Montana-born artist Peter Voulkos was never timid with the clay.
Voulkos was known for his assaults on the ceramic vessels he made in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s that revolutionized the medium.
Josh DeWeese, a professor of art at Montana State University, said every ceramic artist working today was influenced by Voulkos. His personality was brash and he often intimidated the new people he met, but underneath that rough exterior there was a softer soul.
“He got labeled as an ogre a lot of times,” DeWeese said. “You can imagine him looking like the old man and the sea. He was a gnarly old man when I met him who smoked cigarettes like a chimney. But he was the most generous spirit in the world. He was a giving person and his friends just loved him so much.”
The dichotomy of Voulkos’s personality came across in his ceramic works. He used a mallet to pound the clay into the shape he wanted. And the pieces are so heavy, they require a forklift to move them around a gallery. Even though Voulkos’s technique might have looked savage to the casual observer, DeWeese said Voulkos worked intuitively and with an innate sensitivity to how far to push the clay.
“Clay is such an interesting material to work
with,” DeWeese said. “It has such a wide range of qualities as it dries. He’d make full use of that time frame. He knew just what to do with it at the right time.”
One of Voulkos’s best friends was the late Missoula ceramics artist Rudy Autio, who joined Voulkos as the first two resident artists and managers at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena. Even though the two men were about the same age and worked side by side, their styles were polar opposites.
Autio was known as the Matisse of the ceramic world and his large vessels were sculptural and filled with bright colors and designs that worked with the shapes of the vessels. Voulkos’s most influential works were three and four-foot-high vessels, known as stacks, that were wood-fired and left the natural color of the clay. They are big and raw and rough, with deep gouges and slabs of clay pushed into the form.
In Montana, there are only three known examples on public view of Voulkos’s stack vessels. The Yellowstone Art Museum acquired one of the known works, “Untitled (Stack),” when it was purchased in 1997 at a Sotheby’s auction, with the purchase funded by the late Miriam T. Sample. The work was completed by Voulkos in 1989 and is on exhibit in the YAM’s Murdock Gallery through the end of August.
Voulkos’s personal experiences influenced his art, DeWeese said. Voulkos was born in 1924 in Bozeman to Greek immigrant parents, Harry John Voulkos and Effrosyni Peter Voulalas. After serving as a rail gunner in World War II, he returned to Bozeman to study painting and then ceramics at Montana State College, now MSU. His first painting teachers at the college were DeWeese’s parents, Bob and Gennie DeWeese. During his senior year, Voulkos enrolled in a ceramics class, taught by longtime MSU professor Frances Senska.
“He fell in love with clay. He had an exceptional touch or feeling for working with material. It was a combination of that really inquisitive, intelligent mind and his touch,” said DeWeese, who served as director of the Archie Bray for 15 years.
Voulkos was able to change how ceramic art was viewed around the world. When he began working in clay, ceramics were considered to be more of a craft or a hobby, not a fine art.
Robyn Peterson, executive director of the Yellowstone Art Museum, credits Voulkos with redefining ceramic sculpture and helping establish Montana on the international scene as an important center of ceramic art. She also credits the Archie Bray with helping that cause.
“Peter Voulkos changed the way clay is seen, and began the process of breaking down the wall between the fine arts and the applied arts, which is a process that inches forward to this day,” Peterson said.
Most of Voulkos’s career and reputation revolve around institutions in California, where he moved in the 1950s and lived for many years. He has works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and many museums throughout the world.
DeWeese said once you met Voulkos, you were forever in awe of his electrifying personality. When you see his work, you can still feel some of that macho demeanor.
“He was just about as macho as you could get. When you say that, it sort of has a derogatory feel to it. But he had the capacity to pull that off and to excite people. Anytime he was around, it was like the king has come to town. Even Rudy Autio would say that,” DeWeese said.