Born in Cleveland in 1917, John Ferenc Puskas received his bachelor of fine arts degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1952 after having served in the armed forces from 1943 to 1946. While at the institute, he studied painting with Paul Travis and enameling with Kenneth F. Bates. In describing his studies with Bates, Puskas observed: “Kenny was my real mentor. He taught me discipline, which I needed most. I have always approached enameling, almost as painting, with the same kind of freedom. Kenny always used to say that I had more material on the floor than on the piece I was making.”
Between 1949 and 1953—even while he was still a student at the institute—he designed and made enamels for Potter & Mellen, a high-end specialty store in Cleveland. He started his own business in the mid-1950s, and his designs were sold throughout the country at prominent department stores, including Marshall Field’s in Chicago, Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Gump’s in San Francisco, and Higbee’s in Cleveland. He served as an art consultant to Western Reserve University in Cleveland from 1950 to 1960 and as a staff artist at the educational television station in Cleveland from 1960 to 1970. In the 1960s he taught at Karamu House in Cleveland, a cultural center serving the African American community, and he taught art at Cuyahoga Community College from 1972 to 1984. He was an artist in residence for an enamel and metal workshop at the University of Akron in 1976 and served in a similar capacity at Kent State University in 1990–91, teaching a large-scale enamel workshop.
While he was equally skilled in a broad range of media, enameling was Puskas’s preferred medium throughout his long and productive career. Reflecting his passion for enamels, as well as his rather dry sense of humor, he remarked in succinct artist’s statement in 1994, when he was seventy-seven years old, “After nearly fifty years of enameling, I suppose I’ll just keep on going until they turn off the kiln.” His work was featured in numerous nationally prominent exhibitions, including the Cleveland May Show (1938, 1940–42, 1950–52, 1954–58, 1966); the Wichita Decorative Arts and Ceramics Exhibition (1951); and the Syracuse Ceramic National (1951, 1954). In 1957 his work was singled out by William M. Milliken, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, for its “bold design and powerful colors,” and it was awarded third prize in that year’s May Show. Six of his panels and a bowl were included in Enamels
, the important 1959 survey at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York.
He was described in Cleveland’s daily newspaper, the Plain Dealer
, on October 7, 1956, as “owning one of the largest kilns belonging to any independent enamelist” in Cleveland, and this enabled him to produce enamels of widely varying scale, from small plates and bowls to large enamel panels. Because of his interest in space exploration, Puskas was commissioned by the federal government to produce an enamel-on-silver plaque commemorating the Apollo
launch in 1967. He often worked in series. Among his favorite subjects were musical instruments, Cubist-inspired still lifes and interiors, and abstract compositions. He was an enormously gregarious individual who held weekly salons at his home for the Cleveland arts community. Puskas was awarded the Creative Achievement Award by the Enamelist Society in 1999, two years prior to his death.