Hope and Humility
Waylande Gregory's Beaten Dog
In 1928, following several years of study under Loredo Taft at the Art Institute of Chicago and Taft’s Midway Studios, Waylande Gregory took a position as the lead sculptor at Cowan Pottery in Cleveland. He remained at Cowan until 1931 when they were forced to close due to the Great Depression. While there, he sought to create a distinctly American visual style and was heavily influenced by the Cleveland School as well as his admired contemporary, artist and sculptor Paul Manship. Many of Gregory’s most famous works at Cowan—Nautch Dancer, to name but one—are sleek yet voluminous forms marked by a focus on dynamism and movement. However, true to what would become a hallmark of his career, Gregory dabbled in other aesthetics and styles, with perhaps his most triumphant departure being his Beaten Dog.
The small tabletop sculpture confronts the viewer with a hunched, starving canine, head down and ribs protruding. Gregory avoided modeling fur so as to better emphasize the animal’s precarious state, which he then coated in a mirror-like black glaze. Its smooth surface combined with the minimalist glaze made for a striking, modern effect. An example of Beaten Dog was shown at the Cleveland School of Art’s 1931 May Show where it was awarded first prize in ceramic sculpture, with one critic praising the piece as an “unassuming...work of art but nevertheless one of the most completely satisfying things in the whole exhibition.” It is unknown how many of the Beaten Dog were ever made, but precious few have survived. Though seemingly insignificant owing to its small stature and heartbreaking appearance, the piece was in fact very close to Gregory’s heart: he based it on a stray dog he had found near a highway and then nursed back to health. The deep connection he felt to the work is best described in the artist’s own words:
“The little dog was cowering on the highway where it had been cast away and lost. I brought it home to the studio to nurse it back to health and wrapped it in a warm towel by the fire. Hunched up there, afraid and grateful, it feebly kissed my hand and touched my heart. It seemed to represent to me all the loneliness and despair...the poor, the miserable and homeless of this world, the epitome of rejection and the tragic in life. This dog had no proud pedigree bearing, not even a collar or license. It was just a plain, nondescript little homeless dog that somehow came into being in the mystery of this world. It was suffering and I could help it. And it occurred to me that I could do more. I would sculpture [sic] it in its humility and praise it as a living thing—a creature of feeling and suffering, and capable of gratitude, joy and love…(as it later proved abundantly as it recovered and had a happy life). So I sculptured the little beaten outcast dog just as it shivered by the fire...And if I had sculptured the finest champion of the kennels, or the king of the dog shows, the sculptured piece could not have been more gratifying or successful.”
Gregory's resulting masterpiece successfully subverted the genre of animal sculpture and remains a visually arresting meditation on the fragility of life and the potential for hope even in the midst of great suffering and despair.