Editor's note: The following article was published on December 18, 2013 in Resource Library with permission of Thomas C. Folk and and Ms. Germana Pucci, Managing Editor of Sculpture Review. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact Dr. Folk directly through either this phone number, email address or website:


The Commercial vs. Fine Art in the Ceramic Sculpture of Waylande Gregory

By Tom Folk Ph.D.

Waylande Gregory is regarded as the first major ceramic sculptor in modern times. Although he produced an astonishing variety of work in sculpture, ceramics, glass, and paintings, Gregory became known for his ceramic sculptures that were on a scale previously unrecorded. Whatsmore, some were created to be exhibited outdoors. Gregory only fired these once and used his own "honeycomb" technique, in which an infrastructure of compartments was covered with a ceramic "skin." Some of these figures weighed well over one ton!

Born in Baxter Springs Kansas, on June 13, 1905, as a young man his talents were soon recognized. In fact, at the age of fifteen, he composed and published a rag for piano titled "Kitty Wobble." Graduating from the Kansas Manual Training Normal School in 1922, Gregory moved to Chicago in1924, soon capturing the attention of the well-known sculptor, Lorado Taft, and becoming Taft's assistant. Living with Taft, at Taft's well-known Midway Studios in Chicago, Gregory came to know several other major American sculptors, including George Grey Barnard, Cyris Dallin and Gutzon Borglum, not mention the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. About Taft's studio, Gregory later wrote," His studio was as near to being a De Medici school of art as we had had in America. Here in association with other artists and surrounded by his many great works and his collection of art, I was continually inspired and challenged." However, the sculptor who had the most influence on Gregory was Paul Manship, the leading American Art Deco sculptor. Over the years they became fairly close friends.

From 1928 to 1932, Gregory was the chief designer for the Cowan Pottery in Cleveland, Ohio, which was considered America's leading art pottery at that time. Gregory created some of the pottery's finest works, including three limited edition sculptures relating to dance: "Salome" "The Nautch Dancer," and the "Burlesque Dancer." (fig.1).The latter two works are based on the dancing of Gilda Grey, a Ziegfield Follies star, whom he had met in Cleveland. These ceramic sculptures were exhibited at the Cleveland Museum and at the Dayton Art Institute. They were expensive, and they elevated ceramics to fine arts status. However, at Cowan, Gregory also designed many mass produced pottery pieces which were sold at moderate prices, for mass consumption, in department stores. At this early age of 24, Gregory was not so comfortable with creating commercial designs. In fact he wrote, "The dream of all real artists is freedom to work without the hampering restrictions of having to make a living, or lack of materials, or having to twist his art to produce what people will buy."

Gregory was soon to be given the artistic freedom he desired, After the Cowan Pottery fell victim to the Great Depression, he became the resident artist in ceramics at the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills Michigan. Here, he began to work as one of the first studio potters and now had to handle all stages of production. During his time at Cranbrook (less than 2 years), Gregory created some of his most memorable works, including "Kansas Madonna," (fig. 2) which had a full page color illustration in the December 1937 issue of Fortune Magazine and was illustrated on the cover of a ceramics exhibition catalog for the Whitney Museum. Fortune noted that "Kansas Madonna" was "expensive" and priced at $1500.00. It was the highest price in the Whitney exhibition. At that time, most museums, as well as art galleries, provided a market for artists. One admirer of the work, the young Henry Fonda, was interested in purchasing it. He never did, but instead purchased Gregory's ceramic sculpture of a child, "The Diver." Fonda also posed at Gregory's studio for two portrait busts. "Kansas Madonna" never found a buyer.

After moving to New Jersey, in 1933, Gregory's sculptures became much larger and even life sized, such as his "The Bather" of 1934 (fig. 3). This work was central focus at his one man exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond in 1944. Like "Kansas Madonna." Gregory never sold this work either. But Gregory's sculptures were seen in exhibitions at leading art organizations such as the Whitney and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Gregory also submitted works to annual exhibitions at the Architectural League of New York, as well as at the National Sculpture Society. In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art sent a pair of Gregory's "Polo Players" and a pair of reclining female nudes, his "Sun Bathers," for an American exhibition at the Musee du Jeu de Paume in Paris.

The gallery scene in New York was thriving in the prewar years, even during the Depression. Gregory's major New York dealer was the Boyer Galleries, although he showed at other New York galleries, such as the Grand Central Gallery and the Arden Gallery. Gregory must have been one of the most exhibited American sculptors of the time. Yet his serious, larger scale sculptures failed to sell.

The Works Progress Administration or the WPA was a federal work relief project which helped artists during the Great Depression. An estimated 2500 murals were produced, many were made for post offices. Gregory became the Director of Sculpture for New Jersey's WPA, and created his massive sculptural fountain "Light Dispelling Darkness," (1937, fig. 4), which included six brightly colored 3 foot tall terra cotta "Vices" for the fountain's basin. To execute this work, Gregory fired his sculptural elements at the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company in Perth Amboy, which was known for creating the ceramic tiles for New York City's Flatiron and Woolworth Buildings. To help with this project, the WPA paid for ten men to assist him. Since the WPA supported this project with taxpayer money, Gregory had the freedom to pursue his interest in monumental ceramic sculpture as he did not have to find a private buyer to purchase it.

Gregory's most significant work was his "Fountain of the Atom," ca. 1938, for the 1939 New York World's Fair. This fountain included 12 monumental ceramic figures. Among them, "Water" was one of the largest and Gregory is pictured putting it into his kiln for firing at his studio in Bound brook, New Jersey (fig.5). Although, like the WPA, the Fair supported artists and allowed them to pursue their artistic interests, The Fair was a financial enterprise and Gregory and the many other artists involved had to balance between the avant- garde and the commercial.

Although Gregory was hailed as the leading ceramic sculptor in America, his serious ceramic sculptures failed to sell, largely because of his insisting on elevated prices during the Depression. Consequently, he gave up creating monumental ceramic sculptures around 1942. Ceramics historian Ross Anderson has written that it was because Gregory realized he couldn't support himself on his earnings from his large-scale ceramic sculptures alone that he began to produce groups of small porcelain figures, plates, candlesticks and other decorative ware. By the 1940's, Gregory began to focus on commercial production ceramics (figs. 6, 7, 8, 9). Rather than museum and gallery exhibitions, he now had seemingly endless showings of his work at high end jewelry stores and department stores all around the country. He would rent a suite in such New York City hotels as the Waldorf Astoria and the Plaza Hotel, where his work would be shown to invited representatives of leading retail establishments. These retail stores would offer exhibitions of his work, and included Mary Ryan, Tiffany and Company, Hammacher Schlemmer, Bonwitt Teller, Saks Fifth Avenue and Altman's in New York alone. But, he exhibited in high end department stores nationally, including Nieman Marcus in Dallas and Gump's in San Francisco.

Gregory's prices for his commercial pieces were considered very high at that time (although no where as high as the price of his one-of-a-kind "Kansas Madonna"). A Mary Ryan brochure from the 1940's lists Gregory's peacocks as selling for $65.00 each; the Toucans for $50.00 each; and, the roosters for $65.00 each. These works sold well, and Gregory continued successfully promoting his production sculptures for about 20 years. As a young man at the Cowan Pottery, Gregory may have disparaged creating commercial work, but after a brilliant 12 year period of producing serious ceramic sculptures for very limited buyers, he eventually came to appreciate and respect his commercial, and mostly affluent, audience.


About the Author

Thomas C. Folk is well known for his work on the Pennsylvania Impressionists, and he published the first book on the subject in 1977.  He has curated more than a dozen museum exhibitions of paintings by both New Hope Impressionists and Modernists; and, is currently working on the catalogue raisonne on Edward Redfield, New Hope's leading Impressionist.  Folk has also authored many articles on twentieth-century American ceramics, including one on Gregory in 1994.  The Gregory exhibition is his first sculpture/ceramics exhibition.  Folk teaches in the appraisal program at New York University, and is teaching American decorative arts at the New York School of Interior Design.

Dr. Folk provides both scholarly lectures and certified, professional appraisals.  He is a certified member of the Appraisers' Association of America and would be glad to address inquiries about Waylande Gregory or appraisal needs.  He can be contacted directly by phone:  908-766-1257, or email: drtomfolk@aol.com.  His website is available at:  www.drtomfolk.com.


Related Exhibition

"Waylande Gregory: Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse" is a retrospective exhibition, organized by the University of Richmond Museums, and curated by the author. It can be seen at Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, November 16, 2013 to March 23, 2014; and at the Canton Museum of Art, Canton Ohio, May 1 to July 27, 2014. The author also wrote a hard cover monograph on Gregory with the same title, which is available from the University of Richmond Museums, 28 Westhampton Way, University of Richmond, Virginia 23173, e-mail: museums@richmond.edu.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above article and related information was published on December 18, 2013 in Resource Library with permission of the author, granted December 16, 2013, and Ms. Germana Pucci, Managing Editor of Sculpture Review. This article is the pre-edit/publication version of an article in Sculpture Review, A Publication of the National Sculpture Society (fall, 2013), pp. 30-33,38.

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