Waylande Gregory: Fusing Earth and Sand

Waylande Gregory: Fusing Earth and Sand

Waylande Gregory's home

Waylande Gregory, new home of his own design, Warren, New Jersey, 1940s, Gregory archives

As one of the most significant modern American ceramists, Waylande Gregory (1905-1971) has been prominently featured in the published histories of American ceramics, notably as the first modern ceramist to create monumental sculptures. He is the subject of an exhibition that opens Wednesday at the University of Richmond Museums. 

Following a technique similar to that developed by the ancient Etruscans, Gregory fired his large-scale, figurative sculptures a single instance, instead of the typical two or three rounds. To create these virtuosic works, Gregory developed a honeycomb technique, covering an infrastructure of compartments with a ceramic “skin,” rather than shaping the form around a wood or metal armature. Some of these sculptures became very heavy, weighing more than 1 ton, and were fired in a huge kiln constructed by Gregory at his home and studio in Warren, New Jersey. His large-scale ceramic sculptures looked forward to those of Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson, and Viola Frey.

Gregory’s fascination with the possibilities of clay eventually extended to another material: glass. His works in glass are held by several important public glass collections, including that of the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. But most collectors of studio glass remain unaware of his works in glass and of his signature achievement: developing a method for combining glass with ceramic.

Starting with Clay
Born in Baxter Springs, Kansas, Gregory was a multi-talented child, displaying a gift for both art and music. In 1924, he went to Chicago to study with noted sculptor Lorado Taft, who most likely influenced Gregory’s interest in monumentality. But Taft and his previous students worked in bronze and stone, not ceramics. Following his studies, Gregory became chief sculptor and designer for Cowan Pottery in Cleveland, Ohio, where he designed the company’s limited-edition ceramic sculptures.

Along with other Cowan designers, including Victor Schreckengost and Thelma Frazier, he was part of what became known as the Cleveland School. But of this group, he was the only one to consequently be taken seriously as a sculptor, exhibiting in the 1930s and 1940s with the best American sculptors of bronze and stone in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and at leading New York sculpture galleries, including the Boyer Gallery and Grand Central Art Galleries.

Among his notable ceramic works are large-scale sculptures done in the 1930s for the Works Progress Administration, including Light Dispelling Darkness, a fountain with a basin diameter of 40 feet, which still stands in Menlo Park, New Jersey. His crowning achievement was his Fountain of the Atom, created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair; the fountain’s basin, which had a diameter of 65 feet, featured 12 monumental terra-cotta figures depicting elements and electrons.

Glass in 20th-Century America
Gregory began experimenting with glass in the 1930s, and the medium was a major focus for him by the 1940s. He worked alone in his studio, rather than with a team of artisans, an unusual practice for glassmakers at the time, positioning him as a forerunner of the artists who would forge the American studio glass movement decades in the 1960s.

Art glass had flowered in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Louis Comfort Tiffany revolutionized the use of leaded glass for stained-glass windows, layering the glass to achieve depth and three-dimensionality. Their opalescent and iridescent glass, notably Tiffany’s Favrile glass, is considered a consummate creation of the Art Nouveau period. Tiffany’s masterpieces were the product of a workshop, not a single artist, however, with several designers and craftsmen collaborating on each piece. By 1905, the Art Nouveau style popularized by Tiffany had begun to go out of style, and his studio eventually went out of business.

In the following decades, just about the only fine quality, high-end American glass being commercially produced was by Steuben, a large company; its specialty was etched crystal lead glass. But by the 1930s, there were three pioneering studio glass artists - Gregory, Frederick Carder, and Maurice Heaton - who were working independently of each other. Carder, who had been the artistic director of Steuben Glass, worked on his own in one of the company’s factory buildings after his retirement in 1933, making use of its considerable glass technology. Maurice Heaton was from a family of stained glass craftsman that employed many assistants to create leaded windows; Heaton, however, went beyond using lead channels, working with assistants to create very modern laminated glass windows and walls.

These three glass artists did not constitute a movement, however. As glass aficionados know, it was not until Harvey Littleton, who had started his own one-person glass operation in the 1950s after visiting small glass houses in Murano, Italy, and Dominick Labino, a glass engineer, organized a series of glass-making workshops in 1962 at the Toledo Museum of Art, that art glass in the United States began to flourish. Artists began working on glass objects in their studios the way painters and sculptors had been doing for generations.

New Paths
Gregory’s early interest in glass is evident in his first large-scale fountain group, The Swimmer, which he showed at his apartment in New York City in 1933, before moving it to a shallow pool in a large concrete-block terrace at his home in Warren in 1938. The house, which Gregory designed himself, was influenced by the concrete houses of Frank Lloyd Wright in California. The ceramic figure of The Swimmer, made largely of unglazed terra cotta with glazed highlights, was surrounded by smaller glazed ceramic sculptures of fish. While Gregory called the piece a fountain, it did not spout water, but rather, as the publication the New York Visitor noted in 1937, “air emanates from fish mouths.” The smaller ceramic maquette that Gregory made for The Swimmer was one of his finest and hints at his nascent fascination with glass. Enrobed in an unusual opalescent, watery-looking glaze, amazingly tactile and silky, it is the most glass-like of all the glazes on his ceramic sculptures. He used it only three times, all on nude figures of female bathers.

At Warren, Gregory added new fish to the fountain, using, for the first time, his technique for creating colorful glass formations that he referred to as “jeweled crystals.” A thick, raised ceramic pattern supports the glass crystals much as lead channels hold the glass in a stained-glass window, but Gregory went farther, fusing the ceramic and glass together in a silica-metallic oxide reaction in which glass containing a metal, such as cobalt, is fired and, in its molten state, adheres to the ceramic body. Another example of this technique is a large, hand-thrown bowl that Gregory created in about 1942.

After 1940, Gregory also worked in enameled glass. In the early ’40s, he was very close to the famed Austrian ceramics and glass artist Vally Wieseltheir, who would join him and his wife, Yolande, for weekend stays at the Gregorys’ home in the New Jersey countryside. Wieseltheir had designed enameled glass in Vienna for some of the leading glass houses in Europe, before moving to New York in 1929. It is probable that she encouraged Gregory to work with this medium. Among the pieces he created during this period are a cylindrical enameled-glass vase and a glass bowl, both decorated with antelopes in a quintessential Art Deco style, and a large enameled-glass vase, with canted lower corners and bright orange coloration, depicting a heron, a favorite theme of Gregory’s; he first used it for a sculpture that he designed for the Cowan Pottery in 1930.

Gregory did not blow his own glass for these vessels; he purchased mold-blown glass blanks from factories and used stencil designs to decorate the enameled vessels, which were then kiln-fired. Gregory offered his glass works, along with his production ceramics – porcelain objects, made in molds in unlimited multiples – at leading retail stores like Neiman Marcus in New York and Texas, Tiffany & Co. in New York and Gump’s in San Francisco.

In January 1942, Gregory applied for a patent for his glass-ceramic fusing method. In September 1944, patent No. 2,357,399 was granted for a “composite glass and ceramic article and method of making,” the technique he had initially developed for his first fountain. Using this method, Gregory created several hundred bowl-like vessels, ranging from the rather underdeveloped to the exquisitely crafted, with organic, hand-thrown shapes and intensely colored crystal jewels. Some might have been intended for use as ashtrays, as they have a compressed area that could hold a cigarette.

The patent led to much controversy in the ceramics world, and among the potters it upset was the well-known Californian Beatrice Wood. She wrote a letter to Gregory in October 1944: "I wish to say that 'jewel' or 'crystal' glazes have been known to potters for many years, first in Europe and later in this country. Using my own special secret formula, I made, exhibited and sold 'jewel' glaze bowls and plates several years prior to your patent application date of January 13, 1942. This statement I can verify, should occasion require it, by statements of buyers, by illustrated articles in magazines and invoices in my files of 'jewel' bowls sold to customers."

Based on his patent, Gregory brought at least three lawsuits, including one against Samuel Rosen and Design Techniques and another against William Swallow, an Allentown, Pennsylvania, ceramist, who copied Gregory’s fusion technique. But perhaps the most interesting lawsuit was against the well-known California-based husband-and-wife team of Gertrude and Otto Natzler, leading American ceramists in the 1940s, both Viennese by birth. Gertrude threw modern vessel shapes with thin walls, which were then covered with sophisticated glazes by Otto. Gregory was certainly very familiar with the Natzlers, as they exhibited in the same annual Ceramic National exhibitions; in 1939 and 1940, in fact, Gregory was on the jury for the shows at which the Natzlers won awards.

In December 1945, the Natzlers came to New York from Los Angeles to defend themselves against Gregory’s patent suit. Instead, the Natzlers and the Gregorys became the best of friends. The suit, apparently, was dropped, and the Natzlers spent an extended New Year’s Eve at Gregory’s house in Warren. Later, Otto Natzler wrote to Gregory: "Let me thank you first of all for your kind hospitality and all you have done to make our stay in the east as pleasant as it was. We both enjoyed so much meeting you both and having the opportunity to spend such a nice long New Year’s Eve at your house and seeing all the fine work you did. We hope that one day you will come out here and that we shall have a chance to show you around a bit in this part of the world."

No doubt Gregory’s Hungarian wife, Yolande, who spoke Hungarian and German, enjoyed the company of the Natzlers. In fact, she may not have had the chance to speak German with anyone in the house since the passing of Vally Wieselthier earlier that year.

It must be said that the glasslike glazes of the Natzlers, Beatrice Wood, William Swallow, and the doyenne of such glazes, Adelaide Robineau, are more typical of crystalline glazes rather than the result of the fusion of ceramics and glass. Crystalline glazes, or glazes with crystal bursts, had been made in the United States since the beginning of the 20th century. None had the intensity of Gregory’s “jeweled crystals,” however. Gregory’s fusion went well beyond these glazes, with thick glass areas applied to the ceramic surface and more dramatic bursts of crystal. The other ceramists were concerned with chemistry of glazes, whereas Gregory was intrigued with the chemistry of glass.

A Turn in the Road
In 1963, Gregory became involved in a scandal, when Barbara Farmer, a student who became a benefactor, was murdered by her jealous husband, Charles Farmer. He blamed his violent action on Gregory, whom he claimed was having an affair with his wife. After the trial was over, and Mr. Farmer was placed in Trenton State Prison for the Criminally Insane, Gregory became reflective, and subsequently focused on religious works. His last major commission in ceramics was a group of tabletop-sized painted terra-cotta sculptures depicting the Ten Commandments. Gregory also produced several stained-glass windows with religious themes. The windows were brightly colored and had wooden frames, instead of the more typical lead channels. The glass featured internal figurative designs: Pieces of glass were layered and jewel-like pieces of glass were applied. Some of Gregory’s windows were as much as 50 inches wide. Some were damaged or destroyed while in storage, and only a few survive today.

Gregory died in 1971 from acute stomach ulcers. He had started his career in a ceramics factory and had successfully moved on to establishing his place as a ceramic artist. With his glass-ceramic fusion, Gregory felt that he had created something new, and with this new medium, he focused on his own artistic vision. In this guise, he helped pave the way for the studio-glass movement that would blossom in the 1960s and is still going strong today. It is to be hoped that collectors and scholars will, in time, come to see Gregory’s place in the history of glass as an important link between Tiffany and Littleton and will seek out his beautifully crafted, idiosyncratic work.

Thomas Folk is the author of the book Waylande Gregory, Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse (University of Richmond Museums, April 2013), corresponding to the exhibition at the Lora Robins Gallery of the University of Richmond Museums, which continues through September. The exhibition will be on display at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, November 2013 through March 2014 and at the Canton Museum of Art in Canton, Ohio, May through July 2014.