Wednesday, June 29, 2016

fran williams wagner - mid-century dynamo

"You have to see her work Lisa," said Jody Darrow emphatically, "it's wonderful and you'll love it!"  I'd gotten to know Jody and a number of her resident friends from Masonic Village who regularly patronized the gallery, but I have to admit I was skeptical.  There is hardly a day that goes by in the art business where someone isn't being touted as the must-see.  I have built Lynden Gallery on long-term relationships with established artists and their collectors and rarely follow through on these suggestions, but Jody wasn't taking my complacency for a "no".  

A couple of weeks later I received a call from Jody.  "Are you there?  I'm coming right now with Fran's work."  And in she marched several minutes later with a friend, their arms full of large sketchbooks.  I met her at the consult desk and we started to page through the books of Fran's mostly figurative sketches dating back to the mid-century.  I didn't have to be nudged further and immediately began to form ideas in my head for an exhibition around this body of work.  

I learned early on in the gallery business figurative work is often how artists hone their skills, no matter the medium in which they work.  Fran's sketchbook pages were often rich layers of images - sometimes two to three to a page, or the reverse side bleeding through.  She played in graphite, marker, colored pencil, pastel and charcoal depending on the mood and what was at hand.  

Plans for an exhibition came to fruition after meeting Fran for the first time - I found myself intrigued by her stories and wanting to know more about her and her work.  "From the Journals of Fran and Flo: Fran Williams Wagner and Florence Starr Taylor"  opened at Lynden Gallery in February 2007 as our popular bi-annual Chocolate, Jazz, and Figure show in honor of Valentine's Day.  The exhibition featured work from the sketchbooks of these two artists - most of which were displayed suspended from the ceiling for images to be viewed on both sides.  

The show was a rousing success with Fran in attendance accompanied by her caregivers and well-wishers, and we mutually decided the gallery would continue to represent her work.  In 2010 at the age of 93 Fran passed away and I was contacted regarding her remaining work.  Once in possession of her numerous scrapbooks, sketchbooks, and a few ceramic pieces (I suggested the Village disperse her needlework to her numerous caregivers, though I do wish now I'd kept one for myself!) I had the opportunity to immerse myself in learning more about this remarkable woman.  

I knew that Fran had been a ceramicist as a few of her wallhangings still hung in her small room at the Village when I visited her, but I hadn't realized the scope of her work until I began reading through her scrapbooks.  Miami Herald Art Editor, Doris Reno described her terra cotta and red clay figurative sculptures when she exhibited as a member of the Miami Art League in the 1940's -  "highly intriguing, fresh and clever and definitely different from other work in that medium we've seen displayed."  In 1951 Nelli Bower, covering an exhibition at Miami Beach Art Center said of ceramic and stone figures "...fine simplicity of line and unusual glazes stamp her as one of Miami's foremost artists in the field."  

By 1953 Fran was beginning to exhibit tile wall hangings.  A quote in Florida Home Magazine described the work: "without exception the pieces exhibited by Fran Williams show a versatility and a master of color and form in addition to an exceptional ability with glazes."   She had begun by then to teach ceramics, focusing on her unique glazing techniques, and quickly found her work included in articles and on covers of decor publications.   She caught the attention of major architects and designers and by the 1960's was sought for commissions of large scale mural work - a partial list of clients can be found on our website.

The details of the individually designed and fired tiles are striking to be sure, and the few remaining works I have in my possession are truly spectacular as miniature examples of her larger works.  The sketchbooks provide insight into her working process, determining coloration and proportion with determined line - almost deco-like in it's feel and purpose.

The 1970's continued to be fruitful years for Fran's mural work, taking her to Puerto Rico, Washington DC, and New York City.  In the February 8, 1970 addition of the Sunday Miami Herald her work was lauded on the front page of the Home Section with a full article by Kay Murphy, Home Furnishings Editor and included photographs showing her at work on a mural for the National Airlines Ticket Office, Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York.  

An excellent description of her work is included in this article: "She either paints designs with glazes on tiles, then fires them in one of the three kilns in her two-story studio - in all three if it's a rush job.  Or she works bits and pieces of tiles, brick, stone, cork or wood into the mural she has in mind.  Partition blocks and other ceramic forms frequently show up in her three-dimensional art.  Occasionally she leaves a few bits and pieces unglazed - for contrast." 

"When I say bits and pieces in reference to Fran's work, I'm using these words loosely.  Most of these bits and pieces are precision cut - or shaped - with a diamond saw.  Some of the things she puts in her murals retain their original shape... and others must fit around them.  Installers have no trouble solving her puzzles.  She mounts tiles on wood panels, leaving exposed those areas where mural is to be bolted to the wall.  Tiles that go in these areas are numbered so installers know exactly where they are to be placed." 

Fran's enthusiasm for life is evident as one pages through her old photographs - this is one of my favorites.  Kay Murphy captured her in the end of her article saying, "Fran is not an early riser 'by nature.   The cats wake me early because they want to be fed.'  After coffee and the Today Show on TV, Fran usually moves to the studio.  Here gardening tools hang alongside the 'tools of my trade.'  She relaxes by poking around in the plants - or by reading, although much of the latter is 'required research.'  At one time she was an avid shell collector.  'Another time I chased butterflies.'  

The screen-enclosed first floor level of the studio is a pleasant place to work because it overlooks the garden... Wind chimes tinkle in the breeze.  The sound of music drifts from inside the house.  Cats purr-talk occasionally... And the artist works surrounded by what she loves - and does - best."

No wonder I liked her so much.

Fran Williams Wagner's sketchbook selections are on display and for sale at the Arts Hotel Gallery, Lancaster Arts Hotel, Lancaster, Pennsylvania from July through October 2016.  Additional drawings and block prints by Fran will be included at the Lynden Gallery's Mid-Century Modern exhibition featuring works by Picasso, Miro, Goya, Lautrec and more.  An Opening Jazz Reception will be held Friday, July 15th from 6:00 - 9:00 pm.  More information about the exhibition can be found at