Louisiana sculptor Angela Gregory’s work on exhibit at Taylor Clark Gallery
The sound was her calling, pure and perfect at the moment the stonecutter’s hammer made contact with the chisel.
Angela Gregory was maybe 4 or 5 when she first heard it. She was living in New Orleans, the city in which she would grow up, leave for Paris then return to live and work.
She probably could have stayed in Paris and built on her artist’s reputation, but she didn’t.
Maybe she should have fallen in love and married her Paris dance partner, writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell. But that didn’t happen, either.
That was not her calling. Gregory knew when hearing that pure, clear sound in childhood that she would be an artist, that her life would be dedicated to her work.
And she knew that sculpture would be her medium, shaping her sculptures in plaster and, yes, cutting stone. It’s what she went to learn at the Parson’s School of Fine and Applied Art in Paris after graduating Newcomb College in 1925.
It’s what gave her the courage to knock on Antoine Bourdelle’s door after her arrival.
He was Auguste Rodin’s protegé, and Gregory would become his, absorbing everything she could before returning to the place where she first heard the sound to pursue her calling.
The rest of her story can be found here, where a 7-foot maquette, or plaster model, for Gregory’s bronze Bienville monument serves as the gateway to a survey exhibition of Gregory’s works in Taylor Clark Gallery, a show which runs through Dec. 31.
New Orleans residents know Jean Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville’s sculpture well. It stands on the edge of the French Quarter between North Peters and Decatur streets. The city’s founder is perched on top while a Catholic priest conducts Mass on one side and a Native American sits at the base on the other.
The monument was Gregory’s largest piece. It originally was erected at the Bienville Plaza near the New Orleans Union railroad station in April 1955 by Franco-American-Canadian Project and was moved to its present location, known as Bienville Place, in November 1996.
But it’s in Taylor Clark Gallery where visitors can see the beginning, the smaller maquette that would evolve into the giant of the monument. And in the room behind it? Maquettes of the people and places in Gregory’s life.
They’re all here, forever frozen in sculpture, never growing old, always looking directly into their viewers’ eyes.
“And you may think that the person over there is John F. Kennedy, but it isn’t,” Susan Hymel said. “Everyone thinks it’s Kennedy, but it’s Joseph Campbell.”
Yes, Campbell, who forged a lifelong friendship with Gregory. Their letters even play a big part in Stephen Larsen’s 1991 biography, Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind.
“A lot of people ask why she and Joseph Campbell didn’t get married,” Hymel said. “That’s not what her life was about. She dedicated herself to her work.”
Hymel also was a friend to Gregory. The two met when Gregory was slated to speak at Our Lady of the Holy Cross College in New Orleans, where Hymel was a student. The college was staging a sculpture exhibit and asked Gregory’s advice on what to show. Hymel was working with the professor putting the show together and acted as a guide of sorts while Gregory was visiting the college.
The two kept in touch. Now Hymel can be called Gregory’s historian.
Put it this way: if Gregory’s biography is ever to be written, Hymel is the perfect person for the job. She has collected information and papers on Gregory and written articles on the sculptor.
But her friendship with Gregory gives her something more — insight.
For it’s through everyday conversations and discussions that a person shares his or her perspectives. Gregory’s had an added dimension of stories about the people she knew. Now, don’t take that the wrong way. Gregory was not in any way a name dropper. The names woven into her conversations simply were the people who flowed in and out of her life.
Such as sculptor Frank Hayden. His work is revered throughout the world. He was a student at Xavier University in New Orleans when he first met Gregory, and he would receive guidance from her before moving on to the University of Notre Dame to study with the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic.
“His professor sent him to Angela,” Hymel said. “She said they sat at her kitchen table and talked. Imagine that, just talking at the kitchen table with Frank Hayden.”
Yet it made sense.
“Angela lived in the home where she grew up on Pine Street in Uptown New Orleans,” Hymel said. “When she returned to New Orleans from Paris, her father built a two-story studio on to the house for her, and the kitchen opened up at the studio. So, when you were sitting at her kitchen table, you were looking straight into the studio.”
Hymel is suddenly silent. She casts a quick glance around the gallery, where her friend’s work spans decades. There are so many stories to tell, maybe too many to convey in one visit.
First there are the basics. Gregory was born in New Orleans in 1903. She was the daughter of William B. Gregory, an engineering professor at Tulane University, and Selina Bres Gregory, a Newcomb potter.
Selina Gregory also was a painter. “And Angela and her mother were close,” Hymel said. “Angela took her mother to Paris with her when the Bienville monument was being cast there. Her mother died in Paris on that trip.”
Both parents encouraged Gregory’s artistic career, which, as Hymel wrote in a 2004 article for Country Roads magazine, left “a body of work reflecting history and culture of twentieth-century Louisiana” ... including, “architectural sculpture on public buildings, historical monuments, portrait busts, bas relief memorial portraits, medals and even a stamp commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans.”
Gregory studied with Ellsworth Woodword at Newcomb College as an arts and crafts camper in the Newcomb Summer Program in 1917 and studied sculpture with Charles Keck in his New York studio from 1920 to 1924.
She earned her bachelor of arts degree from Newcomb College in 1925, then it was on to the Parson School in Paris.
“She spoke fluently in French, and she said she would sit outside Bourdelle’s studio, trying get up the courage to knock on his door,” Hymel said. “She said she finally knocked on the door one day. Here was this American woman who could speak French explaining that she wanted to learn to cut stone. He invited her in.”
And he instructed her step-by-by step, giving her a final test in the end. He presented her with a stone carving of the head of Jesus. If she could reproduce the head using the techniques he’d taught her, she would pass.
“And she passed,” Hymel said.
Bourdelle clearly was impressed by his student, so much that he gave her a cutting tool that Rodin had passed along to him.
Gregory’s work was featured in a solo exhibition in Paris in 1928 before she returned home to her first commission, which would be sculptures of pelicans for the Criminal Courts Building in New Orleans.
Back in Taylor Clark Gallery, gallery president George Clark takes out a flyer highlighting a photograph of Gregory working on one of those pelicans in her home studio. Her hair is cut in the popular bob of the era, and she wears a large smock.
And before her is the pelican, large and majestic.
One of those pelicans is now a part of the Louisiana State Museum’s collection and is on exhibit in the Presbytere next to the St. Louis Cathedral.
All of this is amazing when considering that sculpture was a male-domimated world when Gregory began her work. But that didn’t deter others from recognizing her talent, because her next commission would be sculpting eight relief profiles for the Louisiana State Capitol.
That was in 1931, and architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie was her supervisor on the project. The reliefs are located on the capitol’s second story, and maquettes for seven of those reliefs are part of the Taylor Clark exhibit, as is the maquette for the head of Aesculapius she sculpted for the Hutchinson Memorial Building at Tulane Medical School.
Aesculapius is the god of healing and medicine in Greek mythology. The Pennington Research Center has purchased the maquette in this exhibit for its new building under construction.
There are so many other highlights in Gregory’s timeline. She taught at Newcomb Art School, earned her master’s degree in architecture from Tulane University and was appointed the state supervisor for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project in Louisiana, where she worked with Caroline Durieux.
Now, here’s the part that calls for a little Hollywood intrigue. The best part? It’s better than anything Hollywood can project on a big screen, because it’s real.
Gregory’s abilities attracted the attention of the U.S. War Department in 1941. Of course, that agency is now the Department of Defense, which contracted her to develop camouflage.
Not a big deal, right? But when considering her camouflage was created to hide New Orleans’ Pendleton Shipyards from a prospective enemy attack, then it becomes a major deal. “I don’t know what she did to make the camouflage,” Hymel said. “She didn’t explain it to me. But that was what she was doing during World War II. She also served as a personnel counselor at Pendleton Shipyards.”
And afterward? Gregory continued making art, creating, among other pieces, the bronze rail around the state relief map in the State Capitol’s Memorial Hall, murals for Louisiana National Bank on Third Street and a monument to Gen. Henry Watkins Allen for the West Baton Rouge Parish courthouse in Port Allen.
“She was commended by French President Charles de Gaulle in 1972,” Hymel said. “She really lived an amazing life.” Not to mention fascinating. Gregory died in New Orleans in 1990, yet she lives through her work, which began with the call of hammer against chisel.
“She was the speaker at our exhibition at Holy Cross,” Hymel said. “And I remember seeing her standing before the audience with a chisel in one hand and a hammer in the other. There was a big block of ice on a table next to her, and she told the story of when she was a child. She was around 4 years old, and she was sitting in a building, and there were workers outside.”
One of those workers was a stonecutter. “She said she always remembered the sound when he hit the chisel,” Hymel said. “Then she took the chisel, and put it on the block of ice and hit it with her chisel. She said, when it’s done right, the sound is perfect.”
It also calls.
And Gregory followed.