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Voulkos Speaks

Interview by Rick Berman

From the November/December 1996 issue of Clay Times

Author's preface:

In May, 1978, Peter Voulkos came to do a workshop at Callanwolde Art Center, where I worked at the time. Pete had served as professor of ceramics at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1959 (he retired in 1985). I had followed his work and heard so many stories about him that I couldn't wait to watch him in action and see for myself what he was really like. Well, it's very hard to explain exactly what happened, but let's just say, "things changed." People's work changed dramatically, there were several marriages and divorces, people quit their jobs to become potters, political correctness was bombed back into the stone age, and life in general has never been the same since. On July 26 of this year, I spoke with Pete in Belvidere, NJ, where he had traveled to do a workshop with Paul Soldner at Peter Callas' studio. These were his comments:

RB: Pete, you've been such a catalyst for so many people. How did it happen?

VOULKOS: I don't know. See, I never know 'til somebody tells me. Ten years later, somebody'll say, "I just want to thank you. You changed my life. You changed my life completely." I say, "I did? Was it for the better?" And they say yes.

It's happened a lot. Years later, something you said 10 years ago just kicks in...

Teaching was a very important part of my life. Teaching people how to think. I didn't care what they did later. If you gotta fry hamburgers, do a good one. Be the best carpenter there is, but you've got to learn about freedom, and how to be free and make decisions...you can't make a decision unless you have a feeling of freedom.

I didn't know anything about teaching, really, but I just taught by rote. You watch me, and something rubs off. That's the way I taught. Every semester, I'd say, "Just watch me." I don't show slides; materials are very minimal. Just a couple of lousy glazes, that's all.

You gotta watch me, then I'll try to help you. I don't want anything that looks like production ware. If I see a teapot in there, it's out the door. No, no. Next thing you know, you come in the morning and there are 10 teapots sitting there. Wait a minute. I didn't allow any of that. You sit there for a quarter on the wheel and do cylinders. I want aesthetic cylinders. They say, "What's an aesthetic cylinder?" I say, "I'll let you know as soon as you get one. So, that one is, but that one's not. Now what's the difference? You got to point it out, this one is ugly and this one isn't. What's ugly? Well, it's a hard thing to explain, but that's ugly. It just doesn't transcend anything, ya know.

RB: This question has to do with how the great art systems of the world, i.e., Egyptian, Greek, Islamic, Native American, Aztec, Tibetan, etc. came into being. My feeling is that the art of these civilizations was inspired by a very small group of people or possibly even one very powerful personality or Shaman. I don't want to embarrass you, Pete, but do you think you are one of these personalities?

VOULKOS: I don't even know where to start. When I go back into time, these beautiful things were made, cities ten deep, Jesus Christ, what happened there? Huge pyramids, stones as big as a house. They can't even do it today. That stuff just boggles my mind. It's been happening for thousands of years. You can't help but be turned on by it. You gotta be dead not to respond.

Everything's related ever since the universe started. Time passes. Things happen, then they disappear. That continuous thing, that energy...not really one person. Some-times it will peak in one person, but it's a combination of everything around you. You're responding to it all the time, whether you like it or not. Like in my situation, I didn't intend on doing anything, really...I mean, I didn't even know who I was. Everything just fell into place. I don't know whether it was just timing or luck or whatever it was, but it just happened that way. All the moves just seemed to be the right moves. It just happened. Every once in a while, you read about me starting a revolution. Well, number one, I don't like guns...any kind of revolution will be within myself. I like to discover things through my own self. I didn't go into a museum 'til I was about 30 years old. I was seein' all this stuff, and started thinkin'. I wondered, what were they thinking? What were they eating? What were they doing? You start getting that humbling experience. You start thinkin' about higher powers, the Buddha, the Hindus and all of that. That's a tough one to answer.

RB: Would you talk about your almost 20-year partnership with Peter Callas? The wood-fire years...

VOULKOS: It was not the easiest transition in my life, but it was a very important one. I wanted to stress that with Callas. He's been very important. He wanted me to try it, and I kept saying no, no, I don't want to screw around. I finally met him and said no. A year went by, and he finally got me to come up to the kiln. I wasn't convinced, so I actually threw some stuff in his studio and he fired 'em and I looked at 'em and said there's something here, something raw. I was convinced. It's been 'bout 18 years. That's the way I've been firing ever since. He fires the kiln. At first, it was hard. We'd get into arguments about firing, and I would just leave. Sometimes, he'd kick me out...not here, the old studio. It was an important part of my life when I changed over. I didn't like the work that much in the beginning, but I knew there was something there. So my work started to change so it would accept the fire better than the work I had been making. It got heavier and more ragged. So you'd divert the flame right, you know, and at first, I'd do drawings on them and they would get covered up with this slimy looking stuff and I said, "Don't ever mess with the drawings. Don't cover up the marks with wood ash."

That was an important part of me. I'll leave you alone with the fire, but you've got to understand what I need out of that firing. You got to take what I've got on there and make it better...than I could ever make it. Yeah. So it started out that way and pretty soon, the stuff started comin' out. We'd discuss on each piece where it goes in the kiln. He knows exactly where to put it now, anyway, but this plate goes in the fire box and this is the bottom of the plate...I want this down in the ash so there's a horizon in there, you know, there's always a horizon in there.

He knows exactly how to put 'em in there. I don't even have to tell him, and he doesn't screw it up. So after a few firings, a few years, it took a few years, but we began to understand each other. We went through a lot of bad times together, that's for sure...a lot of bad years. He learned a lot and so did I, so that's where we are today. He understands the way I work and the way I feel and I understand his feelings. So it's that kind of collaboration, you know.

He knows when I'm working on something, you don't come up and say, "This is not right. I don't like this part." I'd say, "You shut the hell up. That's mine. You don't tell me how to do my work and I don't show you or tell you how to fire." We understand that. And then, when we're working together, puttin' parts together, I'd say, "Don't touch that part. Don't touch it! I don't want to see something there. I don't want any finger marks on it! Just keep your hands off. You just work inside. You're internal affairs--I'm external affairs."

Okay. He backs me up. So it's that kind of collaboration. It's not like we stand back and say, "What do we do now?", like some people when they collaborate, they all get together and have a good time at it. No, I don't like that. I could never do that. Like Leedy always wanted us to make tiles together--get away from me! He talks about collaboration in that article, but I say, that's not right. I never collaborated with him or anyone else, ever. I mean, you don't collaborate on your art with somebody. That's your own personal and only thing that you have that's yours, period. Everything else is external and it belongs to the world, ya know. But you got that one thing and that's yours. That's the only thing you have. You could take everything else away from me, but you're not going to take that. Period. Nobody's going to say, "Put this here, put this there." I'm not a decorator, ya know. Once I could understand the wood and he could understand me, I liked this type of firing better than anything else. It's taken all these years to get it together, but, well, it was only last year that I got my own room out here in New Jersey.

RB: I was totally fascinated by Jim Leedy's monograph published by Studio Potter, "Voulkos by Leedy." This is the way I understood the section that he called your "heroic period": You left California in the mid '80s, hid out in his studio in Kansas City with nobody knowing where you were, and worked primarily on two huge stacks for 2 or 3 years. Is this true?

VOULKOS: Umm...not quite. No, no, no...back and forth. I'd go for maybe a week or two weeks, then back home.

RB: Exactly when was that?

VOULKOS: Callas had to leave his studio in Piermont in '85. Couple or three years, there we were, looking for a new place. Did our first firing in Belvidere in 1989. It was in there somewhere. Yeah. Anyway, I went back and forth and kept working in Oakland, too. I was working on the collages and monotypes and then I'd go to Kansas City every month or so to work on the big stacks. I made a bunch of plates, too, that I used for parts. Sometimes, I'd use 8 or 10 plates in a stack. I had these two big pieces in the studio, covered up. Pieces of clay all over the place after a couple of years. I would uncover them and look at them and do a lot of thinking--just get into myself and look at them. Then I'd cover them up, go to the airport, and leave, not even work. I'd go with the intention of working, but I'd get there and something else would turn me on. Sometimes, I'd just stay in the studio and read or play the guitar. Then the next time I worked on the stacks. Yeah...this went on for a couple of years.

RB: Pete, would you consider this period comparable to a vision quest in a so-called primitive culture?

VOULKOS: I never thought of it like that, but I guess it could be. I don't know...everybody thought I was just going nuts, but I didn't think so. I enjoyed it. It was part of my life that I really liked and I did a lot of work, too. I mean, I wasn't just sittin' there watching TV or anything like that. No. I remember eating a lot of peanut butter sandwiches and drinking a lot of cokes. I'd play the guitar, work on the stacks, and just sit by myself.

I had a bed there, and a refrigerator, and I'd make sandwiches when I got hungry. I'd go out to eat maybe once a day, if I got out of there. I'd just go up there and tweak out.

It just happened. It was nothin' I really planned. I was on a trip--finding myself.

I had gotten everything I wanted out of those things workin' on them. I couldn't finish them. I couldn't resolve them. They would change each time a little bit, ya know. One piece was really tough. I got to a point where I didn't want to deal with it anymore. I asked Leedy to break 'em up. I didn't want 'em around. It was important to me that they weren't for retail, out there somewhere...

Anyway, that time was like a big event in my life. There are certain things that happen that change your life drastically. That was one of them.

RB: Pete, what about resistance to you and your work? People wanting you to be a certain way...

VOULKOS: People used to eat me up. I've gone into big conferences and people would stand up and say, "Go to hell, Voulkos!" Well, I'd usually have a good comeback. People would get so gassed up at those NCECA conferences. They'd get pretty wild. They'd tell me what an ass I was, then it would come down to they never met me at all, just what they read someplace or just surmised by looking at my work someplace--never meeting me--they thought I was just the vilest person they ever knew. I said, "I don't even know that person. How could they make that stupid assumption?"

Well, this is what happens. These people are out there, no doubt about that. I mean, this is the stuff you deal with along the line.

RB: If you had a chance to own any piece of art in the world, what would it be?

VOULKOS: One of Callas' tea bowls! Okay, there really isn't anything that I'd like to own. I don't covet anything. I don't sit there and wish that I had it, you know. You see a lot of great paintings and stuff in museums, but I don't exactly want to own them. I don't have anything of mine; just some remnants of things that didn't sell at the time. I don't have too much of anybody. I do love the old Japanese tea bowls. Millions of bowls were made to get to that one. It takes them days and days and days, just like me workin' on a stack, to get the whole universe in a tea bowl. I had a vision once that I was a potter out of Kyoto someplace, dressed in those weird robes and stuff. The year was about 1250 A.D. I swear to Christ that I was around at that time. The Kamakura period. The last time I was in Japan, I found this little cup in an antique shop. The guy said it was made in the Kamakura period. I was just taken by it, of all the stuff in that store. It was pretty cheap, so I decided I'd better buy it--I might have made it! Yeah, yeah...

Anyway, I could never be a collector, got to have one of those, no. I wouldn't want it. No. If I were going to spend money, I would travel, discover new things. Just like you go to India all the time. Who needs a damned $20,000 plate? You gotta be nuts!

RB: To my way of seeing, you're one of the few people making art that has gotten better every year, always going somewhere else.

VOULKOS: Well, first of all, I don't believe in mistakes. It's an ongoing process. It's a matter of decision making. Being able to get rid of all the garbage and forget about it. It's like being in a recovery program. You've got to get rid of all the crap that's in you, get a new life. Don't dwell on the crap anymore. It just brings you down. Don't blame anybody but yourself. You make your own decisions and are responsible for the results. A mistake is nothing but a learning process. It's a slow curve, it goes up real slow. I try to think about transcending myself all the time, both intellectually and emotionally.

I do think my work just keeps getting stronger or to the point, so I must be doing something right. Every time I approach it, there's always something new for me. Every time I do a thing like this workshop which I love, I'm afraid to start because I know I'm going to have to test my brain. Each time I do one of these, I know it's going to be something different. I don't know what it's going to be, just depends on what happens. I've always been on the polar side of things. I have to screw things up. Like somebody said about Viet Nam: "We've got to wipe it off the map in order to save it." Wow!

But, uh, anyway...if I'm in the right mind set, I do all right--everything comes together.

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