Shauna: Welcome, Peter! Let’s start with just a little history. Do you come from around here?
Peter: No, I’m a Brooklyn (New York) boy.
Shauna: And did you come from an artistic family?
Peter: Yes, my father was a painter and my mother was a hair stylist. When I was young, my dad took me out drawing and painting with him.
Shauna: How did you get started in clay?
Peter: As a teenager, I did a lot of ceramics but didn’t really become involved with sculpture until my early 20’s after I had spent quite a bit of time involved in acting and theatre and had served in the military during the Viet Nam era.
Shauna: It doesn’t surprise me that you have been involved with another art form. From other conversations I’ve had with you, it is clear that you understand that all the art forms are connected and how an artist can use knowledge of one to inform and instruct the other. We’ll get back to military service in a minute but first, how did you find your milieu in sculpture?
Peter: It was actually through a lot of soul searching and discussions with my father, who suggested that I explore sculpture. During this time I discovered my interest in form and the tactile arts and decided to go into clay modeling and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. It was a pretty famous place at the time. I then studied for a year at the National Academy School of Fine Arts in Manhattan and began teaching sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. Came full circle when I started teaching at The National Academy a few years later. With a couple of portrait commissions some gallery exposure and a few collector acquisitions my career was really taking off.
Shauna: It is amazing that you became so proficient so quickly. You really did find where you belonged. Let’s jump back to your military service for a minute. Did anything come out of that experience that affected your art?
Peter: Well, my first “big success”, in acting, after getting out of the military was a public service announcement for TV promoting peace,
which I wrote, co-produced and played the lead character. It was a protest against the war but I prefer to call it a peace message. It is just 30 seconds long and is called “aWARness.” It was a not-for-profit production and I received the funds to produce it through The Catholic Missions Board in New York City.
Shauna: Can you tell us about the images and give us the story line?
Peter: I wanted to use imagery that would encourage people to THINK and think about peace, so I decided on Jesus Christ, The Prince of Peace. I played Christ. It was an amazing thing as, at the time, no one had portrayed the living deity on television before. Understandably, it caused quite a stir.
Here’s the story line: First you see Christ on a hill. Then a fast cut to riots on the streets of the United States. Then, cut back to Christ who is walking and contemplating. Cut to the war in Viet Nam. The sort of thing we saw on the television news back then, but it could be any modern war. A long shot of Christ, which zooms in. Cut to the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. Cut to graphics which are read by the announcer: “Is this what he had in mind at the beginning?”
Shauna: Wow. Quite a punch. Perhaps it should be running again now. (Note to readers: you can see this video on Peter’s YouTube site: www.youtube.com/extremesculptor. You can also click through to it via the Greenwich Art Society web site from Peter’s bio in the faculty section.)
Shauna: Did the subject of peace continue on into your sculptural work?
Peter: Yes, my sculpture, “Earth,” a man’s head with an open mouthed expression of anguish, was a sculptural expression of my horror at man’s destructive nature as expressed through war. The parent and child theme also runs very strongly through my work and epitomizes nurturing and peace.
Shauna: Yes, of your works that I have seen, many depict mother and child. In fact, you strike me as a man who is very devoted to his family. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but it shows, glows actually, all over you. Tell us a little about them.
Peter: Well, I am married and have three sons and yes, they are VERY important in my life. My wife, Michael, is my best friend and was my high school sweetheart. She and our children really changed my life.
Shauna: Can you be specific about how they changed it?
Peter: They taught me how to love. It was a deep love connection that I hadn’t experienced before and it went very deeply into my work. My wife first and then each child inspired a different kind of sculptural expression and broadened my emotional range. I found I was able to tap into areas within my self that I was unable to get to before.
Shauna: Can you tell us about some of that work?
Peter: Well, my first large, international commission was an abstract figure called “The Mother of All Life.” It was a commission by the Boyko family for installation in Israel. In the fifties, Dr. Elizabeth and Hugo Boyko, scientists, discovered how to irrigate the arid regions of Israel using brackish water, effectively bringing the desert to life. In the seventies, Hugo’s brother, Rudolph and his wife, Rhoda, built the Boyko Research Center at the Ben Gurion University of the Negrev in Beer Sheva, Israel to continue Elizabeth and Hugo’s work. They wanted a large sculpture for the front of the center to symbolize its focus on making the desert fecund and productive. I had met Rhoda sometime before at Ranieri Sculpture Casting in New York City and, as they say, the rest is history. I was in my early 30’s at the time, it was a very exciting and challenging commission. I felt honored to be part of this historic project.
Shauna: Tell me how you arrived at the form for “Mother of All Life.”
Peter: The Boykos sent an artist’s rendering of the research center and explained that the purpose of their research was to give life to the desert. I immediately had ideas/feelings that the form needed to be growing out of the earth. I went into the studio and began to push, cut, tap and stretch clay – the way I usually work. In a short period of time the form just emerged. I made a maquette, which is a small version of the sculpture. My reaction to the piece was immediate and positive. I had no concerns that it would be rejected or that the Boykos would ask for modifications. I anticipated we would ultimately arrive at the right size for the piece. The Boykos asked if they could take the maquette and live with it for a few days, which they did. A few days later, Rhoda called to say they loved it and wanted to go forward. The working title for the piece at the time was “Life Form Emerging.”
Shauna: How long did it take from that point until the unveiling and what was the process you went through?
Peter: It took a year. Dominic and I went over to see the site in Israel to determine the material upon which the sculpture would rest and come to terms with size. It was a reclining figure and we decided on 12 feet from corner to corner. Back in New York, Dominic and his father, Raphael, set about enlarging the work and I learned that part of my trade by helping him do it. They enlarged it to a certain degree and then I applied the final layer of clay and did all the texturing. When I was satisfied with the finished sculpture, it was cast into bronze.
The ton and a half bronze sculpture was crated and shipped to Israel a year later. It took an entire day to install it. Dominic was on the ground helping the crane operator to position the sculpture and I was on the second floor of the building waving my hands trying to tell him to move it this way or that. The site was a baron piece of dessert at the time but is has since filled in with plants, shrubs and trees. The Boykos were very generous and flew my entire family, as well as Dominic and his wife, over for the unveiling ceremony, which was beautiful and very cool.
Shauna: So, how did the sculpture acquire the name of “Mother of All Life”?
Peter: A friend of the Boykos and Hebrew scholar David Horrowitz, who worked at the United Nations, suggested "Em Kol Chai" hebrew
for Mother of All LIfe. It really resonated with all of us. This is the first sculpture in the holy land to represent the biblical character Eve.
Shauna: Let’s talk a little bit more about the abstracted form of the work and the influences that led you to it.
Peter: The abstraction of the figure was a real style breakthrough for me. It grows up from the earth, limbs stretch out
and curve back down to the ground. Legs are slightly opened, bent at knees and tummy full suggesting a birthing form.
It is basically a strong architectural composition comprised of simple geometric shapes with rich volumes,
flat planes, flowing contours and texture. Henry Moore was a large influence when I was a student. I still love his work as well as Michelangelo and the modern sculptors Marino Marini and Aristide Maillol. I love certain types of Egyptian sculpture for their pure sculptural forms as well as the “primitives.” The simplicity. Oh, and cave drawings – positively magical.
Shauna: I know you have been involved with a broad range of sculptural styles and several sculpture-oriented businesses. How about an overview?
Peter: I’ll rattle them off and there actually is a great story attached to one of them.
Peter: I was commissioned by Caroline Newhouse (of Conde Nast fame), who collected my sculpture, to make a unique piece of jewelry. I had never made jewelry before and it took me 2 years to develop my own unique style in jewelry and create a silver brooch for her. In that process, I developed a whole line of “art to wear” and discovered a new sculptural direction. Consequently, my new free-form polished bronze sculptures were featured in Tiffany’s windows while at the same time, my art to wear collection of silver brooches, belts and cuffs were on sale just down the street at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Shauna: Now, you are confusing me. Jewelry? When I looked at your brochure, I noticed a bunch of small sculptures of sports figures but no bling. Was Tiffany involved with the sports figures as well?
Peter: No, those came a decade later when I went into business with Senator Jack Rudolf. We made busts of legendary baseball players such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb and sold them throughout the country at baseball card shows, in sports memorabilia stores and at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Then we moved into contemporary players, Pete Rose, Don Mattingly, Eddie Giacommin, Mickey Mantel, all those guys. I also did approximately 60, 8 inch, lifelike figures-in-action of MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA players for the Danbury Mint.
Shauna: And with three sons? You must have been the “Number One Best Dad in the Universe!”
Peter: Yes especially after my baseball playing son Luke met his hero Don Mattingly back in the early 90's, and "Donny" gave Luke his batting gloves! Can you imagine the thrill of that? Son Jesse got to present Peter Rose with the sculpture I made of him. Lots of fun back then.
Shauna: Ah, the perks of being an artist! When you decide to do famous musicians, let me know.
Peter: Actually I created an over life size bust of Dave Brubeck for the Brubeck Family Concert Room at the Wilton Library where it is
permanently on display to the public. One shoulder is piano shaped, the other are the keys.
I also sculpted a bust of Emmy Award winning actor David Canary of "All My Children". On the side of his shoulder are the Tragedy/Comedy masks
Shauna: Let’s turn to your teaching. I really enjoyed taking your class on modeling the figure at the Greenwich Art Society this summer. It was my first class in sculpture and I was VERY impressed with the clarity of your teaching and the straightforwardness of your “method.” Can you tell me about how you arrived at your teaching style?
Peter: Teaching and sculpting are parallel endeavors for me and I'm passionate about both. From the very beginning, I enjoyed teaching and relished the challenge of trying to articulate what was going on in my mind as I sculpted. Students come into class with varying levels of experience and I wanted to make sure that no one got lost in the shuffle. I developed a simple easy to follow step by step approach to sculpting the portrait and figure in clay. It explains what a sculptor is looking for, how to create it and the technical aspects of that. I felt we needed a sculptural language of our own that wasn’t just anatomy. There wasn’t anything out there like it so I decided to create it. It took 25 years to finally get around to writing it down and actually I had to force myself to do it. It was quite a struggle to find the time between my other work and my family. I finally settled into 8 PM to 2 AM and sitting out in left field jotting down notes while watching my son's varsity baseball games.
Shauna: I am very impressed with how fully, but concisely, your book, The Portrait in Clay, (Watson-Guptill, publishers, 1997.) covers each step. It is as if you took nothing for granted about what your reader already knew.
Peter: Yes, I had a hard time with that part and have my wife to thank for all her help on the subject. She would read what I wrote, and not being an artist or sculptor herself, asked many, many questions. I realized I had to be VERY specific and explain all points in full detail. It is difficult to write down everything you know about something, no matter how well you know it.
Shauna: Well, it has worked out though. I understand that your book is one of the most popular portrait books on the market, with worldwide distribution and translations into languages as far flung as Chinese and Russian. Bravo! And, I assume the model for the book is one of your sons. How wonderful to have a kid who looks like a Roman God and who is willing to pose endless hours for you!
Peter: Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t an easy thing for him. Dean, my eldest, agreed to model for the book before he found out that he had been accepted at the Columbia University Business School. By the time came to do the photo shoots he was in the middle of his first semester – a notoriously difficult and time-challenged period. Still he managed to drag himself up to my studio in Norwalk multiple times in order to get it done for me. My middle son, Luke, the engineer, taught me how to use a computer, “operate” a floppy disc and organize my chapters. My youngest, Jesse, now a golf pro with great hands, cut the head and hollowed it out for firing. It was truly a family affair.
Shauna: And what about your teaching? Are you still teaching at the National Academy?
Peter: No, I gave that up in favor of traveling around the world presenting week long intensive sculpture workshops. I do one every year in June in Tuscany with Il Chiostro, a group that has been organizing arts workshops in Italy for over a decade. We spend half the day sculpting and the other half taking excursions to Florence and Siena, eating great Italian food and drinking Chianti. Really a blast. (For information see: www.ilchiostro.com. 800-990-3506. firstname.lastname@example.org). I also teach workshops annually in Portland, Oregon, Scottsdale, Arizona and West Palm Beach, Florida.
Shauna: I very much enjoyed your YouTube segment speed-sculpting 250 pounds of clay into a bust of Beethoven in 20 minutes accompanied by excerpts from the 5th and 6th symphonies. How does that fit in? (readers: you can also see this segment on Peter’s YouTube site.)
Peter: I used to do these demonstrations where I’d get someone from the audience to sit for me, and I’d proceed to do their portrait in about 40 minutes while fielding questions. It was educational and somewhat entertaining. I decided to try to make it more theatrical and hopefully more inspiring for students and fellow sculptors. I thought, speed sculpt, recognizable face, choreograph to music, 250 lbs of clay, go for it. Out of this notion “Symphony in Clay” was born. (The YouTube segment shows an abbreviated version.) I don’t give away the subject’s identity at first but after about 10 minutes, most people figure it out from the music and the hair. I’ve presented “Symphony in Clay” as pre-concert performances for symphony orchestras (San Francisco and Phoenix), at libraries, festivals, fund raisers and corporate events. It’s a fun way to get large audiences interested in sculpture and it’s a great party piece.
Shauna: And you also get to keep up your acting skills!
Shauna: I wish we had time to get into sculpting technique but we’ll have to save it for another day.
Peter: I'll leave you and the readers with a few ideas for now. Develop your sculpture in 3 basic stages. Build foundation, model shapes,
then finish the form. Translate the large body masses into blocks then utilize the "Three P's": Position, Proportion and Planes. Move around the model when sculpting. Take 2 or 3 different views of the same form before modeling. For example, when sculpting the shoulder: take back, side and front views. Forms tend to expand from the inside, out to the surface, much like a balloon grows when filled with air. Modeling the clay with specific tools is more effective then smearing the clay with fingers.
I’m looking forward to an in depth discussion regarding sculpting techniques in our next interview. In the mean time, please check out "The Portrait in Clay" and consider taking one of my beginner/ intermediate classes this Fall. By the way, I have a new book coming out next year on modeling the figure. It will, at least, save my students from having to take notes.
Shauna: Excellent, and as a student that has trouble taking notes in art classes, I’ll invest in one as soon as they come out. Thank you so much for the time you have spent with us.
For information on Peter’s class, “The Figure in Clay,” please turn to the Classes page. His book, The Portrait in Clay, is available from Amazon.com, Bn.com and your local bookstore.