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Art HERstory: Viola Frey


Art HERstory: Viola Frey

Once upon a time the most of our worries were staying inside the lines when coloring, remembering what number came after 8 when counting, and spelling our names correctly. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, the majority of 5 -year-olds give one of the following generic answers: doctor, lawyer, teacher. Viola Frey (1933-2004) was an exception. She knew early on that she ‘had to be an artist to survive.’ For Viola, coloring in the lines was only the beginning.

'Stubborn Woman, Orange Hands' (2003-4)

Viola’s childhood was spent on a farm and vineyard in Lodi, California. She moved to Oakland in 1960 after earning a Master of Fine Arts from Tulane University in New Orleans. She chose Oakland as the launchpad for her career in ceramic sculpture. A slow start in art forced Viola to turn to teaching. She returned to her undergraduate alma mater, California College of the Arts, as a professor in 1965 and eventually became chair of the Ceramics Program where she held her title until 1999.

“My art wasn’t automatic – sometimes you have to get started working and ideas would come. I do know that the hardest step anyone ever makes, including myself, is that step into the studio.”

In the 1980s when the world began to hum with talks of Viola’s work. She was a master ceramic artist whose pieces ranged from the miniature to the massive (eight feet or more in height). No matter the size of the work, it was certain to be brightly colored and have an embedded message. Issues of gender, art history, power, and social judgment are all addressed. One recurring image throughout all her work is the globe. It symbolizes the exploration of cultural diversity.

'Position #2' (1988)

Believe it or not, flea markets served as a source of inspiration for the internationally respected artist. Viola would often visit flea markets and purchase knick knacks that would evolve into the sculptures she left for the world to enjoy. To her, these ornaments are tangible representations of life and man’s obsession with ‘things.’

“Most peoples’ lives- what are they but trails of debris? Each day more debris, long, long trails of debris, with nothing to clean it all up.”

In 2004, Viola Ruth Frey lost her battle with colon cancer. She doesn’t have any immediate survivors, but she does leave thousands of friends and fans.

Image Layout: Phaymiss


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