Copper in the Arts

October 2020

Pat Musick: Inspired by the Nature of Copper

By Lisa Scheid

article1.jpgInfinite Nature (1998) Enameled Copper; Mesa State College, Grand
Junction, Colorado, Pat Musick.
Photograph courtesy of Pat Musick

Like the intricate enameling technique that she expertly crafts, Pat Musick’s connection with nature is complex.

“I'm inspired by the natural world, interweavings of nature and culture; ideas, words; the medium itself, and a desire to evoke, share, communicate,” said Musick, who grew up among sandstone rocks and mountains in Colorado. “Many of my pieces were inspired by being in particular places, such as artist residencies in national parks or wilderness excursions.

She has been Artist-in-Residence at Grand Canyon National Park (North Rim) and Petrified Forest National Park.

With a background in calligraphy, letterforms, and early manuscript, she also finds inspiration in literature and poetry to create “a visual evocation of the feelings or concepts expressed in the words.”

“The characteristics of light, color, translucent layers, and the dynamic among the material qualities of copper, powdered glass, high heat, and clarity (or legibility, with lettering), are in themselves inspiration, as is the dance between the artist/craftsman's degree of control and openness to happy accidents,” she said. “I’m particularly inspired by how translucent and opaque glass fused on copper in multiple layers can change in appearance depending on the angle of light.” 

In site-specific works like her public art murals, the inspiration is connected with the natural and functional setting. To make her enameled copper murals for the the Math/Physics and Life Sciences buildings at CSU-Pueblo, she consulted with faculty who worked in those buildings and strove to channel the sense they had about those spaces. 

“Working in collaboration with others is always an inspiration,” she said. “Environmental and social issues continue to be an underlying, and increasingly more overt, source of inspiration. Relationships, juxtapositions, and syzygies (yoked pairs of opposites)--both conceptually and visually--provide limitless inspiration.” 

Musick says she was drawn to copper by its properties of color and malleability that make it a superb base for enameling. 

“Besides simply enameling on a flat surface, copper provides ready opportunities for dimensional work, such as etching, piercing, twisting, folding, hammering, forming into vessels, and other techniques for three-dimensional work,” she said. “Many cultures and historical periods have fused glass to copper; vitreous enamels are formulated to bond to copper. “

Musick first learned enameling on steel, which, she said, requires an intermediate ground-coat step and doesn't provide the kind of brilliance of the underlying copper tone.

Copper expands and contracts more than steel when fired, which makes it more challenging for precision in lettering, she says.

Enameling is traditionally a technique used for jewelry: on copper, silver, or gold, it's like a gem.  Copper can provide that gem-like quality on a larger scale.

Enameling is glass fused to metal at high heat. Musick says on her website that vitreous enamels are finely ground glass, like fine sand (or even more finely pulverized and mixed with an oil or adhesive). They may be opaque or transparent; their colors come from the use of various oxides.

“For two-dimensional work on copper, I begin with a large sheet of 99.9% pure copper, measure, and cut it using a foot-powered metal shear,” Musick says on her website. “Pure copper is necessary for the enamel to bond well in the firing process.”

The metal (copper, precious metals, or steel) must be thoroughly cleaned. Enamels are applied to the base metal using a variety of techniques. These may include dusting the enamel through a sifter; stencil; use of adhesives - gums  or oil - to bind the powdered glass for sgraffito, painting, freehand drawing or lettering; silkscreen; and other techniques. The piece is fired at about 1450 degrees F for several minutes and removed from the hot kiln. After it cools, more enamels are applied; the process of enameling, firing and more enameling is repeated many times, producing multiple layers of images. 

An individual enameled copper tile - and each tile of a mural comprised of many tiles - will have been fired six to 10 or more times.

Musick sometimes integrates hand-drawn or written letterforms into enameled pieces.

“My enameling mentor in England, Patrick Furse, had long thought large-scale enameling could provide great opportunities for creative lettering,” she said. “Together we developed techniques that optimized enameling’s characteristics  (beyond what had been used in commercial enameled steel for durable signage).”

Having grown up with a ceramist mother who formulated her own glazes fired in her home studio kiln, and a father who painted in translucent layers of homemade egg tempera emulsion, in some ways enameling embodies a combination of these disciplines, she said. 

“My sketches and photos from backcountry excursions are often source material for imagery in my work,” Musick said. “ In mixed-media assemblages, I've contrasted the bright colors and glossy surfaces of enameling with found objects from animal skulls to asphalt roofing paper, barbed wire, fabrics, or lettering I carved in wood.”

She said she sometimes uses enameling as a component in other media.

“For example, the enameled-copper eyes I made for my concrete mountain lion sculptural bench at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo,” she said. 

Meeting the challenges of the medium to execute her vision fuels her work. There’s the potential for overfiring, warping, impurities, getting metal and various formulations of glass to work together. “The first time I was consciously confident of knowing this medium well was when I realized, after a technical disaster, that I could figure out what went wrong and how to fix it,” she says. “Beyond these media and technical levels, challenges arise in clearly envisioning and articulating what may be a general sense about the emotion, idea, or concept Musick hopes to share. 

“Sometimes it's only after the piece is finished that I realize it's just what I was after, but couldn't quite visualize,” she reveals. “In pieces meant to communicate an idea or emotion, one challenge is finding ways to connect meaningfully with others through imagery, symbol, form, color, light.” 

And each piece presents its own particular technical and artistic challenges.

“Which means the fascination, and the learning, never ends,” she says.


Pat Musick, Colorado Springs, CO

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