Centre for Fine Print Research University of the West of England Centre for Fine Print Research
  The British Channel Seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs (detail) 1871


Dail Behennah


CFPR Consultation funded BY Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery Commission
Collaborators: Dail Behennah and Elizabeth Turrell
Date: 2009

Dail Behennah began working as a contemporary basketmaker in 1990, making constructed rather than woven, sculptural objects. Recently she has undertaken larger scale work which is less related to basketry but can be seen as a logical development when viewed in the context of her work as a whole. She uses many different materials and techniques to create her work. She has exhibited at major galleries throughout Britain and the USA and her work is in many public collections including: The Crafts Council, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

In 2009 Dail Behennah worked with Elizabeth Turrell in the Centre for Fine Print’s Research Enamel Research Unit on the commission Labelled for Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery to create a site specific installation for the museum’s mezzanine window. Labelled is a hemisphere 2.25m in diameter comprising 500 enamel labels which were created using photographs of labels in the Museum’s natural history collection. Even in this predominantly local collection, a surprising number of specimens are of species that are now endangered or extinct. Dail has made labels in red enamel to draw attention to these and highlight issues concerned with species diversity, conservation and extinction. The installation also shows that the Museum holds a large collection of items which are rarely seen by the public, and these are worthless for research unless accompanied by the information on the labels that are attached to them.

The labels have been written by curators and collectors over the centuries and record various details about the specimens. Different types of labels are represented in her work from the copperplate calligraphy of curators from the 1800s to handwriting in biro, type-written notes and computer printed identifications of the later 20th Century. Each of the labels in her work is made from vitreous enamel. Enamelling is the process of bonding glass to metal by firing it at a high temperature. Enamelling can be a lengthy process with many different stages. Dail’s work was made all the more complicated by adding transfer printed images and text from museum collections to the enamel.

Dail wished to make the labels in a precious material to reflect their importance. Copper was used to make all of the labels in this work. Squares and rectangles were cut from larger sheets using a guillotine. The shapes were created before the enamelling process began because otherwise the glass, when fused to the metal, would crack. Holes were drilled and countersunk into each label so that they could be suspended from wires in the final work. The copper was cleaned thoroughly after each stage in the process to remove grease and dust but also to remove fire scale – a black deposit formed as a by-product when firing.

The enamel mixture is made from silica, potassium, sodium, borax and lime. This produces a mixture called flux which is clear. Colour is created by adding different metal oxides to the mixture. In Labelled, Dail has used three types of whites to create the impression of old paper. Enamels can be produced in liquid form but in this work, Dail has used powdered enamels. The raw materials are heated in a furnace until they become a fused liquid. The liquid is then poured onto a steel slab and left to cool, or dropped into cold water making it into chunks known as frit. This is then ground into powder between steel rollers.

The backs of the labels were covered in the enamel powder using a sieve. They were then put in the kiln at about 760-850oC for a few minutes until the powder turned to liquid once again and fused with the copper. When the label cooled, fire scale was cleaned off with a diamond scouring pad otherwise the enamels would look dirty. This was a very lengthy and time consuming job. The whole process of sifting, firing and cleaning was then repeated on the front of each label.

Photographs of the labels were made into water based transfers using a screenprinting process which has been developed and patented by the CFPR. The paper printed with images of labels from the museum collection was immersed in a bath of water which caused the transfer to ‘float away’ from its backing and onto the enamel label. This was dried off and carefully smoothed. The enamels with transfers on were put in the kiln and heated slowly to a temperature of 420oC. This was hot enough to burn off the transfer plastic, leaving a powder outline of the transfer on the surface of the enamel. One sneeze could blow the entire image away! This was then returned to the kiln for a fourth and final time at a temperature of 760-850oC. This melted the image into the enamel, fixing it permanently.

Dail also made a series of handling labels for the public so the visitor could experience the tactile pleasure offered by an enamelled surface, the Museum are continuing to use these for educational projects.

The Museum has purchased the installation for its permanent collection, and it is hoped that it will appear in different configurations in public buildings throughout the City in the future.

“I chose to work with the Centre for Fine Print’s Research Enamel Research Unit because they are unique in their ability to solve problems and offer large scale facilities. I had a very short time in which to make this installation and Elizabeth Turrell and her team were extremely flexible and helpful which enabled me to produce a major piece of work to a very high standard. The project was one of the most enjoyable experiences in my career to date.”

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Plymouth City Museum www.plymouth.gov.uk