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Peter Voulkos

By Nathan Oliveira

Like myself, Peter Voulkos was a west coast artist; he lived and centered his life and work in Berkeley where he maintained his studio and worked, grew his family and taught at the University of California, Berkeley for thirty years.

For those who do not know who Peter was, he was among the foremost American sculptors of the late 20th century who devoted the majority of his creative life making sculpture out of tired earth, or ceramics. Peter Voulkos and I were friends for over 50 years, and how do we, those that knew and loved him and his work, deal with such a loss? It is like losing a mountain, it is as if suddenly Mount Shasta vanished after being there through one’s entire lifetime—the feeling being much like we Americans all experienced with the tragedy of the World Trade Center. He was gone. He was a true artist and an international figure with a large following in the U.S., Europe, and especially Japan where his work was associated with the ancient techniques of the Japanese wood fire ceramic kiln. The Japanese have a great reverence for Peter’s work, whether it was on an intimate and small scale, or on the huge scale which broke all laws governing conventional ceramics. Peter, in fact, elevated the concept of modern ceramics from decorative teacups to heroic sculptural statements made of clay, or dirt, as he liked to put it. What more fundamental material to use as a means of expressing the nature of man or mankind? Peter was that kind of an individual—one born from the earth as well as out of his beloved Greek heritage.

His work was shown throughout the world and he received major prizes and awards over the years, among them the 1955 Gold Medal at the International Exposition of Ceramics in Cannes, and in 1959, the Rodin Prize in Sculpture from the Musee d’Arts Moderne in Paris. The list of solo exhibitions and awards are too numerous to list.

Pete remained a west coast artist all of his life, the reason being that the weather was Mediterranean—an essential aspect of his life. He almost never forgave his mother and father for immigrating from the warm waters of the Greek islands to one of the most beautiful but coldest areas of our nation, Bozeman, Montana. Peter was a Greek-American and the physical warmth of his environment was as fundamental as the clay that he chose to use as an expressive visual language.

Nevertheless, he spent considerable time on the east coast, where he knew and admired many artists, and at moments, like myself, considered becoming part of it. He thought so until the winter would come, and after it did, he quickly returned to warm himself near his kilns in Berkeley.

He was among those artists I have known who actually created his own and different world. He changed night into day, and worked pretty much through the entire darkness of the night. When I would visit him, we all would go to San Francisco across the bay in the early morning light to breakfast on Chinese noodles and hot tea so as to neutralize the scotch that we had during the course of the evening. He would return to Berkeley to go to bed and sleep through the day, and then awake to repeat his personal ritual once again, starting in the late afternoon. To visit him, one entered into a unique world going through the doorway of his studio in the industrial part of Berkeley near the bay. When one entered his space, the conventional world was left behind for the world of Peter Voulkos that he and his dear and talented wife, Ann, created. There was an actual live alligator in a funky bath tub, forklifts, pool tables, HI-FI systems with clay-covered LPs that somehow managed to play, studios for a variety of uses, guitars, several TVs all playing on different stations, and a collection of Voulkos “pots,” “stacks,” and “buckets” as he called them, and works by his friends. His world was populated by many who wanted to emulate him, either physically or to do what only he could do as an artist. He was the lord of his kingdom. All of those who attended those nightly events would physically help him and be the extension of the muscle needed to move the tons of dirt around. It was rather humorous at times to watch those performances—a group of working men moving about, all with black mustaches and pointed boots, like Pete.

Peter never complained about the hand that he was dealt, nor did he complain about the multitude of severe problems that eventually entered his life. Before his death he and Ann came to our home and studio at Stanford, and as we passed the time he asked how I was doing and of course, I took that as an opportunity to complain about the problem of seeing and how it was affecting my work. He looked at me for a short time, paused and then in a voice worn from radiation said “Paint Bigger!”

Peter Voulkos was among the few credible artists that I have known in my life; his latest work was always his best. His physical presence will always be obvious, not only through his unique concepts, but in his living energy as it was frozen into that very clay that to him was as fundamental as bread.

Read by Philip Pearlstein at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 8, 2003.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters