Viola Frey (1933-2004)
From the mid-1950s to her passing in 2004, Viola Frey broke boundaries in ceramics, breaking the association of her medium with small-scale craft to a world of monumental sculpture. In the Spark episode “From Life,” viewers watch Frey working in her studio on a series of colossal clay figures for a show in New York.
Spark followed Frey in the months just before her death when, in her early seventies and physically impaired from a number of strokes, she relied greatly on her studio assistant of 17 years, Sam Perry, to help her realize her seemingly ceaseless flow of ideas. Despite her physical limitations, Frey continued to be prolific until her death, going to her studio six days a week and often working on five or six massive sculptures simultaneously. Producing these figures was so important to Frey that it was her work in the studio that helped her recover from her physical setbacks, and kept her going.
Frey’s sculptures are at a scale nearly unprecedented in ceramics. Traditionally, ceramic artists produce small objects either by hand-building or working on a potter’s wheel. But Frey’s figures are nothing short of monumental, many of them standing in excess of 10 feet tall and weighing thousands of pounds. To build her pieces, Frey first allowed the clay of the entire figure to dry. The figure was then sawed into pieces, each of which was individually glazed and fired in a kiln. Once fired, the 100 pound (or more) pieces were painted by Frey and then reassembled into the final sculpture. In contrast to their larger-than-life scale, many of the colossal figures that Frey produced were inspired by the artist’s collection of ceramic kitsch. She reused many of the forms of these much smaller objects in her work.
Frey was a longtime resident of the Bay Area, and her influence is felt on multiple levels. Frey showed her work regularly and had several public artworks, including one at San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center. Perhaps more significantly, Frey was a member of the faculty of the California College of the Arts from the mid-1960s until her death, teaching ceramics to several generations of artists. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Frey helped to redefine the place of her medium in the art world, along with fellow Bay Area ceramic artists Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri, Peter Volkous, and others. And, lastly, as a woman working in a field often dominated by men and in accomplishing work on a scale taken on by few, Frey distinguished herself as an exceptional artist.