Q and Art: Viola Frey

This post is part of an ongoing series on Eye Level: Q and Art, where American Art's Research department brings you interesting questions and answers about art and artists from our archive. If you enjoy this post, take a look at others in our series.

Question: What is Lady in Blue and Yellow Dress by Viola Frey made of?

Answer: Lady in Blue and Yellow Dress is one of many larger than life-size figures created by Viola Frey from glazed earthenware. Because clay can be fragile, it may be a surprising medium for a nine foot tall sculpture. With most ceramic objects (a vase, teapot, or figurine), we can imagine holding them with one or two hands. We are usually larger than the clay object. However, Frey's monumental figures reverse the relationship between artwork and viewer, and in her words, "they enter our personal space even from the other side of the room." According to the artist, the illusion of movement is accomplished "partly by distorting the proportions of the figure, by enlarging the head and hands."

In addition to the scale, multiple layers of brightly colored glazes are a vital element in animating Frey's work: "The way one paints the figure is also crucial. I often work against the logic of light and shade, painting in a section of strong color where one would not ordinarily expect it so that it jumps out and advances the figure. I want the figures to get as close to the viewer as possible. I don't want them to crush or overwhelm, but I do want them to intrude."

Although Frey is well known for her giant Every Man and Every Woman sculptures, she was also concerned with small subject matter, specifically figurines, toys and knick knacks that she purchased at flea markets. She enjoyed the spontaneity of arranging the objects into eclectic compositions, and she recorded the groupings in photographs, paintings or sculptures. Self Portrait with Toys is an example of one of these works.

To read more about Viola Frey and her work look for the following books at your library or bookstore: It's All Part of the Clay: Viola Frey and Bigger, Better, More: The Art of Viola Frey by Davira S. Taragin and Patterson Sims with Susan Jefferies (all artist quotes mentioned here are from this publication).