Saturday, January 5, 2013

An Interview with Peter Schifrin: Artist, Poet, Olympian.

Peter Schifrin is a sculptor, poet and former Olympian living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has exhibited extensively on both coasts. In addition to teaching at multiple well known art schools, Schifrin has done large commission sculptures and portraits throughout California.  He received his MFA in sculpture from Boston University. His solo show, Silver Lining Mother F*cker opens at Varnish Fine Art January 5, 2013 and will be on exhibit through January 19th before travelling on to the Art of the Olympians Museum in Fort Myers, Florida.

"Wings 1" (2012) Bronze

How did you come to art making and sculpture, specifically?

Famously, when Picasso was asked, ‘How long did it take to make that drawing?’ he responded, ‘My whole life.’ It’s a tongue-in-cheek answer but it’s also true. It’s taken my whole life. I was blessed that both my mother and my father were artists so I guess I got nature and nurture. I was also encouraged by a wonderful high school art teacher/artist, Robert Chavern (A shout out to all those encouraging K-12 teachers) - He affirmed me as an artist and nominated me for a (Los Angeles) citywide prize, even though I felt very undeserving. He helped me, when I was struggling at centering clay on the wheel and gave me some sculpture pointers: How to model a nose and an eye. I was immediately hooked. I never looked back. I was probably 15 years old and I knew at that moment I would be a sculptor. But even as a small kid I loved papier-mâché - I made my own cartoony puppets - I just never thought of it as sculpting.

Your father was a painter and for over a decade you were a professional athlete--a fencer. What sort of impact did these formative life-experiences have on your work? Are there any other life-experiences that have informed the ideas you imbue in your sculptures?

Certainly, these experiences are formative, it transforms you spiritually. Also being a father myself, a husband, a teacher, a friend – it all goes into the delicious stew called art making. The artist, Maya Lin says what she loves about art is that ‘…one day you wake up and everything you have ever done and everything you’ve ever known - can enter into your art.’ I understand that.

"Wings 2" (2012) Bronze
Edition of 8
My experience in athletics as an Olympian informed my practice of ritual, discipline, pursuit of excellence, risk-taking and personal expression. Athletes and artists have a lot in common, often not spoken of. We both perform acts that have never been done before. We study from masters. We invent new moves and we practice traditional craft. We use both passion and intuition. But most importantly, we all need to ‘show up - fully’ and perform. I love finding principles in many disciplines, be it, writing, acting, music or the visual arts, as well as athletics.
Having a father who was a professional artist, gave me permission to follow that path. I saw his strengths and weaknesses, as he struggled to support a family and stay true to making good work. Personally, I wanted to be more balanced. He was all consumed by art, at the sacrifice of his family on some levels. Art making is only a part of my life. It is a critical and essential part – but love, relationships, health and family is as important to me as making a sculpture. Can’t have one without the other. Practicing being human is an art in itself.
“Athletes and artists have a lot in common... We both perform acts that have never been done before. We study from masters. We invent new moves and we practice traditional craft. We use both passion and intuition. But most importantly, we all need to “show up” fully and perform.”
What is your sculptural/creative process? You work primarily in metal, but also in clay (ceramic). Even when you work in metal, there is an feeling of the “hand built”. Does that influence hearken back to the art of Early Civilizations or... ?

We all look back and are inspired by those who have preceded us. I’m interested in Egyptian and ancient arts – even to the visceral mark making of the cave painters – really any indigenous people throughout the world. I am in pursuit of one thing always: a vitality. The work must have a sense of aliveness. So, I allow the mark making and the process to show. I embrace my imperfection and am not interested in perfecting form – rather the opposite is true. I like ‘wabi-sabi’, the Japanese idea of ‘perfect-imperfection’. Flaws and asymmetry are exciting, visually and aesthetically, as it reveals our humanity, our realness, as we are all stunningly beautiful and flawed, at the same time.

I do love soft clay and how we can model it quickly and intuitively - and how it holds the most intimate gesture or fingerprint. I also love working wax and translating that into bronze. There is an alchemy, when loosely modeled clay is transformed into hardened, almost eternal bronze. It’s magic. 

The use symbols/symbology is extremely strong and prevalent in all of your work. Where does that stem from? You've mention creating a visual “tool” to help you in your fencing that transferred to life and now to your art...

Well it’s all symbols, isn’t it? I mean, visual artists live in the world of symbols. But the tool, ‘all that I know’, the series of 24 colored symbols or ‘life principles’ I created ‘to remember how to be’ – does permeate my artwork, because it permeates my life. As artists, we spend our lives trying to get what we believe, to be more closely aligned with what we create. Our beliefs can be imbued into what we make. As I’m so aware that life is brief and precious, I am concerned with what I leave behind. When my work is successful, I hope it can be a visual reminder or a celebration of human endeavor and spirit.

Specifically, I created the 24 ‘life principles’ while training for and competing in the 1984 Olympics. We athletes needed to perform under extreme pressure in extreme time constraints. But really, isn’t that just like all of our lives, everyday? Maybe we don’t call it the ‘Olympics’, but life is intense! And we all know that, under stress, even the most basic heartfelt wisdom can fly out the window. Right? So, I developed a tool designed to help me ‘remember’ what was important – Symbols based in color and simple form - Reminding me how to perform, how to live, despite the pressure. I quickly discovered that many of the same athletic concepts were true in art making and in life.

Here’s one example: One triad of my knowing contains the words ‘center, trust, risk’. Perhaps this seems obvious, but to really act from your spiritual or physical ‘center’, to remain balanced, especially when the shit is hitting the fan, is very tough. Few are able to do it consistently. It’s something great masters in all disciplines have worked on for centuries. To be yourself when all are trying to make you someone else – it’s hard. Then to ‘trust’ in your own knowing and your own wisdom - to trust in the (art) process -- to trust in your abilities, or in the universe - this can be tough, too. Finally, as artists, as humans, we must ‘risk’, we must jump and commit ourselves to action – That is the way, the only way to make anything worthwhile – or to see what we are capable of. We must risk failure. Failure is scary, especially for experts. We hate to fail, right? But it is essential for growth.

Anyway, that is one example of some of the lessons I experienced as an athlete that I translate into my art and life. I continue practicing these daily. The ‘Wings’ and ‘Silver Linings’ series has grown out of this practice. 

"Group 3" (2012) Bronze
Much of your artwork is done in series; the objects stand alone, but seem to be a part of a greater whole.  Is it intentional? 

Funny. Anything worth doing, is worth doing again, right? Artists repeat or experiment, not unlike scientists. All art is an experiment and artists try to get it right with a little tweak again and again. We practice our craft by repeating good ideas or methods and renewing them. Exploring them. Sometimes we get it right. Then we try again a little differently. 

Additionally, in my studio, I work on several pieces at once. I’ve always liked a ‘family or a community’ of forms. If I am going to begin one new piece, I almost always begin three or six new ones. During my working process, they all speak to one anther visually. I often move from one work to the other. No one work can solve all the challenges you have, and so a series or body of work allows this exploration. 

"Group 1" (2012) Bronze

Your pieces are extremely layered. They have multiple components that coalesce to create a greater message. How important are these individual layers to you and how important is it that the complete message is revealed? (ie-visual, verbal, storywise)
Hmmm. I’m not sure how to answer that. Of course the layers have meaning and build to a greater whole. But we can never know if a viewer understands our meaning. In fact, I don’t think an artist can ever hope to have a viewer get what we are making. Once we put it out there, it is for the viewer to bring her eyes, her wit and her experience to it. None of the works have such a specific intention that a viewer could not bring her wisdom to the table. The work is open to interpretation, certainly. 

Some works are actually quite simple. Yet there is always a story behind even the simplest of forms. Actually I think for the Varnish show the works will be pretty simple: Bronze Winged forms. These placed next to cloud imagery. And some text, that alludes to why it might all be there. But no secrets here. I will perform an original spoken word piece and create small books of poetic text and imagery – Those are layers of the experience. Each mode of art gives diverse experience, thus diverse meanings. 

"Every Day, Every Drop" (2012)
Digital Print on Paper
Edition of 50
Language is a HUGE component of your work, often being incorporated into “coins” that are parts of sculptures (and poetry performance?) How do you incorporate the verbal into the visual? And how did you come by the moniker “Mudpoet?” 

Well, yes. You are right. Language is important. Written word (and now spoken word evolving) has importance in my work: ‘Silver-lining Mother F*cker’ is the title of this Varnish show – and also the title of my spoken word piece I to be performed and it is the text of the small book I have created.

Words can give context for the work. They can pose questions or inspire wonder. They can define. Or confuse. Text can of course be problematic: It is not universal, like ‘visual form’ (sculpture) or music is. If you don’t speak English, that’s a problem with text in English. And text could bring the viewer into the analytical, instead of an emotional or sensory experience. But hopefully, I use it as a tool – and text is one layer to create multi-varied experience.

Many years ago I chose the name ‘mudpoet’ to describe my works – they were inspired by poetry, some included poetry, and I hoped the sculptures would be as enigmatic as a good poem might be - full of riddles and symbols. Now, as I also write and perform words, I see ‘mudpoet’ a good name for tme as I am engaged in the world of visual and verbal metaphor. As in metaphor, things are both what they seem and not what they seem.
“I hope (my work) can be a visual reminder...  a celebration of human endeavor and spirit.”

You’ve spoken about engaging the viewer in your work in a way that is usually frowned upon in arts establishments; you want the viewer to touch the work, move it’s parts, etc. Why is the viewers’ physical engagement with your works important to you?

Well there are so many reasons to do this. Why are we making and showing the work -- For the viewer, right? At least that is one reason. It is very challenging to get a person to really stop and look at the work. So by allowing touching and interaction - this can be a playful way to entice someone to stick around longer than they might have, otherwise. 

I chose bronze and steel as a material that will withstand touch. Small books invite touch. Coins invite touch.
As a sculptor I am all about touch. Sculpture is tactile and physical, is it not? Please touch the art. 

Your upcoming exhibit at Varnish will be taking over the entire gallery as an immersive experience. Can you talk about the different components, their individual ideas and how they work together as a whole?
Yes, I am hoping to create a unified sensory experience for the visitor. This will include sound, 3-D and 2-D form, and color. As well, a small book of text and visuals. And I will perform the night of the Opening. Jeepers, sounds fun! 
Winged” free standing sculptures—What do they reference and/or symbolize? 
If I had to give priority, I am most excited about the new ‘Wings’ bronzes. These are 42” bronzes, three different forms (Wings 1, Wings 2, Wings 3) in a limited edition. Forms inspired by human endeavor. Maybe they are like inner super heroes. Varnish will unveil these works for the first time. I sculpted them during this recent Summer Olympics and was really thinking about human spiritual flight – as a metaphor, of course. 
Additionally there will be some smaller bronze works with Wings, 12”-14” scale – which inspired the larger forms. 
Etched Magnesium Plates
When creating the ‘Wings’ pieces, I was wondering where they should go -- and realized they needed to be surrounded by sky. Simple. I have a friend who dubbed me the ‘Silver-lining Mother F*cker’ because I tend to see the best, in bad situations. The Wings needed to be among those images of silver-lined clouds. I am etching metal plates with unique cloud images and simple text - to go on the wall. Should be cool.
Spoken word/Poetry
The ‘intention’ of why we make a work is essential. For me sound can create a mood and allude to deeper meanings or experience.  As I am the author of the sculpture, I also am the author of the spoken word. It is important to me to share with my audience in spoken word. Again this raw imperfect quality of my forms is conveyed in the raw and personal performance and the writing of the poetry. It does go hand in hand. The words grow directly from my intention in the making of the forms and its imagery.

This exhibit is the first stop on a tour. Will you tell us about this tour, where it’s going and the significance of where it will be exhibited?
From Varnish Gallery SF, this work will travel to the Art of the Olympians Museum and Gallery in Fort Meyers, Florida for their third anniversary exhibit. Then three large bronzes, Wings, editions from this series have been commissioned for a private home in Martha’s Vineyard, MA. I am hopeful to have an exhibit of these works in New York City, on the way to Massachusetts. 

*All works in this post are Copyright Peter Schifrin


Art of the Olympians (AOTO) Museum is an organization with members worldwide, all of whom who are Artist / Olympians. Our mission is to serve youth, to inspire them to discover the ‘artist / champion’ within themselves - through the Olympian principles of ‘mind, body and spirit’. AOTO is a nonprofit organization. We, AOTO, just held a group exhibition at the London Olympiad.