Peter Voulkos: An Affirmation of Art and Life

The nineteenth century realist Emile Zola proclaimed, “I am an artist…. I am here to live out loud” and Peter Voulkos did.

Peter lived a courageous life; a life with sincerity, passion, integrity and respect. The magnitude of his accomplishments and the revolutionary vision of his work will live on in the museums and collections throughout the world. Students will study it indefinitely. No less important is the direct effect he has had on those who were a part of his life; the way he rubbed off on them, and the accomplishments they have had and will continue to have after his death. Peter was the father of a movement that is in its infancy, and has only begun to be characterized. Its history continues to unfold in the works and deeds of those who he inspired.

Since the spring of 1999, I had the opportunity to live and to work with Peter Voulkos. I assisted him in the construction of sixteen major stacks, one of which is over seven feet tall. We also worked together on numerous plates as well as a monumental ice bucket titled ‘Gaudi’. Throughout this involvement we lived with each other for nearly six months, from morning until night. I was with him during his last days, and it is from this perspective that I write about this truly great man and his creative process.

My first real encounter with Peter’s work was in 1984. I was delivering work for one of my teachers from the Kansas City Art Institute to a Chicago art gallery. On exhibit was a Voulkos piece called “Two Brick Stack.” I literally slept next to it for three nights. I traced every line, texture, movement and moment of that incredible piece. This was my first ART experience; the first time I realized the power of sculpture. I asked myself, ‘What kind of man could and would make this thing?’ Eighteen years later, and I am still finding out.

I met Peter in his home in the early 90’s, subsequently firing three stacks and several plates in my Denver Anagama, meeting and corresponding occasionally. During this same period of time, I was also fortunate to develop a relationship with another incredible artist, Jun Kaneko. In late 1998 a phone call from Jun changed my life. He called to tell me that he was inviting Peter Voulkos to his Omaha Nebraska studio to make some new work and did I know anyone that would be able to assist him. I immediately answered yes- me. I suggested that we do a workshop together at Bowling Green State University in Ohio where I had just begun teaching, in order to see if we would work well together. The Bowling Green Workshop took place in spring1999 and the big project in Omaha took place the following summer at Kaneko’s studio.

For me, the chain of events was terrific. Everything fit when we worked on a piece together; we hardly needed to talk about where the piece was going. It was a clear relationship- Peter made all of the aesthetic decisions and I tried to anticipate where he was headed. I wanted to give him whatever support I could. All of the work that we made together followed a similar procedure. We would throw a bunch of parts on the wheel- plates, cylinders, thick bars- all raw materials for the fabrication. I came to discover that Peter’s creative process was actually quite different than had been previously characterized by art historians. For instance, writers have tended to overemphasize the aggressive, hack and slash, take-no-prisoners approach to his work. Violence and machismo were not a part of what I saw in the work or the man. When Peter touched the clay there was no ego, only courage. His knowledge of the material was complete; he knew how to work with the clay and through it. I noticed that when we were building a piece, it became a series of movements that took place through a kind of protracted moment in time. It was a much slower dance than one might guess. As Pete would initially touch the clay, he began to improvise, responding to the moment, conscious of the past but always moving forward. I can not remember him ever second guessing himself- he would move over every area of the piece with care and vigilance, constantly tuned in to what was happening to the clay. Over the course of a work session, he would come to a point of saturation. It seemed that the clay and his body always needed a break at the same time.

At the end of the day when his mind had time to digest it all, he would begin to think about where the piece might go tomorrow and what was on tonight’s menu. Often, Pete would tell me in the morning over coffee that he had been dreaming about the piece all night, saying, “I know what I am going to do with that neck.” After a day of work at Jun’s studio, we would go up to our apartment, make a couple of Bloody Mary’s and watch the video of what we had done that day. It was like he was a coach reviewing a game film…only much funnier. During the video he would see things that he couldn’t see while in the middle of the piece. It was fascinating to Pete (and to me) to see the way the eye of the camera was able to capture different information than he was able to see.

Throughout our working together I was constantly amazed by the depth and intensity of the intellectual commitment he put into each piece, despite all the social activities and business decisions that were invariably going on everyday. Over this entire period of time he never gave up on or fell short on any piece he made. Once he started a piece he did not stop working on it until it was done. He also had a very specific idea about what ‘being done’ meant. His production over the last three years of his life was nothing short of phenomenal. In addition to the pieces that I helped him with, he was still making at least one or more stacks a year with Peter Callas in New Jersey. He also made several other works with the assistance of Conrad Snyder at Anderson Ranch and Sam Harvey at Alfred. The energy and stamina he put into his work over this period of time is truly amazing- he was still turned on.

In Pete’s mind, every piece he was working on was the most important he had ever done- and I believed him. He was operating on a level of maturity in his art that can only come from a life well lived, from a person who is in touch with the world. A trait of most artists is the ability to observe what is around them, and in this Peter was no exception. However, Peter always went a step further; he engaged life, he lit up a room, literally and figuratively. As Rudy Autio put it “If Frank Sinatra was in the same room with Pete, Sinatra would be like wall paper.” He radiated warmth to anyone that was sincere, engaging everyone and everything that came across his bow.

Peter was well aware of his stature as an artist; he knew that he possessed a kind of gravity that pulled people toward him. For his long-time friend Rudy Autio, it was a fifty-year journey. For Jun Kaneko, it started thirty-eight years ago with his arrival to the US. For me it has been eighteen years. For my students it was this last visit to Bowling Green, and for the waitress we met last Christmas it was only that one time at lunch. You could not resist him. He digested all of life’s moments and then let it out the work- it was magic.

John Cage wrote “Ten Rules and Hints for Students and Teachers and Anybody Else.” Pete himself taught me the last two rules. Number 9- Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It is lighter than you think, and Number 10- We are breaking all the rules, even our own rules, and how do we do that? By leaving room for X qualities. Pete had a sense of the profound and the absurd, digesting all of life’s moments and bringing it to his work. I was always searching for his secret, to see if there was some kind of trick to it, and there wasn’t. It was brilliance, unabashed and rock solid.