Kathe Berl was born in Vienna in 1908. At a young age she started drawing on all over the walls and floors of her nursery. With the encouragement of her mother, she began art classes in 1917, at the age of nine, with Professor Franz Cizek, who had a school for talented children. There she was exposed to various aspects of arts and crafts: painting, carving, embroidery, and metalwork. In 1922 she published a children’s book, Ein frohes Jahr
, which she wrote and illustrated. She attended the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna. First exposed to enameling after graduating from art school, she felt an immediate passion for the medium, which never wavered. Working in her mother’s kitchen, she began making enameled jewelry for sale.
After moving to New York in the mid-1940s, she gained her first national recognition in the United States when two of her enamels were accepted into the 1948 Syracuse Ceramic National. She was to participate seven more times in this prestigious exhibition—in 1949, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1970. She also exhibited in the Decorative Arts and Ceramics Exhibition in Wichita in 1952. She started out using the more traditional Limoges technique, then moved on to other traditional techniques such as grisaille and plique-à-jour. She kept experimenting with the medium, taking it to new and unusual levels.
By the early 1960s Berl pioneered the use of enameling in three-dimensional forms. At first, the enamels were embedded into her sculptural forms, which were lit from behind or from within, producing an effect reminiscent of stained-glass windows. Her new work gained prominence and was featured in an exhibition presented by the Artist-Craftsmen of New York at the National Design Center in 1965. Her desire to make transparent enamel sculptures, plique-à-jour enamels on a monumental scale, pushed her research and experimentation in the 1970s. One of her largest creations in this technique, City at Night
, was four feet high. Katherine Wood described Berl in the June 1995 issue of Glass on Metal
: “She was a risk taker, always finding ways to be innovative, unconcerned whether it was ‘commercial’ enough. Her imagination was without limits and she was unafraid to try the ‘impossible.’”
Berl also loved to teach and became a prominent educator in the field. In 1950 she and Mizi Otten cowrote and self-published a manual on enameling technique entitled The Art of Enameling; or, Enameling Can Be Fun
, which was one of the earliest how-to books on the subject to appear in this country. She started to write technical articles for Ceramic Monthly
in 1958 and also contributed to the book Crafts for the Aging
, published by the American Craftsmen’s Council in 1962. She became a contributing writer to Glass on Metal
in June 1988. In that issue, she wrote: “The art of enameling is ancient yet eternally new . . . so versatile and open to development. . . . Each piece I do is a stepping stone to the next and fulfillment will never come. I want enamel to express every idea I am feeling . . . whether tongue-in-cheek or in a serious vein. To play it like an instrument. I love my instrument.”