Bellevue is home to the last enamel manufacturer on this side of the world

Haley Parnell
Haley Parnell
Haley is a reporter for LINK nky. Email her at [email protected]

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Thompson Enamel is the last manufacturer of art enamel in the Western Hemisphere, and it happens to be in Bellevue. 

Next door to the manufacturer is the Carpenter Art Enamel Foundation, started by Woodrow Carpenter, a self-made businessman. He bought Thompson Enamel in Chicago and brought the company to Northern Kentucky in 1983. The enamel is produced in the Thompson Enamel plant and used in workshops in the enamel foundation. 

Through the enamel manufacturing company, Carpenter was the first person in the industry to introduce lead-free enamel to the practice. Lead enameling led to the downfall of the existing manufacturers in North and South America, being forced to shut down in the early 80s for health risks. 

Today, people from across the country travel to Bellevue to learn the enameling technique, “plique a jour” introduced to Carpenter in the early 90s after he sought out the method from a professional in Russia. 

Carpenter traveled to Russia in 1991 and cold-called plique a jour master Valerie Timofeev, one of only 15 people in the world who knew the craft. Timofeev returned to the U.S. with Carpenter to teach him the enameling technique. 

The pair brought in Charlie Cleves, the current Bellevue Mayor, who was practicing hand-made jewelry techniques while working at his jewelry store. Cleves was sucked into learning plique a jour because he had the antique tools in his collection, some 200 years old, needed for the work. 

The duo had to learn everything from how to turn a one once silver bar into wire to a 500-year-old Russian solder technique. They learned to pulverize the solder to make powder, sprinkle it onto the wire, and heat it to form a mold. 

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Cloisonne vases showing the process from start to finish are featured in the museum.

Set of Cloisonne vases showing the process from start to finish. Vases are from China. Photo: Joe Simon | LINKnky contributor.

First, the artist makes the copper vase; then, wiring is soldered onto it to separate the colored enamel. The process of filling each section with enamel then begins. They were firing it and filling it until each section was complete. The art is sanded with a stone and ground down until it’s flat and fired again. It is lastly topped off with polish. 

Cloisonne vase made in Japan. Photo: Joe Simon | LINKnky contributor.

In the time Cleves spent with Timofeev in 1991, he completed roughly half of his first plique a jour project, which took 80 hours to complete. The project, in total, took 213 hours.  

The Spoon Cleves made. Photo: Joe Simon | LINKnky contributor.

Timofeev taught roughly 30 people how to plique a jour during his tenure in the U.S., but Cleves is the last man standing. Carpenter died in 2017 at 101. 

The purpose of the Carpenter Art Enamel Foundation today is to keep the art of enamel alive. 

The foundation owns everything in the building but not the building itself, which became a problem during the pandemic with no income flowing in and a monthly rent payment of $4,000. 

The income for the museum comes from the classes, museum visitors, and donations. According to Cleves, for two years, there was zero income. 

Cleves purchased the buildings for $1.25 million from Carpenter’s daughter to save the history behind the foundation. Cleves and his wife changed the rent from $4,000 to $1 for the next 10 years to keep enameling alive in the U.S. 

The effort took Cleves from being debt free to having a $936,000 mortgage.

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To assist with the debt, the foundation is running fundraisers periodically. The next one will be held on Nov. 22 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the enamel foundation, located at 645 Colfax Ave. in Bellevue. 

Classes have also resumed at the foundation. 

Tom Ellis, the Chief Instructor at the foundation who has worked there for 37 years, including time spent working with Carpenter, teaches classes on enameling. Cleves said Ellis’s last class drew people to Bellevue from five states. 

Tom Ellis, Chief Instructor. Photo: Joe Simon | LINKnky contributor.

Cleves is also planning to teach workshops on plique a jour beginning in December, though they won’t involve soldering because of the time it takes. He plans to continue to hold one to two classes a month. 

Co-owner Charlie Cleves holds a copper rose, his present piece of art he is working on. The rose is also a project considered for the enameling class. Photo: Joe Simon | LINKnky contributor.

Aside from the classes taught at the enamel foundation, there is a museum that holds Carpenter’s collection of enameling pieces collected from around the world. 

A preeminent piece in the collection dates to 1538 is the three-panel polychrome enamel and gift panels with scenes from the Bible story “Life of Samson and Deliah.” Carpenter purchased the piece in the 1980s for roughly $6,000. 

Three panel Polychrome Enamel and Gift Panels with scenes from the Life of Samson and Deliah. Photo: Joe Simon | LINKnky contributor.

Cleves said the piece is his personal favorite.

Though all pieces in the collection are made from melted glass, the process is so tedious some of the art looks like oil paintings. 

Mexican Enamel Art. Photo: Joe Simon | LINKnky contributor.
Untitled piece by Canadian artist, Nomand Fillion. Photo: Joe Simon | LINKnky contributor.

Ellis said the untitled piece by Nomand Fillion is the favorite of many museum visitors.

Cleves said the process to get the values in the piece is from sifting finely powdered glass, firing it in a kiln, and repeating the process.

The artist from Montreal is the only one of his kind, Ellis said, which makes the art even more astounding.

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Anyone wishing to visit the museum to view Carpenter’s enamel collection for themselves can do so by appointment.

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