I have also attended a number of events at UWE run by the enameller Elizabeth Turrell.
What first attracted you to enamelling?
When it came to choosing a degree course, I was torn between doing jewellery or illustration. I was very undecided and I still tend to drift between the two disciplines, but my Aunt and Uncle were artists and ran a jewellery shop, so at the time I decided to follow in their path. I enjoyed the experimental and innovative approach to design at Middlesex. When I was introduced to enamel, I just fell in love with the range of possibilities it offered. My leaning as an artist has always been toward colour, and the fact that enamel could also convey an image was a real light bulb moment. So, whilst the emphasis was to work with alternative materials in the late eighties, I could always be found at the kiln.
What does your creative process look like?
I love working in sketchbooks. I mostly collect visually through taking photos and make drawings from them, but collage plays a big part too. I generally keep to a theme per sketch book. If it is my own work, once I have the direction of what I want to make, I tend to work directly onto the metal and enamel, as I usually know how I want to construct something. However, if I am working on a commission, I will produce a presentation drawing/models on request in order to confirm the design specifications.
The work I make is labour intensive, any silverware or jewellery once shaped is engraved to reveal the nuances of the metal surface under the enamel. The enamels are ground into a paste, washed carefully and are applied by hand over several firings. The piece is generally finished by hand polishing or more engraving. When I am making panels the process is a little different but firing layers of thinly applied colour still factor and the building up of an image is a key concern.
What are you currently interested in and how is it feeding into your work?
I am fond of printmaking and attend other artists workshops when I can. I am particularly interested in wood engraving and woodblock printing at the moment. I find printmaking a valuable way of exploring design ideas. I like to experiment, finding ways to incorporate print methods with enamel. I use print more in the panels I make, but I may employ it in future jewellery and silverware collections
what do you Love about sharing your craft with others?
When I teach my classes, I love the magic moments when work is taken from the kiln and students are thrilled with what they have created. They can be real eureka moments!
The passing on of knowledge is important to me. Enamelling is a skill that could easily dwindle in our computer dependent age. As further and higher education courses close, the opportunities to learn specific skills gets less each year. In time, enamelling may only be passed on via the technique being considered as a heritage craft, although there is some very exciting work being produced by contemporary makers and short courses are popular.
Which artists/enamellers do you particularly admire?
There are so many enamellers that I look up to, but I particularly admire the work of American artist Jamie Bennett. I love the painterly approach he employs and admire his quiet narrative. Also an exciting new find is the work of enameller Kario Juzi. I saw her work in a gallery in Denmark last year and was blown away by her sensitivity to the enamel surface.
There are also many artists and designers that inspire me, but at the top of my list is the work of Dutch artist Marian Bijlenga. Her innovative use of materials is just extraordinary. Closer to home, I admire the fundamental knowledge behind the work of my friend, the ceramic sculptor, Pauline Hughes. She makes with a strong sense of identity and bucket loads of integrity.
How would you advise learning your craft?
It depends at what level you are wanting to work towards. If you just wanted to learn enamelling, short courses are a great route and a lot can be learnt in a weekend. You could search out skills from individual makers and build a good level of skill over a series of courses.
Joining the Guild of Enamellers or The British Society of Enamellers is a great way to make like-minded friends and gain the opportunity to join their workshops, exhibitions and conferences. The two organisations work together to promote the work of graduate makers by offering an annual bursary competition which has a generous prize package.
If you are interested in a wider range of jewellery and art skills, I would additionally recommend looking out for evening classes in your area or completing an art & design foundation course. When you are ready, you can then search out a degree course where you can build your portfolio and have the opportunity of working with industry led designers.
What are you passionate about besides your work?
At the moment, alongside my enamel work, I am focusing on sketching and I am researching drawing. My New Year's resolution was to enter the Sketch Book Project, which is an “open to all” initiative operated from the Brooklyn Art Library in New York. By the end of March I will have completed my entry and I am excited to think that my sketches will sit alongside the extensive collection of artist's work from all over the globe.
What does success look like to you?
In life, I am lucky to have good friends and a lovely family. I really couldn't ask for more. My husband and I are very blessed to have two children, who now as young adults totally inspire us with all their individual achievements, adventurous spirits, and entrepreneurial thinking.
I have several career highlights that mean a lot to me. Writing my book, Enamelling, in 2006 was a wonderful opportunity. In 2007 and 2013, I enjoyed working with fellow enameller Ulla Huttunen on a series of exhibitions that took place in Finland. I was also privileged to complete public art commissions for the NHS Royal Liverpool Hospitals in 2013 and 2014. In addition, I am thrilled to have had the chance to be exhibited at Collect in 2012 with the Bluecoat Display Centre and I am proud to have been selected to showcase my work at the Goldsmiths Fair every year since 2010.
Which women do you admire and why?
On a personal note, my Auntie Jessie is my all time hero. She is an artist but has always painted just for the fun of it. However, it is her positive attitude to life and sense of humour that is truly inspirational. At 97 years young she still paints, lives independently, walks to the shops every day, and sometimes enjoys a cheeky gin and tonic with her dinner!
In the world arena, I admire the visionary structures of Iranian-British architect Zaha Hadid. Her workload is prolific and to my mind she is a real pioneer in terms of design. She breaks the mould in so many ways; not only do her buildings defy convention but she has achieved “first woman” recognition in several prizes such as the Pritzker Architecture Prize and RIBA Gold Medal.
SHOP THIS FEATURE
Echo Vase, Enamel on Silver
Flow Dish, Enamel on Silver