Object of the Week: The Performers by Thelma Frazier Winter
Thelma Frazier Winter (1903-1977) began exploring art at a young age and, in her own words, “did hardly anything else so that an art career seemed to be inevitable.” In 1929, she graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art, where Julius Mihalik, an artist and teacher who traveled and taught in Vienna before arriving in Cleveland, first introduced her to ceramics. While a student, Winter also worked as a designer at Cowan Pottery alongside several important Cleveland-based ceramists, including Waylande Gregory, Viktor Schreckengost, Edris Eckhardt, and Edward Winter (who she married in 1939). While Winter never traveled to Europe herself, she drew influence from the Viennese ceramic style through work made by her peers. After visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s International Exhibition of Ceramic Arts in 1928, Schreckengost and Edward Winter traveled to Vienna to study with Michael Powolny. They returned to Cleveland several months later and began making work that reflected their deep respect and admiration for the Viennese style. Winter, in turn, absorbed the humor, whimsy, playfulness, and fun of the Viennese ceramics into her own work.Winter first exhibited her work in 1934 at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show, an annual juried exhibition featuring local artists, participating in the show every year until 1949. She debuted in the Ceramic Nationals at the Everson Museum in 1935, participating in most National exhibitions until 1958. Winter contributed The Performers to the 14th Ceramic National in 1949.Similar to her fellow Cleveland ceramists, Winter often sculpted jugglers, dancers, and circus performers, as well as characters from mythological stories. In the mid-1940s, her free-flowing, loose style of sculpting gave way to more compact sculptures with harder edges, perhaps influenced by Winter’s growing interest in playing card illustration and medieval polychrome wood sculpture. Although sculpted from clay, The Performers resembles wood sculptures made by artists in the Middle Ages, with its strong color, compressed proportions, and facial expressions.Along with her work as a ceramist, Winter made a significant impact on ceramic arts education as a longtime teacher in the Cleveland area. She taught at public high schools in and around the city, as well as at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She was also a prolific writer, contributing regularly to Design magazine, a publication written for art educators, students, and designers that grew out of Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s Keramic Studio. The Performers is currently on view in Key Figures: Representational Ceramics 1932-1972 through June 23, 2019.
-Steffi Chappell, Assistant Curator