From the archives this week, former NHPR arts producer Phillip Bragdon caught up with Karl Drerup after he won the Lotte Jacobi Living Treasure Award in 1989.
When Karl Drerup and his wife Gertrude first came to their little house in Thornton in 1946, it was the end of a very long journey – one that started in 1930 when Drerup left his native Germany to study in Italy. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, a return to Germany was impossible. Gertrude was Jewish, and Karl had designed anti-government posters. The Drerups took refuge first for several years in the Canary Islands, and finally settled in New York City in 1937.
Drerup had been trained at the most prestigious art academies in Germany and Italy, and was well-equipped to earn his living in America. At the suggestion of designer Tommi Parzinger, Drerup took up the almost forgotten art of enamel work – the process of fusing glass powder onto metal, glass or ceramics to achieve a colorful, vitreous coating. His grounding in painting, sculpture, ceramics and glass gave him an ideal background for work in enamels. While working at a toilet factory in New Jersey, Drerup began to turn out enamelware of rare beauty and grace, and soon became the object of a great deal of attention on New York’s arts market.
“I was a success on Madison Avenue because the art trade got a hold of me, and I was a sensation,” Drerup said. “You see, nobody made enamels. I was the first one in New York who made any enamels at all. Because it had fallen into ill repute, disrepute, and it was just out of fashion.”
“Nobody could make a good enamel, nobody. Even today,” he said with a chuckle.
Drerup came to New Hampshire in 1946 primarily to escape the hubbub of New York City, but also to settle down and begin to recover from the past 15 years. His intention was to live out his days producing prints, paintings and enamels in his little studio – which he built himself on a hillside behind the house.
But nearby was a little teacher training college, now called Plymouth State University, which was struggling to put together an art department. Drerup’s barber urged him to accept the job as Plymouth State’s first art instructor. Reluctantly, Drerup agreed to talk to the college president, and eventually he decided to teach for just one year. He wound up staying for twenty.
“In Plymouth, the faculty is very home-grown,” Drerup said. “I was an outsider. Oh my god, I didn’t fit. And some wonderful people I met. And we had wonderful students. And I really liked it, because my Americanization took place in Plymouth.”
Drerup grew very fond of Plymouth State and was impressed by the enthusiasm he was able to inspire in the students. During these years, his reputation began to take off – based largely on his enamel work done during the war years in New York. By the 1960s, he was widely considered the world’s leading enamelist.
One is immediately struck by the myriad of colors and textures which Drerup managed to get out of his work. From ground glass, he created stunning scenes from classical myths, vibrant dance sequences, and rich panoramas, which could have been inspired by none other than the rugged New Hampshire landscape.
Many of Drerup’s enamels were done on plates, jars and other pieces of ceramic ware. But still others are oblong pieces set off by hand-crafted pewter frames. His work is found in many of the world’s great galleries, including the Metropolitan in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Drerup especially relished the memory of meeting film stars Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, who once visited him while filming in New Hampshire.
“They bought like mad,” he said. “Henry Fonda, he bought paintings. He couldn’t get over it that I was hiding here. I cannot cope with New York. And the pretentiousness of it. And the phoniness.”
“For one who was on the run, I didn’t do so badly,” Drerup said. “And I know it. And I’m grateful.”
In 1986, Plymouth State University awarded Karl Drerup an honorary degree and named its art gallery after him. Drerup died in 2000 at the age of 96.
For More on Karl Drerup:
- An Oral History via the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art
- Images of Drerup's Work via the Metropolitan Museum in New York
- Plymouth State University's Karl Drerup Art Gallery
- Plymouth State's Online Catalogs -- 'Enchanted Garden' and 'Drawn to Life'
- A Biography and Images via KarlDrerup.com
- The Enamel Arts Foundation Karl Drerup Page
- Planned Enamel Exhibit at Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA