Born in 1883, Mildred Watkins was the eldest member of a generation of Ohio-based artists who, in turning their attention to enameling, elevated the medium to unprecedented levels of beauty and inventiveness. Watkins is of particular interest to the story of enameling in this country because her beautifully designed, jewel-like enamels provide a vital link between the handwork and design traditions of the Boston Arts and Crafts movement and the more modernist approach of the Cleveland-based enamelists.
Active throughout her life as a silversmith and jeweler as well as an enamelist, Watkins studied at the Cleveland School of Art (now known as the Cleveland Institute of Art) from 1897 to 1901. In Watkins’s final year, Horace E. Potter, an 1898 graduate of the school, taught decorative design. Watkins’s lifelong interest in enameling most likely began in Potter’s class. By the time of her graduation in 1901, Watkins had chosen metalsmithing as her career. About 1905, she moved to Boston to study metalwork with the master silversmith George Christian Gebelein and enameling with Laurin Hovey Martin. Through her studies with Martin, who had, himself, studied enameling in England with the preeminent British enamelist Alexander Fisher, Watkins received solid training in enameling technique, and she was immersed in the philosophies and practices of the Arts and Crafts movement in Boston. Upon completing her studies in Boston, Watkins returned to Cleveland where she taught at the Cleveland School of Art from 1919 until her retirement in 1953.
Mildred Watkins’s earliest enamels are consistent with those produced in the Arts and Crafts period. In most metalwork of this period, enameling, if present at all, is a secondary element in the overall design, of less focal significance than the hand-tooled object it decorates. This relationship was consistent with Arts and Crafts precepts that called for a “due regard for the relation between the form of an object and its use, and of harmony and fitness in the decoration put upon it.” In Watkins’ later work, however, enameling takes on a greater importance as it became the focal element in the overall composition.