Theriault on Gray

{Legacy Craft Series}

Verdelle Gray had a background as a dancer, shown here in her dignified posture and in the balletic poses of her signature ceramic frogs and other whimsical creatures. Gray’s ultramodern Nativity creche raised some eyebrows in its day. Photos used courtesy of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

Ceramic sculptor Verdelle Gray was born in 1918 and moved to Asheville in 1962, opening her own art studio. She continued to work there five or six days a week for more than 30 years. Gray introduced her husband to the craft world, and he subsequently served a lengthy tenure as director of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, where the Robert W. Gray Library Collection (on the second floor of the Folk Art Center) is named after him. Potter Lori Theriault, who owns Crazy Green Studios and is a founding collective member of The Village Potters, reflects on Verdelle Gray’s enduring influence. 

Photos used courtesy of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

Why was Verdelle Gray known as “the frog lady?”

Lori Theriault: She made these little ceramic dancing frogs, which were one of the most popular items at the Guild and at gift shops for years and years. But today they are rare and hard to find, which makes them rather mythical.

What was their appeal?

Verdelle had a background as a dancer. She brought that understanding of movement to her work to make the frogs come alive in a way that is delightful and makes you smile. She also did other whimsical animals like a chicken, pig, and fish.

Photos used courtesy of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

What’s her connection to you?

I also do some whimsical animal pieces, and people often ask if I was influenced by her. I wasn’t that familiar with her work, so I started looking into it and realized we could be kindred spirits. 

It’s hard to find information about her.

That speaks somewhat to the time she was in, which predated the Information Age. Frida Kahlo was one of her contemporaries. That was an era of surrealism and magical realism. In 1957 Verdelle developed a piece for the holiday issue of Ceramics Monthly, a nativity scene that was very fresh and innovative for her time. 

How so? 

The figures in the crèche scene are all abstractions. None of them are figurative.

Photos used courtesy of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

Some people would find that subversive, especially back then.

Exactly. She wanted complete control of what she wanted to express. And it’s multimedia. She got on a lathe and turned a piece of wood for the manger. 

If so little is known about her, how has she had such an outsized influence?

Through her connection to the Guild she was exposed to many up-and-coming artists. She exemplified the spirit of what the Guild is, not just through her craft. She exuded the joy of her life as a potter, and wanted to mentor and encourage others, even if they didn’t do the same kind of work. 

She mentored others in what it means to live a creative life?

Yes. She said, “You can create the life you want for yourself,” and she showed that it is totally possible. 

 

Gathering for American Craft Week

Sheeples, by Lori Theriault

American Craft Week is a national celebration highlighting objects handmade in the U.S. Artists, galleries, museums, festivals, craft schools, and statewide tours will participate with public events from Friday, Oct. 2, through Sunday, Oct. 11. 

This 10-day “week” is full of activities large and small, hosted by individuals and large organizations. As a major craft center, Western North Carolina will offer a wide variety of happenings, including a virtual multi-kiln opening at The Village Potters. Learn more at americancraftweek.com/wnc. 

Archival objects by Verdelle Gray are on occasional display at the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, southernhighlandguild.org). 

Lori Theriault’s creations can be found at The Village Potters Clay Center (thevillagepotters.com), Crazy Green Studios (crazygreenstudios.com), and on Instagram and Facebook (@crazygreenstudios, @thevillagepotters, @homemadetastesbetteronhandmade, @sheeplesneedpeoples ). 

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