American sculptor Viola Frey is considered one of the pioneers of contemporary ceramics. Often aligned with the Bay Area Funk movement, her five-decade career served as a social critique. She explored gender dynamics, power structures, and culture.
Her creative output highlighted human figures juxtaposed with antiquity, flea market collectibles, and interior landscapes through monumental sculptures, ceramic figurines, paintings, and works on paper. Frey used an abstract painting style in her ceramics. Delineated fault lines in her interlocking ceramics with vibrant glazes defined her art. This unique approach highlighted the unusual color relationships in her glazing techniques. She used bright and almost garish colors to heighten the tension in her artworks. Her innovative use of color theory gave ceramic and bronze work new meaning.
Frey was born in 1933 and raised on her family’s vineyard in Lodi, California. In 1951, she attended the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC), now the California College of the Arts. After graduating with a BFA in Painting in 1955, she went on to pursue her MFA in Painting at Tulane University. While a graduate student, some of her mentors included kinetic sculptor George Rickey, clay artist Katherine Choy, and abstract painter Mark Rothko. A seminal experience for Frey was exploring the artistic capabilities of clay at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York, a recently founded space by Choy who pioneered bridging the barrier between fine art and craft.
From 1964 to 1999, Frey taught in CCAC. Additionally, she served as the Ceramics Department Chair. During her time in CCAC, she advocated the art form of ceramics and headed the construction of the Noni Eccles Treadwell Ceramic Arts Center. In 1999, Frey retired as a professor emerita. The CCAC later awarded her an honorary Doctorate in 2000.
Throughout her career, Frey received numerous awards and honors. She was twice the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She participated in five artist residences from 1970-1993. And in 2000, she cofounded the Artists’ Legacy Foundation alongside artist Squeak Carnwath and community advocate Gary Knecht. Frey continued to create art until her death in 2004, at 70 years old.
Her artwork is in over seventy public collections of art museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Today, her work continues to exhibit in solo and group shows throughout the United States.
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