“I have decided to become a sculptor. How do you like that? I made up my mind long ago to be an artist and I think I will like that best of all.” With this proclamation, made to her father at the age of fourteen, Angela Gregory determined her life’s path—early on and with confidence. Having grown up in an artistic household on the Tulane University campus in New Orleans—her mother, Selina Bres Gregory, was a painter and potter associated with Newcomb College and a founding member of the Arts and Crafts Club—Gregory was all too familiar with both the joys and challenges of a creative life. Her course set, she spent the summer of 1917 studying clay modeling and relief casting; in 1921, she enrolled as an undergraduate at Newcomb, where her professors included Ellsworth Woodward and Will Henry Stevens.
Upon her graduation from Newcomb in 1925, Gregory earned a scholarship to study illustrative advertising at the Paris branch of the Parsons School of Design. While honored by the award, Gregory’s true objective was realized a year later when she was admitted to the teaching studio of sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, whose expressive style reflected his tenure as an assistant to Auguste Rodin. Keenly aware of the obstacles she would encounter in a “notoriously masculine field,” Gregory asked Bourdelle: “Do you think I have enuf [sic] talent to go on with sculpture or do you think I should develop my interest in painting?” The Frenchman answered with a question of his own: “Did anyone tell Joan of Arc she should rid France of the English? She wanted to do it and she did. It is your decision.” Her unconventional professional path was matched by her equally unconventional resolve to remain single. Gregory, who had watched her mother subordinate her own artistic ambitions to domestic responsibilities, recognized that “too often a woman is torn by conflicting obligations, as a mother, a wife, sister, daughter. Unless she can stay on the track, she becomes a dilettante.”
When her European sojourn ended after three years, Gregory regretfully returned to New Orleans. Although she complained of the city’s relative lack of culture and oppressive heat, she resolutely set to work, building friendships along the way with other artists including Helen Turner and Josephine Crawford. One of her first undertakings was the “Negro Project,” in which she studied African American residents of Port Gibson, Mississippi. The project resulted in some of her most admired works. Comparable to these Port Gibson works, Head of a Woman portrays a serene, mask-form head of a sitter with contemplative, downcast eyes, and softly pursed lips. The surface is smooth in the rounded areas of her forehead, cheeks, and chin, while the hair and neck are depicted with crevices and folds. Imbued with what Gregory termed “quiet dignity,” Head of a Woman conveys the artist’s insistence on emotional authenticity, as well as her sensitivity to African American culture in the region.
Angela Gregory built a national and international reputation, and her body of work includes large-scale architectural decoration, bas-relief portraits, plaques, and medals. Over her long career, she was employed as a state supervisor for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Program, an assistant architectural consultant to the Army Corps of Engineers, and a camouflage designer; she also taught at both Newcomb and St. Mary’s Dominican College. In one of the many eulogies given at her memorial service, the dean of Newcomb College remembered Gregory’s vision and courage, traits that forged a pioneering “life that was full of compassion and ribbed with experience and art.”