A long, gravel road extends far into the heavily wooded hills of eastern Athens County. The road is somewhat treacherous, especially to those who don’t have all- or four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Eventually, the road leads to a house near the crest of a hill, where an artistic yet cozy-looking house is nestled in a small clearing among the trees. This house belongs to David and Roberta Baird, a married couple who have made a living as artists, creating unique pieces of enameled jewelry, for more than 40 years.
Located a short distance up the hill is the Bairds’ workshop, often referred to as “the shop” by Roberta and “the studio” by David. In this building, which has a similar structure and style to that of the Bairds’ house, the couple create most of their artwork.
They call their artistic endeavor “Baird Brass Works” or “Mud City Brassworks.” They were the original artists of the Mud City artist colony, and most of its members lived in the hills around their home.
The Bairds taught themselves the enameling process after David discovered that no one else was doing this sort of work in the area. They use various direct-metal techniques to create their enameling work, all of which is done in their workshop.
Shelves of colored glass powder line one of the studio’s rooms. In another room are tools used to create and shape the pieces for their work, as well as drawers of various non-precious stone and fossil collections that are featured as part of the jewelry.
In order to create enamel, the glass powder is melted by firing, which makes various colors depending on how long the enamel is left in the kiln. It’s then applied to metals, specifically non-precious metals such as copper, brass and bronze in the Baird’s case, which eat away at the metals.
David described the process as “very organic and experimental.” He said that many enamelists are methodical with their approach, but he and Roberta both agree that too tightly controlling the process “takes the fun away.” Not knowing what exactly will come out of the kiln keeps the process fresh, which they both find to be fascinating and an aspect of enameling that they particularly enjoy.
Because the materials they use aren’t as expensive as using materials such as precious stones and metals, the couple was able to save money on the process. This way they don’t have to invest heavily into materials that may not turn out right, thus making their work more flexible and easy on expenditures. It also makes their jewelry less expensive for buyers who would be paying much more for jewelry made with precious materials.
David and Roberta approach their work using different techniques. While Roberta is a planner and envisions her work before production, David goes with the flow.
“It makes it more fun,” Roberta said.
David added, “You can’t be a control freak with [enameling].”
Roberta applies etching to her work with a unique approach. She has made much of the jewelry look as though it were casted in a mold; however, the couple don’t use casting as a method with their work. She applied a black mixture of lacquer and asphalt to a plate, which hardens. From there, she scratches lines into the hardened resist, then applies acid that eats the metal away where it’s exposed. She does this process multiple times, which gives the piece a three-dimensional effect.
To shape her work, Roberta uses two old tree stumps, one of which has several cracks in the wood that she uses during the shaping process. She calls this particular process her “Appalachian repoussé” (repoussé is a metalwork technique in which a malleable metal is shaped by hammering).
The couple estimated that they have made more than 10,000 pieces of jewelry, each one unique from the others. They refuse to use tools that would allow them to mass-produce their work; instead, they chose to stick with giving each piece of jewelry its own characteristics and details.
The Bairds also have made liturgical art with their enameling. According to the pair, they made a communion rail, a cross, candle holders and even handles for the front door – all of which were themed after dogwood flowers and leaves – for Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Athens about 20 years ago.
IN HIS EARLIER DAYS AS AN artist, David worked in pottery, sculpting and painting. His first art show was at Ohio State University, where he studied industrial design, in 1962. He displayed pottery at the show, but David also has sold jewelry that he had made from a class at the time.
He described himself as a “classic dropout,” who after quitting school worked for a time with trade-show displays, which he said was a negative and empty job for him.
David moved to the Athens for a brief period of time before moving to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he met Roberta. Together the couple moved back to Athens in 1970 and have lived here ever since. According to David, they built an A-frame tent made out of sapling and polyethylene over a heater (and a bees nest, which proved to be an interesting time for the couple and their dog) and spent their first winter in the structure.
“Once we got ourselves better established, we built this house,” David said, referring to their home. Rather than scavenging for materials in the woods and using alternative resources, the couple was able to begin buying parts and components for their house.
The building process wasn’t fast; they added bit by bit to their home over the years. According to the pair, the house still isn’t finished. The building process has slowed down along with the couple’s accumulating years.
Not only has construction on their house slowed, but so has their production of artwork. The last show the couple attended was about a year and a half ago, according to Roberta. The couple has found other activities that they can devote time to, such as reading, doing maintenance on their home, and spending time with family.
Over the years, David and Roberta have been able to make an income completely on their artwork, participating in several art shows and fairs where they sold their jewelry and other art.
While they may be on hiatus for now, it’s no guarantee that they will remain on a break from enameling forever.