EXHIBITION: Waylande Gregory: Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse

May 1 - July 20, 2014


(Above, Clockwise Left): Nautch Dancer, for Cowan Pottery, ca. 1930, Glazed earthenware, 17" x 7" x 4", Private Collection; Maquette for Water, ca. 1938, Glazed earthenware, 22" x 12" x 9", Private Collection; Kansas Madonna, 1932, Terra cotta, 14" x 22" x 23", Estate of Yolande Gregory; Girl with Olive, 1932, Glazed stoneware, 14 ½" x 8" x 6 ½", Estate of Yolande Gregory.

The Canton Museum of Art is pleased to welcome a major ceramics exhibition, Waylande Gregory: Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse. Waylande Gregory (1905-1971) was one of the leading figures in twentieth-century American ceramics, helping to shape Art Deco design. This exhibition is the first retrospective on the artist, highlighting more than sixty works, including paintings, glass and ceramics, most notably four Electrons from his major commission for the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, Fountain of the Atom. This exhibition premiered at the University of Richmond Museums in February 2013.

Organized by the University of Richmond Museums, Virginia, the exhibition is curated by Thomas C. Folk, Ph.D., an independent ceramics scholar. The exhibition is accompanied by a 200 page hard cover monograph on the artist, titled Waylande Gregory: Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse. This is the first monograph on Gregory, which also serves as a catalogue for the exhibition, and is published by University of Richmond Museums.

Waylande Gregory was the first modern ceramist to create large-scale ceramic sculptures. Similar to the technique developed by the ancient Etruscans, he fired his monumental sculptures only once. 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.” Some of these figurative sculptures weighed well over one ton, and they were fired in a kiln constructed by Gregory at his home studio in Warren, New Jersey.

Early Life and Career
Waylande Gregory was born in Baxter Springs, Kansas, on June 13, 1905, the youngest of six children. As a young man, Gregory’s talents were soon recognized. Graduating from the Kansas Manuel Training Normal School in 1922, Gregory moved to Chicago in 1924 and soon captured the attention of noted American sculptor, Lorado Taft. He later became Taft’s assistant at the artist’s Midway Studios. Taft was probably the most influential figure in Gregory’s development as an artist. “He had seen my work, and believed in me,” he said.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, Gregory’s career mirrored the changing focus of American ceramics, from art pottery to studio pottery. Gregory was a major figure in the Cleveland School, a flourishing arts community of Northeast Ohio during the period from 1910 to 1960, renowned for its sculptors, ceramicists and watercolorists. From 1928 to 1932, Gregory was the chief designer and lead sculptor at Cowan Pottery in Rocky River, Ohio. While there, Gregory created some the Pottery’s finest works, including three limited edition sculptures relating to dance: Salome, Nautch Dancer and Burlesque Dancer. All three of these pieces are featured in the exhibition. Salome combines the horror of the story about the beheading of Saint John the Baptist, as well as the rhythm and motion of Salome’s veil dance. Salome won first prize at the Cleveland Museum of Art May Show of 1929. The last two works were based on the dancing of Gilda Grey, a well-known entertainer from the Ziegfeld Follies who inspired these sculptures.

In 1932, Gregory became artist-in-residence of ceramics at Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Other members of the faculty included the architect Eliel Saarinen and the sculptor Carl Milles. Under Gregory’s guidance, Cranbrook began the development of a serious ceramics program. Although working at Cranbrook for only eighteen months, Gregory produced several well-known sculptures there, including Kansas Madonna and Girl with Olive (pictured above), both featured in the exhibition.

After leaving Cranbrook and moving to New Jersey, Gregory was named director of sculpture of the New Jersey Works Progress Administration (WPA), a work relief project created in 1935 to help artists during the Great Depression. It was during this time that he created the fountain, Light Dispelling Darkness (ca. 1937), which features monumental ceramic sculptures that can be seen today in Roosevelt Park in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The work, a tribute to Thomas Edison, exhibits a heroic theme of combating evil through knowledge. It consists of a terra cotta globe surrounding a shaft of relief figures including a scientist, artist, engineer and industrial workers. The figures ringing the fountain represent conquest, war, famine, death, greed and materialism fleeing the forces of science and knowledge. This piece would lay the groundwork for Gregory’s World’s Fair commission.

1939-40 World’s Fair
Gregory’s Fountain of the Atom work for the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair was comprised of a terraced fountain, 65-feet in diameter, ringed by four “Elements” (earth, air, fire and water) and surrounded by eight “Electrons,” four male and four female. He described the electrons as “elemental little savages of boundless electrical energy, dancing to the rhythm of sculptured bolts of lightning-like flashes in brilliant colored glazes, their buoyant shaped bodies of richly modeled terra cotta clays in warm colors.”

Highlighted in the exhibition are four of the electrons — Male Electron with Green Hair, Male Electron with Fins, Female
Electron with Bolt of Lightning
and Female Electron with Bubbles. Also in the exhibition is the element Fire and a maquette (a small scale model) for Water, one of Gregory’s most successful works.

(Above, Clockwise Top Left): Light Dispelling Darkness, ca. 1937, Concrete and glazed terra cotta, Menlo Park, New Jersey; Exhibit installation at the Canton Museum of Art, with Fire, ca. 1940, at the right; Salome, ca. 1929, Glazed earthenware, 17" x 10" x 4", Private Collection; Waylande Gregory shown at his New Jersey studio ca. 1938, preparing to fire Water in his kiln, Gregory Archives; Female Electron with Bubbles, ca. 1938, Glazed earthenware, 50" x 27" x 28", University of Richmond Museums; Fountain of the Atom, photo from the 1939 World's Fair, Gregory Archives.

Later Works in Sculpture and Glass
By the 1940s Gregory began to create works in glass, as well as in a combination of ceramics and glass. In addition to becoming one of the earliest studio ceramics artists, he was also one of the first studio glass artists. He created enameled glass vases, as well as stained glass windows. Gregory experimented with some controversial glass and ceramic pieces, using a process he successfully patented, much to the consternation of other American ceramicists including Beatrice Wood and Gertrude and Otto Nattzler. During the 1940s and 1950s, Gregory created lively, decorated production sculptures and vessels. These were displayed at leading American retail stores, including Tiffany’s and Neiman-Marcus.

By the end of his life in 1971, the artist had created one of the largest bodies of ceramic sculptural works in modern times. The diversity of Gregory’s complex creations and production techniques is very much reflected in this exhibition.

Exhibition-Related Programming
Sunday, May 4, 1 – 2pm
Lecture Presentation — Waylande Gregory: Cleveland & Beyond
Museum Library, Canton Museum of Art

Dr. Thomas C. Folk, Ph.D., ceramics scholar and exhibition curator
Get to know Waylande Gregory as a major influence in the Cleveland School, as he was the leading sculptor and designer at Rocky River’s Cowan Pottery. But in 1931, the Cowan Pottery closed, and Gregory moved forward to create some of the most monumental and lasting ceramic works of all time.