METALSMITH/ENAMELIST CHARLENE CROSS
AN ARTIST FINDS HER CREATIVE HOME | BY NATALIA MEGAS
Metalsmith and enamelist Charlene Cross may have “zigzagged” her way around an art career, but the meandering journey brought her to a very satisfying destination.
After enrolling in courses outside her realm of inter- est in economics and accounting to experimenting with different art mediums such as macramé, fiber sculpture and jewelry-making, Charlene eventually found her call- ing when she discovered metalsmithing and enameling just a few years ago.
“My creative heart had found its home,” says Char- lene, who lives near Charlottesville and works as an associate artist with the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria. “I’m interested in a lot of things, and I want to pursue a lot of things and find out how they work, but everything in our background feeds into who we are today. I’m really grateful for... what I’m able to do now.”
Charlene has always been drawn to art and retains the sense of wonder and exploration that she had as a child. When she was 14, she and her mother, who dabbled in painting, took an art class together. Although Charlene
had always wanted to be an artist, her father wanted her to pursue something more stable, and she earned her B.S. in corporate communications from the University of Baltimore and a master’s in educational technology from George Washington University.
In addition to her academic pursuits, Charlene spent time searching and trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She eventually enrolled in the Mary- land Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where she ex- perimented with different art mediums. Later she free- lanced for the Davis Planetarium at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Her work there led to an 11-year career as an exhibit developer at the Center.
“I love the idea of taking a concept and developing it into something that people can interact with,” says Char- lene. While working, she dabbled in mixed media design, raised a daughter single-handedly and returned to school.
But the drive to create art always lingered beneath the surface, says Charlene. “I just loved being creative.” She and her daughter relocated to Northern Virginia, where Charlene worked for a traveling exhibit company.
Once her daughter went off to college, Charlene moved to Florida. “I just had this urge to do something for me,” she says. “This was my time to get back into something that I truly loved for myself.”
It was in Florida that Charlene took her first met- alsmith workshop. “It really sparked something. I was in love–that was it,” she says. “Metal is so amazing. You think of metal as immovable, but it’s very liquid.”
Along the way, Charlene experimented with various materials and processes. Her discovery of vitreous enam- eling, specifically the cloisonné technique, has been par- ticularly rewarding. “It keeps the creative process fresh and exciting,” she says.
Currently, though, Charlene is heading in a new direction–one that combines vitreous enameling and sculptural metalwork.
“I find nature provides the perfect subject matter for creating with shimmering, transparent enamels. From the obviously beautiful to the unsettling, there is no end
to the opportunities for interpreting nature’s creations with metal and enamels,” she says.
“Nature’s Process” combines the vitreous enamel genre and sculptural metalwork, says Charlene. The piece, which is part of her Nature’s Transformations se- ries, was inspired by the pollination crisis and issues re- lated to the declining bee populations.
“The design and creation of the work I do is an inti- mate, dynamic process,” says Charlene. She sometimes begins with preconceived designs, and other times, she prefers to test out new ideas: “You might begin by mess- ing around and suddenly, you feel the piece starts to de- fine itself, and then you are a participant in it–you’re not the driver [anymore].”
The most important aspect of Charlene’s work, though, is its narrative. “I want people to walk away with a story,” she says. “Bucket Orchid,” a work in progress,
provides such a story. The finished piece, composed of five copper panels, will portray a bee and its nectar-filled encounter with a flower. The bee’s adventure not only makes a compelling story, but it also creates a wonderful visual. “I’m excited because ...people will be engaged by it,” she says.
Charlene encourages aspiring artists to have fun and experiment with techniques and materials. “Break all the rules, she says. “Work like it’s an exercise and not a championship.... It’s not the most precious thing on earth. Let it go. That’s when beautiful things hap- pen.”