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Even the tall may feel dwarfed by the ceramic sculptures of Viola Frey. Some of the late artist's colossal figures, now on exhibit at the Racine Art Museum, stand 12 feet tall, while others weigh 2,000 pounds. And the size of these men and women of clay isn't their only distinguishing feature. Frey's use of bright colors and textured surfaces in her glazing process give her pieces a unique feel.

"There is a toy-like quality about them," said Bruce Pepich, executive director and curator of collections at the RAM.

Look closely at the sculptures, and you can see how the artist delighted in having unsmoothed surfaces on ceramics, Pepich said.

"You can feel, in her handling of the glazes, that her use of color came from the way she saw the world as a painter," he said. "The colors mingle and clash, and flow over each other, creating very active surfaces."

Frey, a California-based artist, spent the earliest part of her career dividing her focus between painting and ceramics. In graduate school, at Tulane University, she turned more of her attention to ceramics, but continued to move back and forth between media throughout her prolific career, transferring various techniques from one form to another.

Her innovations in both two and three-dimensional art can be seen in the RAM exhibition "Bigger, Better, More: The Art of Viola Frey," which features a selection of her paintings and ceramic plates, in addition to the larger-than-life figures.

Organized in conjunction with the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, the RAM show is the first major exhibition of the artist's work since her death in 2004 at the age of 70. The 22 pieces featured are on loan from art museums around the country, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Norton Museum of Art in Florida.

Piece by piece

Getting Frey's larger works of art into the RAM's galleries was no simple task, according to David Zaleski, curatorial clerical assistant at the museum. Three years of preparation went into the exhibit's April 24 opening here, and one of the trickiest aspects of that preparation was the shipping, unpacking and assembling of the ceramic pieces.

"The logistics of installing a show like this can be very, very complicated," Zaleski said during a recent, public behind-the-scenes tour of the exhibition offered as part of the RAM's new "Meet Me on the Patio" series.

Each ceramic figure is constructed out of a number of parts (which are bolted together), and each part is shipped in a separate crate. Parts of Frey's "Weeping Woman" sculpture, for example, arrived in 32 different crates, some of which weighed as much as 600 pounds, Zaleski explained.

"The vast majority of the crates were custom-built for this show," he said. "And some pieces had to be double-crated. The safety of the artwork is the most important consideration."

Way of life

The RAM staff got some much-appreciated help with the assembly of Frey's figures from Sam Perry, who served as the artist's assistant for 17 years. Perry, who came to Racine for four days to help install the exhibit, was originally a student of Frey's at the California College of the Arts and went on to work closely with her in her studio until the day she died.

Frey's devotion to her artwork is what kept her going, even after she became ill, Perry said in a recent phone interview. Throughout her career, she spent most of her time either teaching or working in her studio.

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"She was not good at sitting at home all day. Art was her life - 365 days a year."

An incredibly generous person, Frey could also be demanding at times, Perry said. "She liked things set up and done in a certain way."

At the same time, she was a tireless worker who was not afraid to try new things.

"She didn't want to be pigeon-holed," he said.

Frey's inspiration for new directions in her work often came from objects she gathered around her - including a vast collection of "tchotchkes" (small knickknacks) which were displayed in her studio. She was also a "huge collector of media," purchasing many books, magazines and journals each year, from which she gleaned images that appealed to her, Perry said.

She was not, however, someone who sat around, talking about her feelings, he said.

"Whatever she was feeling, she put that into her artwork."

If You Go

WHAT: "Bigger, Better, More: The Art of Viola Frey"

WHEN: Through Aug. 16. Museum hours are 10 a.m.

to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday (closed Mondays, federal holidays and Easter).

WHERE: Racine Art Museum, 441 Main St.

COST: Admission to the museum is $5 adults; $3 seniors, students and young adults (12-18). Children younger than 12 are admitted free.

INFO: Go to: http://www.ramart.org or call (262) 638-8300.

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