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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Viola Frey

Photo: Artists' Legacy Foundation
Art © Artists' Legacy Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Viola Frey

American, 1933 - 2004



Viola Frey was born in 1933 in Lodi, California, and died in Oakland, California, in 2004. She is well known for her large, colorfully glazed clay sculptures of men and women, which expanded the traditional boundaries of ceramic sculpture. Frey was one of a number of California artists working in clay in the 1950s and 60s who turned away from that medium's conventions to produce works with robust sculptural qualities associated with Abstract Expressionist painting, Pop art and what would come to be known as California Funk.

Frey moved to San Francisco in 1960 after studying at Tulane University. In the early 60s she began producing large plates and assemblages as well as sculptures and paintings. In 1965 Frey began teaching at the California College of Arts and Crafts. It was not until the late 70s, after moving into her large studio in Oakland, that she had room to start creating her signature larger-than-life figures. Standing about nine feet high and constructed of separate pieces, with visible seams, these massive men and women are rendered in a simplified style. The men appear in generic suits and ties and the women in simple, 50s-style dresses and old-fashioned hairdos. Bright colors and heavily textured surfaces are integral to Frey’s work. While some of her art is highly autobiographical in nature, her large figures deal with universal themes of social interaction in an increasingly complex world.

In addition to the large scale, Frey was drawn to the miniature. She began collecting ceramic figurines in flea markets near her home in Oakland. Some inspired her large sculptures, and others provided imagery for her paintings, drawings and assemblage pieces. In her vividly colored drawings she incorporated many of her purchases, such as the bear, rooster, dog, and horse, containing them in a sealed environment.

Frey lived surrounded by art and art books. She collected some 4,000 books, which she often used as references for her works. Committed to her art, she continued working almost until the end of her life.

1953 Stockton Delta College, Stockton, California
1956 California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, California—BFA
1958 Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana

  • painting
  • American
  • California
  • Lodi, CA

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