David Berfield displays love for family in ‘Kinfolk’ exhibit
September 3, 2014
By Neil Pierson
By chance, Sammamish residents will be some of the last people to see David Berfield’s enameling work displayed in public.
Berfield has made his name over the past 35 years by creating art from ceramics and enamel. However, he’d never done a public exhibit until “Kinfolk” debuted near his home on Bainbridge Island earlier this year. A connection to Barbara Jirsa, a Sammamish arts commissioner, brought the work to the Sammamish Commons Gallery inside City Hall in May, and it’ll be displayed through Sept. 15.
Berfield was in attendance at an Aug. 21 reception, where he had the opportunity to meet and greet several dozen visitors, and explain his techniques and inspirations.
Nearly all of the pieces in “Kinfolk” are of Berfield’s family members. His late uncle, whom Berfield describes as a “shutterbug,” provided the negatives for Berfield’s work.
The show will likely be Berfield’s first and last as an enamellist. He recently sold the large kiln he’d built in his home studio and said he’s “semi-retiring” from the medium to switch to clay.
“I had the opportunity to do a show, and I knew this was what I wanted to do, do all these family pictures,” he said. “That’s about it. I can’t give you any glorious reason – I just wanted to do it.”
Berfield has built a “tremendous reputation in the enameling world,” said Jirsa, who curated the exhibit. His most famous works might be the collaborations he did with Jacob Lawrence, whose murals once hung in the Kingdome and are now displayed at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.
At last week’s reception, Berfield told audience members how he created the steel-and-enamel portraits. He first turned the photographic negatives into black-and-white prints using PhotoShop, then enlarged them and covered them in masking paper before cutting them by hand. Most portraits have multiple colors, and each color is its own layer that he had to cut separately.
The painstaking process continued by spraying enamel onto sheets of 16-gauge steel, then covering the sheets in a layer of heat-resistance glass. The sheets were fired in his kiln for a few minutes at a time, typically at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Berfield’s signature piece is the one of his uncle. Set on a bright red background, “Walter” shows his uncle clad in a yellow jacket, shirt, tie and fedora, and wearing a quizzical expression.
In “Mildred,” a portrait of his aunt, Berfield used contrastive shades of blue and green, and chose bright white for her irises to instill a sense of “insanity” in her personality.
Mostly, though, the color proportions and facial expressions were chosen without a lot of thought, Berfield said. He simply did what he felt looked good.
“You have to bring to this whatever your life experience brings to it,” he told the audience.
Jirsa said gallery visitors tend to find reminders of their own relatives in the portraits, and in some cases, may have inspired them to organize their own collections of family photos.
“The thing I love so much is watching the guy with the hard hat come in with the rolls of plans, and stop and really pay attention to the art that’s here,” Jirsa said. “Or the mom with the stroller who explains to a 5-year-old, ‘This is what this is.’ It just helps build community … That’s what this gallery is about.”
The gallery encompasses the first and second and floors of City Hall, and one of the most intriguing pieces might be “Mamoru,” which hangs near the staircase between floors. The portrait is of Berfield’s father-in-law, a Japanese-American who lived in Hawaii. Berfield and his wife lived in the islands for four years in the late 1960s.
The only piece that isn’t of a family member, Berfield said, is “Zhu Family,” which depicts a Chinese man, woman and young boy. Many years ago, Berfield ordered a batch of ceramic plates from David Zhu’s company. The two have kept in touch by email since then, and Berfield even traveled to China to meet him.
“Ultimately, with all of these, I look at the spatial relationships, just like you do in Design 101 in college,” Berfield explained. “There’s nothing fancy about it – you just look it and say, ‘I like it.’”