Small is beautiful at Karen Hustwaite’s Middleburg art studio.
A newcomer to next weekend’s Western Loudoun Artists Studio Tour, Hustwaite is gearing up to make a splash with her finely detailed enamel on metal jewelry, wall pieces and small sculptures.
Hustwaite dipped her toe in the waters of the Loudoun art scene at the end of the last decade when she briefly lived in Leesburg before relocating to Dubai for her husband’s job as an airline pilot. After spending the last eight years in the Middle East, Hustwaite is back and has landed on Middleburg’s main drag, ready to immerse herself in the town’s thriving cultural scene.
“Enamel is the oldest way to color metal. The Egyptians were doing it, and it survives today. If you go and look at armor, you see incredible enamel and somehow it survives,” Hustwaite said.
Inspired by the groundbreaking work of noted West Coast enamelist Fred Ball, and by her friend and mentor, jewelry artist Marcia Macdonald, metal has been Hustwaite’s medium for a dozen years. A native of Montana and a descendant of Norwegian immigrants, Hustwaite studied textile design at Oregon State University and then lived for years in the artsy, outdoorsy city of Eugene, OR. Hustwaite designed fabrics for bike trailers for an outdoor supply company and then set up a small, independent frame shop.
But over the years, she developed a fascination with metalwork, cemented on a trip to California, where she discovered the work of Fred Ball, known for using fired enamel on thin squares of copper. Her first glimpse at Ball’s large-scale murals in Sacramento, CA, led to a lightbulb moment.
“I knew when I saw it that this was what I was looking for,” Hustwaite said.
She became a devotee of enamel on metal and threw herself into the various processes involved, enrolling in metalwork classes at a community college in Eugene, where she met her mentor, jewelry artist Marcia Macdonald, known for her small, whimsical enameled pieces. Macdonald encouraged Hustwaite to explore jewelry as an art form and encouraged her to apply to the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina where Hustwaite has done numerous residencies.
“Even though I started out with bike trailers, I’ve always had really small studios and that’s kind of why I’ve worked small,” Hustwaite said.
As both a metalsmith and enamelist, Hustwaite’s work involves shaping metal with tools including a hammer, saw and hydraulic metal press (she works with copper, brass, silver and gold), high-temperature metal soldering and electroforming (another process for forming metal—similar to electroplating). Applying the enamel is an art form in itself, and Hustwaite uses both jewelry enamel, a fine glass particulate applied in solid form and heated to a liquid state, and a liquid-form enamel that contains porcelain, which gives her copper wall pieces a more muted, matte look.
Hustwaite uses everything from fine brushes to kitchen tools to apply the enamel, and visitors to her studio during next weekend’s tour can check out her mosaic-like metal panels, jewelry and small metal sculptures, including her signature line of tiny metal cabins. The cabins were inspired in part by her Norwegian great-grandmother, a dressmaker who homesteaded with her grandfather in northern Montana.
“I just kind of feel her from time to time,” Hustwaite said. “That part of Montana doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s a haunting thing for me.”
Hustwaite and her husband moved to Leesburg from the West Coast in 2008, and Hustwaite was just making her way onto the local art scene when they moved again to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Hustwaite had to leave most of her larger equipment in storage.
“The only thing I took with me were five bags of tools,” she said. And while the move was disruptive her career, it offered a chance to travel in a region rich in art. Hustwaite visited Egypt, Morocco, Israel and the famous archaeological site of Petra in Jordan.
“That was inspiring,” Hustwaite said. “I was somewhere cool every six weeks. You have to take the opportunities where you can find them.”
But last year, a chance to return to the U.S. opened up. Hustwaite and her husband jumped at the chance to live in Loudoun again and found a historic brick house on Washington Street with a basement studio.
“It’s just a spectacular place to be,” she said.
Since her return to the U.S., Hustwaite has been reassembling her studio with all her equipment including her kiln (she fires at 1,550 degrees) and her hydraulic press for metal shaping. After WLAST, the next steps will be ramping up her online presence and setting up weekend open studio hours on weekends to catch Middleburg tourist traffic.
And—in her new studio, surrounded by the tools of her trade—Hustwaite is clearly energized by her return to Loudoun and a re-ignition of her career.
“With every medium there are so many different directions,” she said. “You can be born with metalsmithing and die with it and never hit every process. It’s just so vast. It keeps me excited.”
Karen Hustwaite is a featured artist on the 12th annual Western Loudoun Artists Studio Tour June 3 and 4. Her studio is at 501 W. Washington St. in Middleburg. Check out her website at roaminart.blogspot.com