Waylande Gregory (1905-1971), a native of Baxter Springs, Kansas, was one of the most innovative and prolific ceramic sculptors of the Art Deco style that became international in the early  twentieth century. His groundbreaking techniques enabled him to create monumental ceramic works, including Fountain of the Atom for the 1939 New York World’s Fair—a tribute to atomic energy that earned the attention of Albert Einstein. 

In addition to his many public monuments, Gregory fashioned commercial and studio pottery as well as glassware. Through his art, writing, and teaching, Gregory helped shape the Art Deco aesthetic in American ceramics. He was one of the few ceramic artists of the pre-World War II era to address social and political concerns in his work.

This virtual retrospective expands on an exhibition organized by the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum at Alfred University in New York State. The exhibition will feature 3-D views of art, vintage film footage, and interviews with curators. The exhibition is co-curated by independent scholar Tom Folk and Beach Museum of Art Curator Elizabeth Seaton. 

Silver Sponsors: Donald J. Mrozek and R. Scott Dorman  
Bronze Sponsors: Tom Folk and Frank Brady and Chuck and Sandy Bussing

Gregory was the youngest of six children. He displayed talent in both art and music, but as a teenager, he found himself most attracted to art.

Young Waylande Gregory in front of his family home in Baxter Springs, Kansas, ca. 1911. Gregory archives 

Gregory attended the progressive Kansas Manual Training Normal School in Pittsburg, Kansas, graduating in 1922. His teacher, Elsie Bowman, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, encouraged him to study with Chicago’s Lorado Taft, a leading figure in American sculpture. 

Waylande Gregory at Lorado Taft’s Midway Studios, Chicago, ca. 1925-1928. Gregory archives

With Taft as mentor, the young artist executed huge decorative commissions in plaster, most notably The Aztec Room at the Hotel President in Kansas City, Missouri, and The Missouri Theatre in St. Joseph.

COWAN POTTERY

In 1928 Gregory was hired by R. Guy Cowan, founder of Cowan Pottery Studio in Northeast Ohio. Gregory created models for limited-edition sculptures, which were executed by pottery staff. 

Cowan employees Reva (foreground) and Juanita Brunt (background) inspecting finished pieces. Photo courtesy of Rocky River Public Library and the Cowan Pottery Museum, 2013.5.9

Among the artist’s best known sculptures produced for Cowan were Burlesque Dancer and Nautsch Dancer. The model for these sculptures was Gilda Grey, the Ziegfeld Follies star, who had previously toured Cleveland.

CRANBROOK ACADEMY OF ART

Cowan Pottery became a victim of the Great Depression. In 1932 Gregory gained a position as artist-in-residence for ceramics at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cranbrook was among the most prestigious places in America to study modern design during the 1930s. Among its faculty were architect Eliel Saarinen, designer Charles Eames, and sculptor Carl Milles.

Gregory taught and worked at Cranbrook from 1932 to 1933. There he shifted his focus to studio ceramics rather than commercially produced art pottery, handling all aspects of the production of his work.

Credit

"SE Bloomfield MI RPPC Academy of Art Museum Grounds Cranbrook Private School Academy of Art Public Science Museum and Planetarium Photographer CROZE Unsent Card 4" by UpNorth Memories - Don Harrison is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Gregory produced several portraits of his wife, Yolande von Wagner, an artistically inclined Hungarian-Viennese émigré, who brought to the relationship connections with other émigré artists from Europe.

His 1932 The Artist’s Wife presents her as quietly regal and self-possessed. The couple’s marriage would be marked by tension and eventual estrangement. Despite their troubles, both Waylande and Yolande appear to have held The Artist’s Wife in high regard. He included it in a 1934 display at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, and she kept it in her home until her death in 1980.

After Gregory’s death, his wife-critic became an ardent advocate for his art and career.

Waylande and Yolande Gregory in Bound Brook, New Jersey, 1941. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. Carl Van Vechten Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University

NEW DEAL SCULPTURE AND MURALS

In 1933, the Gregorys settled at Elmwood Farm, a sprawling, run-down place in Metuchen, New Jersey. Metuchen was near the Amboys, one of the richest clay deposits in the United States. The nearby Perth Amboy vicinity had several tile and terra cotta companies, including the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, which had supplied the tiles for the Flatiron and Woolworth buildings in New York City. At Atlantic Terra Cotta,  Gregory was afforded the opportunity to fashion and fire ceramic sculpture on a monumental scale. 

Postcard of Elmwood Farm (also known as White Goose Cottage), Metuchen, New Jersey, ca. 1910. American News Company.

The Gregorys lived in the home from 1933 to 1938.

The impetus for creating these large-scale works was a series of commissions Gregory earned from the federal government as part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s New Deal jobs program for artists.

Gregory’s first project, for the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, was an outdoor fountain group in Roosevelt Park, New Jersey. Nearby was Menlo Park, where Thomas Edison developed the incandescent light bulb.

A tribute to Edison, Light Dispelling Darkness (1937) features six spans supporting allegories of human vices, including greed and war mongering. A column topped by a globe depicts human achievements in such areas as education and science aimed at defeating these forces. The work alluded to the 1930s antifascism movement which Gregory supported as a member of the American Artists Congress.

The fountain glowed under illumination at night, reinforcing the theme of knowledge and virtue conquering ignorance and aggression.

Under the auspices of the Section of Fine Arts, which commissioned art for federal buildings, Gregory created this terra cotta mural, R.F.D. (1938), for the post office in Columbus, a city in southeast Kansas near his native Baxter Springs. Postal carriers, including those who rode on horseback to make rural deliveries, were a common subject in New Deal post office murals. 

R.F.D., 1940, four terra cotta relief panels for the US Post Office in Columbus, Kansas.

Current location: Columbus Community Building

photo courtesy Columbus News-Report

Model for R.F.D. (New Deal mural for Columbus, Kansas, post office) 

1939 

Terra cotta

Kansas State University, Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, 2015.86a-d 

During his time working for the New Deal arts programs and living in Metuchen, New Jersey, Gregory also produced small scale works, including portraits. The artist was drawn to glamorous movie and Broadway stars, television personalities, and internationally renowned figures.

His connection with Nebraska-born Henry Fonda resulted in two of his most compelling portraits. Fonda had been the male lead in the movie Jezebel starring Bette Davis. The movie stopped production when Fonda’s wife went into labor at Doctor’s Hospital in New York City before Christmas in 1937. While Fonda’s wife recovered from giving birth to the couple’s daughter, Jane, the actor posed for Gregory at the artist’s studio in Metuchen. Gregory gave Fonda sculpture lessons during the encounter.

  • A New Home
  • His Own Design
  • Terrace
  • Sunbathing
  • 1960

The Gregorys began construction of a new house in the Watchung Mountains of Bound Brook (today Warren), New Jersey, in 1938. The Art Deco structure, built of concrete blocks and glass, included a studio with a kiln for firing monumental sculpture. Gregory no longer needed to rely on the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company.

The home became a residence for Gregory and Yolande as well as two studio assistants. It also served as a space for teaching, a gallery for Gregory’s art, and a prime venue for parties attended by artists and creative thinkers. While protected by trees, the site had stunning views of the New York skyline.

Waylande Gregory, new home of his own design, Warren (Bound Brook), New Jersey, ca. 1940. Gregory archives 

Terrace, Waylande Gregory home, Warren, New Jersey, ca. 1940. Gregory archives

Waylande and Yolande sunbathing at their Warren home, ca. 1940. Gregory archives

Waylande Gregory house, Warren, New Jersey, ca. 1960. Gregory archives

Democracy in Action, Public Works Administration, US Department of the Treasury, 1941, glazed terra cotta, 81 feet long x 8 feet high, East Administration Building, Municipal Center Building, Washington, DC, 300 Indiana Avenue NW

Gregory’s final New Deal mural was his Democracy in Action for the Municipal Center Building in Washington, DC. The structure housed the Metropolitan Police Department and Health Department, among other city agencies.

Model for Democracy in Action, 1941, terra cotta.

Collection of Martin Stogniew

Photography Randl Bye

In the huge tile work, Gregory depicted firefighting and law enforcement, showing firefighters saving a baby and police officers performing a variety of tasks, including aiding children, monitoring a protest, and making an arrest. The frieze provoked controversy with its depiction of two white policeman using violent force to break up an apparent knife fight between two African American men.

Gregory appears to have intentionally sought to provoke a discussion about excessive force used by the police against minorities, a subject other left-leaning artists had also addressed. He was working with an African American father and son team on the mural.

The negative reaction was swift. The Episcopal Reverend James E. Freeman described the mural as “fitting as an interpretation of the Gestapo” and “brutish.” Artist Paul Manship defended the image as “one of the very best ceramics done in recent years,” in a 1941 statement commissioned by the government in response to negative reactions to the work.

1939
NEW YORK WORLD’S FAIR

The 1939 New York World’s Fair, situated historically between the Great Depression and World War II, proved to be a microcosm of the rapid changes occurring in the larger world. The Fair, with a theme of “Building the World of Tomorrow,” lasted two years and attracted forty-four million visitors.

The two buildings most associated with the fair were the Trylon (higher than 700 feet) and the Perisphere (200 feet in diameter) designed by Wallace Harrison.

New York World’s Fair, 1939, with the Trylon and Perisphere and the General Motors Building designed by Norman Bel Geddes, Queens, New York

Many souvenir items depicting the Trylon and the Perisphere were created by Lenox and other ceramic companies. Gregory developed this unusual commemorative plate depicting Uncle Sam on horseback holding tiny models of the Trylon and Perisphere. The plate was hand thrown on a potter’s wheel.

Yankee Doodle Went to Town, 1939

New York World’s Fair plate

Glazed earthenware

11 in. D

Private collection

  • GM Commission
  • Intersection of the Future
  • Magic Motorways
  • Map

Gregory had three major commissions for the fair, two for buildings fashioned by major industrial designers: Dorwin Martin Teague’s United States Building and Norman Bell Geddes’ General Motors Building. 

Geddes’ “Futurama” exhibit in the General Motors structure (sections C and D in map) would offer millions of visitors, sitting in plush chairs, a bird’s eye view of a “superhighway” system designed to bring about revolutionary economic and social change. 

For his contribution to the General Motors building, Gregory created a pair of multi-figural exhibits for a section devoted to GM’s overseas operations (section F in map). These exhibits aimed to make clear how much the company relied on global trade and how much this trade, accelerated by modern transportation, would benefit Americans. 

Norman Bel Geddes, Magic Motorways, New York: Random House, 1939

https://archive.org/stream/generalmotorshig00geddrich#page/n3/mode/2up

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Norman Bel Geddes, Magic Motorways, New York: Random House, 1939

https://archive.org/stream/magicmotorways00geddrich#page/240/mode/2up

Norman Bel Geddes, Highways & Horizons: New York World’s Fair (General Motors Corp., 1939)

https://archive.org/details/generalmotorshig00geddrich/page/6/mode/2up

 

Maquettes depicting American Consumer from the circular exhibit, Imports Benefit the American Consumer, for the World Horizons display in the General Motors Building, 1939, New York World’s Fair

ca. 1939

Terra cotta

14 x 7 x 6 in; 10 x 5 x 5 in.

Private collection

Maquette for American Agriculture, American Labor, from the circular exhibit, Exports Benefit the American Worker, for the World Horizons display in the General Motors Building, 1939, New York World’s Fair

ca. 1939

Terra cotta

14 x 7 x 5 in.

Private collection

Gregory’s most significant work at the fair was his Fountain of the Atom, a tribute to atomic research, carrying twelve monumental ceramic figures. These were allegories of the Classical “Elements,” air, fire, earth, and water, each weighing close to a ton, and eight smaller-scale “Electrons,” representing subatomic particles.

Fountain of the Atom stood in front of the Contemporary Arts Building on the Bowling Green, near the subway entrance. In the center of the fountain, above the Elements, was a shaft comprised of sixteen glass tubes from which water tumbled. At the top, a colorful flame burned constantly.

Fountain of the Atom at night. 1939 New York World’s Fair newsreel. 1 min.

Courtesy Periscope Film

Maquette for Water, Fountain of the Atom, ca. 1938

Glazed earthenware

22 x 12 x 9 in.

Private collection

Fire

ca. 1940

Glazed earthenware

61 x 28 x 18 in.

Private collection

Female Electron with Lightning Bolt from Fountain of the Atom

ca. 1938

Glazed earthenware

50 x 25 x 25 in.

Collection of Martin Stogniew

Male Electron with Fins, from Fountain of Atom

ca. 1938

Glazed earthenware

48 x 26 x 26 in.

Private collection

Impressed by Fountain of the Atom, Albert Einstein is said to have told Gregory, “Young man, I wanted to meet the artist who gave honor to the atom.”

Artist and theoretical physicist struck up a friendship and later Gregory went to Princeton to sculpt Einstein’s portrait. Gregory sketched Einstein from the rear of the classroom while he was lecturing to students.

Einstein, ca. 1940

Earthenware 

15 x 5 x 6 in. 

Collection of Martin Stogniew 

Albert Einstein colorized by Michael W. Gorth

Technical Innovations

Gregory contributed several innovative techniques to the field of ceramics. Perhaps the most significant was the “honeycomb technique” he used during the mid- 1930s to produce his monumental sculptures.

Large clay sculptures are especially fragile before firing and can slump in the kiln. Gregory realized that support had to come from within a sculpture before and during its firing for it to be a successful work. Instead of relying on a vulnerable wood or metal armature, as many other artists did, he incorporated an internal web of small circular compartments into a large clay object.

The artist said he used more than 2,000 pounds of raw clay for some of his “ton”-sized sculptures. He fired them at cone 7 (a level of kiln firing) for up to three weeks, at a high temperature of 2400 degrees Fahrenheit. To this day, most large ceramic sculptures are fired in sections, but Gregory made his monumental sculptures in one piece, firing them only once.

Mother and Child, 1936 

Glazed earthenware

72 x 33 x 21 in. 

Alfred Ceramic Art Museum, Alfred University, New York, gift of the estate of Yolande Gregory, 2015.14

Gregory’s honeycomb technique.

The Swimmer is one of the first sculptures Gregory made using the “honeycomb” technique. Weighing over 1,000 pounds, the figure’s body is red terra cotta and unglazed. The work is also one of the artist’s first experiments with glass and ceramics. The waves portrayed display a glassy glaze of bright colors. Gregory referred to the work as an “air fountain,” because the fish could blow bubbles when submerged in water.

The Swimmer, with its maquette. Gregory archives

Maquette for The Swimmer, 1933

Earthenware with opalescent glazes 

13 x 10 x 7 in. 

Private collection 

Gregory’s experiments in glass became a major focus by the early 1940s. He developed a patented technique for fusing ceramics and glass.

Blue jeweled crystal bowl

ca. 1942

Glazed, fused earthenware and glass

6 1/2 x 2 in.

Kansas State University, Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Angelo C. Garzio Art Collection Fund, 2016.114

Bowl with pooling glass center

ca. 1942

Stoneware and glass

6 in. H x 14 in. D

Collection of Martin Stogniew

STUDIO AND PRODUCTION ART

At the same time he was sculpting his monumental terra cotta sculptures during the 1930s, Gregory was also creating small porcelain figures in his home studio, some of which he marketed through an exclusive design studio.

After 1942 the artist turned most of his attention to high end production porcelains, including vases and dinnerware. Gregory showed these porcelains at leading retail department stores, including Bonwit Teller in New York, Gump’s in San Francisco, Marshall Field’s in Chicago, and Neiman Marcus in Dallas.

Gregory’s popular polo plates were featured at New York City design shop, Rena Rosenthal.

Pair of polo plates

Porcelain

ca. 1935

10 1/2 in. D each

Private collection

Circular container with polo decoration, ca. 1935, graphite on paper, 9 x 9 in. Private collection 

Leda and the Swan, ca. 1935-1940

Porcelain with luster glaze

7 x 2 x 2 in.

Private collection

Assyrian vase

ca. 1944

Glazed and painted earthenware

19 x 12 in. D

Kansas State University, Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Angelo C. Garzio Art Collection Fund, 2016.113

Left: Orchid plate

Right: Geometric abstraction plate

ca. 1945

Porcelain with polychrome and luster glazes

10 in. D each

Private collection

In 1947 a critic singled out a platter in a Hammacher Schlemmer showing of Gregory’s porcelains, stating “there is a spectacular fish platter, with dashes of gold and a red lobster down the center.” The lobster platter may be unique.

Lobster platter

ca. 1946

Porcelain with polychrome and luster glazes

13 x 9 in.

Private collection

Heron vase

ca. 1942

Enameled glass

14 x 6 x 4 in.

Private collection