YAM at 50: Ceramic artist Voulkos revolutionized the medium

2014-07-14T00:15:00Z 2014-07-15T17:17:07Z YAM at 50: Ceramic artist Voulkos revolutionized the mediumBy JACI WEBB jwebb@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

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.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

No Comments Posted.

Comment policy

We provide this forum for readers to exchange ideas and opinions on the day's news. Passionate views, pointed criticism and critical thinking are welcome. Name-calling, crude language and abuse are not. You must be logged into a personal account on Facebook to comment (FAQ). Readers are responsible for their comments and abuse of this privilege will not be tolerated. We reserve the right, without warning or notification, to remove comments and block users we determine violate our Terms of Service. Comments reflect the opinions of the author - not those of The Billings Gazette or its parent company.

Add Comment
You must Login to comment.

Click here to get an account it's free and quick

More from the Gazette

YAM opens 2 exhibits with reception March 27

March 20, 2015 12:30 am(0)

New show featuring paintings by Lesman, Seward

March 13, 2015 12:30 am(0)
YAM has big evening with Auction 47

YAM has big evening with Auction 47

March 07, 2015 10:30 pm Photos

Photos

(0)
Absarokee Quick Draw raises money for graduating seniors

Absarokee Quick Draw raises money for graduating seniors

March 06, 2015 10:45 am Photos

Photos

(0)
Senior High celebrates murals at open house March 16

Senior High celebrates murals at open house March 16

March 06, 2015 10:30 am(0)
Standout Students

Standout Students

March 06, 2015 12:00 am Photos

Photos

(0)
Sally McIntosh is next speaker in Artful Women series

Sally McIntosh is next speaker in Artful Women series

February 27, 2015 12:30 am Photos

Photos

(0)
RMC opens new exhibit March 12

RMC opens new exhibit March 12

February 26, 2015 10:50 am(0)
My yearlong hunt for the Montana artists behind YAM works

My yearlong hunt for the Montana artists behind YAM works

February 23, 2015 12:00 am Related

Related

(0)
YAM auction showcases established and emerging artists

YAM auction showcases established and emerging artists

February 20, 2015 3:00 am Photos

Photos

(0)
'Sky Island' sculptures, installations go up at MSUB

'Sky Island' sculptures, installations go up at MSUB

February 20, 2015 2:00 am Photos

Photos

(0)

Follow Enjoy

Get weekly ads via e-mail

Deals & Offers

Featured Businesses