Waylande Gregory was considered a major American sculptor during the 1930's, although he worked in ceramics, rather than in the more traditional bronze or marble. Exhibiting his ceramic works at such significant American venues for sculpture as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and at the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, he also showed his ceramic sculptures at leading New York City galleries. Gregory was the first modern ceramist to create large scale ceramic sculptures, some measuring more than 70 inches in height. Similar to the technique developed by the ancient Etruscans, he fired his monumental ceramic sculptures only once.
Gregory was born in 1905 in Baxter Springs, Kansas and was something of a prodigy. Growing up on a ranch near a Cherokee reservation, Gregory first became interested in ceramics as a child during a native American burial that he had witnessed. He was also musically inclined. In fact, his mother had been a concert pianist and had given her son lessons. At eleven, he was enrolled as a student at the Kansas State Teacher's College, where he studied carpentry and crafts, including ceramics.
Gregory's early development as a sculptor was shaped by the encouragement and instruction of Lorado Taft, who was considered both a major American sculptor as well as a leading American sculpture instructor. In fact, Taft's earlier students included such significant sculptors as Bessie Potter Vonnoh and Janet Scudder. But, Taft and his students had primarily worked in bronze or stone, not in clay; and, Gregory's earliest sculptural works were also not in ceramics. In 1924, Gregory moved to Chicago where he caught the attention of Taft. Gregory was invited by Taft to study with him privately for 18 months and to live and work with him at his famed "Midway Studios." The elegant studio was a complex of 13 rooms that overlooked a courtyard. Taft may have been responsible for getting the young man interested in creating large scale sculpture. However, by the 1920's, Taft's brand of academic sculpture was no longer considered progressive. Instead, Gregory was attracted to the latest trends appearing in the United States and Europe. In 1928 he visited Europe with Taft and other students.
"Kid Gregory," as he was called, was soon hired by Guy Cowan, the founder of the Cowan Pottery in Cleveland, Ohio, to become the company's only full time employee. From 1928 to 1932, Gregory served as the chief designer and sculptor at the Cowan Pottery. Just as Gregory learned about the process of creating sculpture from Taft, he literally learned about ceramics from Cowan. Cowan was one of the first graduates of Alfred, the New York School of Clayworking and Ceramics. Alfred had one of the first programs in production pottery. Cowan may have known about pottery production, but he had limited sculptural skills, as he was lacking training in sculpture. The focus of the Cowan Pottery would be on limited edition, table top or mantle sculptures. Two of the most successful of these were Gregory's "Nautch Dancer," (fig. 1) and his "Burlesque Dancer," (fig. 2). He based both sculptures on the dancing of Gilda Gray, a Ziegfield Follies girl.
Gilda Gray was of Polish origin and came to the United States as a child. By 1922, she would become one of the most popular stars in the Follies. After losing her assets in the stock market crash of 1929, she accepted other bookings outside of New York, including Cleveland, which was where Gregory first saw her onstage. She allowed Gregory to make sketches of her performances from the wings of the theatre. She explained to Gregory, "I'm too restless to pose." Gray became noted for her nautch dance, an East Indian folk dance. A nautch is a tight, fitted dress that would curl at the bottom and act like a hoop. This sculpture does not focus on Gray's face at all, but is more of a portrait of her nautch dance. It is very curvilinear, really made of a series of arches that connect in a most feminine way.
Gregory created his "Burlesque Dancer" at about the same time as "Nautch Dancer." As with the "Nautch Dancer," he focused on the movements of the body rather than on a facial portrait of Gray. Although Gregory never revealed the identity of his model for "Burlesque Dancer," a clue to her identity is revealed in the sculpture's earlier title, "Shimmy Dance." The dancer who was credited for creating the shimmy dance was also Gilda Gray. According to dance legend, Gray introduced the shimmy when she sang the "Star Spangled Banner" and forgot some of the lyrics, so, in her embarrassment, started shaking her shoulders and hips but she did not move her legs. Such movement seems to relate to the "Burlesque Dancer" sculpture, where repeated triangular forms extend from the upper torso and hips. This rapid movement suggests the influence of Italian Futurism, as well as the planar motion of Alexander Archipenko, a sculptor whom Gregory much admired.
The Cowan Pottery was a victim of the great depression, and in 1932, Gregory changed careers as a sculptor in the ceramics industry to that of an instructor at the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cranbrook was perhaps the most prestigious place to study modern design in America. Its faculty included the architect Eliel Saarinen and sculptor Carl Milles.
Although Gregory was only at Cranbrook for one and one half years, he created some of his finest works there, including his "Kansas Madonna" (fig. 3). But, after arriving at Cranbrook, the Gregory's had to face emerging financial pressures. Although Gregory and his wife were provided with complimentary lodgings, all other income had to stem from the sale of artworks and tuition from students that he, himself, had to solicit. Gregory had many people assisting him with production methods at the Cowan Pottery, but now worked largely by himself. And although he still used molds, especially in creating porcelain works, many of his major new sculptures would be unique and sculpted by hand, as is true of "Kansas Madonna." The scale of Gregory's works were getting notably larger at Cranbrook than at Cowan.
Gregory left the surface of "Kansas Madonna" totally unglazed. Although some might object to using a religious title to depict a horse nursing its colt, it was considered one of Gregory's most successful works. In fact, it had a whole color page illustration in an article about ceramic sculpture titled, "The Art with the Inferiority Complex," Fortune Magazine, December, 1937. The article notes the sculpture was romantic and expressive and the sculpture was priced at $1,500.00; the most expensive sculpture in the article. Gregory was from Kansas, and "Kansas Madonna" should be considered a major sculptural document of Regionalism.
Gregory and his wife Yolande moved to New Jersey in the summer of 1933. And the artist began construction on his new home in the Watchung Mountains of Bound Brook (Warren today) in 1938. His enormous, custom kiln was probably constructed at the start of 1938. Gregory's new sculptures were the largest ceramic sculptures in western art, in modern times. To create these works of ceramic virtuosity, the artist developed a "honeycomb" technique, in which an infrastructure of compartments was covered by a ceramic "skin."
Science and atomic energy were a theme in Gregory's most significant work, the "Fountain of the Atom" (fig. 4), at the 1939 New York's World Fair. This major work included twelve monumental ceramic figures at the fairground entrance from the newly constructed railway entrance, giving the work great visibility and prominence. The framework of the fountain itself was of steel and glass bricks. It consisted of a bluish green pool which was sixty five feet in diameter. Above it were two concentric circular tiers, or terraces, as Gregory called them; the first wider than the second. On the first terrace were eight "Electrons," comprised of four male and four female terra cotta figures, each approximately 48 inches high. These relate to the valance shell of the atom. Above them on a narrower terrace, were the much larger and heavier terra cotta figures depicting the four elements, each averaging about 78 inches in height and weighing about a ton and a half. Of the four, "Water" and "Air" were male, while "Earth" and "Fire" were female. This terrace represents the nucleus of the atom. In the center of the fountain, above the "Elements," was a central shaft comprised of sixteen glass tubes from which water tumbled down from tier to tier. At the top, a colorful flame burned constantly. The glass block tiers were lit from within, the whole creating a glowing and gurgling effect. Since the fair was temporary, the figures could be removed after its closing. But the credit for the design of the structure of the fountain belongs to collaborator Nembhard Culin, who was responsible for several other structures on the fair grounds as well.
Although Gregory created a figure of "Fire" for the "Fountain of the Atom," he also executed a second, slightly smaller but more defined version which he exhibited at various locations (including Cranbrook, Baltimore Museum, etc.) in 1940-1941, during the second year of the fair (fig.5). Measuring 61 inches in height, "Fire" may be a metaphor for sexual energy, as well as atomic energy. Gregory stated, "Fire is represented by an aquiline female figure being consumed in endless arabesques of flame."
Portraiture was also a significant focus of Gregory's sculpture. Gregory produced many commissioned portraits of local people as well as celebrities. He created Albert Einstein's portrait from life (fig. 6, ca. 1940) after Einstein had seen Gregory's "Fountain of the Atom." He also sculpted some of the leading figures in entertainment, including 2 sculptures of Henry Fonda, who became a personal friend.
Gregory also sculpted a series of idealized female heads, both in terra cotta and in porcelain. These include "Girl with Olive" (ca. 1932) and "Cretan Girl;"(ca. 1937) both are very reductive and almost abstract works that call to mind Constantine Brancusi's "Mademoiselle Pogany" (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art). But perhaps one of his most original female heads is "Head of a Child" (fig. 7, ca. 1933), a sensitive white glazed terra cotta portrayal with elaborately crafted braded hair, was originally created as one of a pair.
Gregory also produced sculptural works for the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was a work relief project that greatly helped artists during the great depression. Founded by the Federal Government in 1935, an estimated 2500 murals were produced. Among these public works were the iconic post office murals. But, among the painted murals were also sculptural relief murals including Gregory's "R.F.D.," 1938, for the Columbus, Kansas Post Office. But, Gregory's largest WPA relief mural was for Washington D.C.'s Police and Fire Departments titled: "Democracy in Action" (1941). The mural depicts the actions of the Metropolitan Police Department and the District of Columbia Fire Department. The finished work measures approximately 81 feet long and eight feet high and is composed of 518 glazed, 14 inch, colored, terra cotta tiles.
Gregory's model for "Democracy in Action," also sculpted in fired terra cotta, was composed of 12 tile pieces. The largest relief tile depicts the most significant and controversial scene (fig. 8). It presents two policemen in a violent confrontation with two African American males. The message represented by the police depicted in the mural seems somewhat confusing; and, might be taken as representing police brutality. But, this theme does look forward to the Civil Rights Movement. Gregory thrived on publicity and probably knew of the Social Realist painter, Philip Evergood's controversial painting, "American Tragedy," 1937, which depicts a struggle between picketers and policemen at a steel mill in Gary, Indiana.
In addition to creating ceramic sculptures for prominent exhibition places such as the Whitney Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy, Gregory was a frequent exhibitor at the Ceramic Nationals. These were annual exhibitions sponsored by the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, which traveled to museums in the United States and Europe. These exhibitions helped Gregory maintain his prominent position within the American ceramics community. Gregory participated in the Ceramic Nationals from 1933 to 1946; and, was on the jury of awards in 1938, 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1946.
The gallery scene in New York was thriving in the pre war years, even during the Depression. Gregory's major New York dealer was the Boyer Galleries, although he also showed at other New York galleries such as the Grand Central Gallery and the Arden Gallery. By the mid 1940's Gregory had ceased to create his monumental ceramic sculptures. The reason he stopped is not totally clear. But in 1948, the Boyer Galleries dropped him, apparently because his sculptures, which were very highly priced, failed to sell, and consequently, a number of his monumental sculptures remained at his home and studio.
But Gregory's innovation did not end with the creation of his monumental ceramic sculptures. During the 1940's and 1950's Gregory produced lively decorated production sculptures and vessels. These were displayed at leading American retail stores including Tiffany's, Nieman Marcus and Gump's. Although he was involved in a scandal in the 1960's (the murder of a woman benefactor by her jealous husband), he continued to work until his death in 1971. Gregory created a body of work in ceramic sculpture, that was both a major contribution to American sculpture and to American ceramics. Afterwards, ceramic sculpture would continue to evolve over the next decades through Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson and Viola Frey. But, when analyzing these later works, many critics and collectors seemed to forget Gregory's earlier achievement.
("The Ceramic Sculpture of Waylande Gregory" by Thomas Folk)