Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 28, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the author and Nancy Hoffman Gallery. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact Nancy Hoffman Gallery at either this web address or phone number:


Viola Frey: A Lasting Legacy

by Kenneth R. Trapp



"Viola Frey: A Lasting Legacy," is the first traveling museum exhibition of a selection of the artist's final works created in 2003 and 2004, before her untimely death on July 26, 2004 in Oakland, California. Included are three small figurative assemblages called bricolage and eight monumental figures -- two reclining female nudes, a seated female nude, a standing female, two seated males, and two standing males -- and a large cylindrical sculpture with painted figures encircling it, topped by a large, upturned hand. Shown for the first time publicly are three unglazed, monumental pieces: an urn, a seated female nude and a standing male. Also shown for the first time publicly are six blown glass amphorae decorated with china paints by Frey.

In 1992 Frey turned her attention to glass at the Pi1chuck Glass School north of Seattle. Created with Chuck Vannatta, an independent glass blower in Oakland, these amphorae evidence Frey's constant search for new ways to express her creative genius.

The distillation of Frey's life and art into a few pages will, of course, fall short of any expectations because of the complexities of the artist's life and art. A keen observer of people and the world around her, Frey has been called a visual anthropologist and an urban archaeologist. Her phenomenally prolific career in painting, drawing, ceramics, bronze, glass, and photography does not fall easily into convenient categories or periods because she did not think or work in that manner. She worked in several materials at the same time and would rework pieces later or return to subject matter from an earlier period. Indeed, each piece in this exhibition reiterates Frey's fundamental preoccupation with the human figure and her habit of making references to other artists and art from other cultures and times.

A cursory glance of Frey's life reveals a significant truth: she was driven by an insatiable need to create art. Frey once noted that she was able to do her wor k because she tenaciously adhered to two priorities: to survive and to create art. For Frey, art and survival -- life -- were inseparable. Like many driven, creative people, Frey was not only an artist and teacher, but was also a consumer of art. She lived with art in a fully engaged way. There was no separation between her art and her life; one flowed into the other in a circular gestalt.

From an early age Frey knew she wanted to be an artist, although she had no idea what art was or what it meant to be an artist. She did intuit, however, that art was impractical, especially for a girl born on a farm in Lodi, California in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. Following graduation from high school, Frey attended Stockton Delta College in 1952, but moved the next year to the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in Oakland, where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts. She studied painting with Richard Diebenkorn and took an elective course in ceramics with Vernon Coykendall and Charles Fiske.

Auspiciously, the direction of her future life in art was set: painting and ceramics would be her calling. Throughout her career Frey moved easily from painting to ceramics; in fact, she approached paint like clay and clay like paint, taking advantage of the plasticity of each medium.

From Oakland, Frey went to New Orleans in 1956 to study art at Tulane University, where she received a master's degree. One course she took was a workshop taught by the noted painter Mark Rothko, a visiting artist, who emphasized the sensations and emotive power that colors evoked. Further, Frey continued her studies in ceramics with Katherine Choy.

Frey left New Orleans in 1957 to join Choy, who had founded the Cooperative Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York. Here Frey gained additional exposure to and experience in ceramics. To support herself financially, she worked in the bookkeeping department of the Museum of Modem Art in New York. This also enabled Frey to study the Museum's collection and exhibitions closely, an invaluable experience that no classroom could provide.

In 1960 Frey moved to San Francisco. Throughout the 1960s she supported herself by working in the credit department of Macy's. Despite working forty hours a week at Macy's, she pursued painting and ceramics during every spare moment she had. In 1970, at the age of thirty-seven, Frey quit her job to commit herself to art. That same year she was invited by the painting department of the California College of Arts and Crafts to teach a color workshop.

Needing more space and closer proximity to the California College of Arts and Crafts, Frey bought a home in Oakland in 1975. She built a ceramic studio to accommodate the ever-expanding scale of her sculpture and her collection of figurines. Her commitment to painting and ceramic sculpture solidified into a dynamic synergism. With small intimate bricolage pieces, circular wall plates, figures of varying scale, and her paintings, drawings, and photography, Frey had found her distinctive voice.


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