A WHILE BACK, Peter Voulkos -- the man some say singlehandedly tore down the barriers between art and craft in pottery was, as usual, riding around Berkeley, Calif., in his pickup truck.
Voulkos rides his 1973 Chevy pickup truck with its 100,000 miles as if it were a stallion. Paradoxically, it has power everything -- and a place in the front to hold his drink and his cigars. "My wife has a Volvo. But she drives my truck when I'm not around."
Anyway, Voulkos was tooting and trucking around Oakland, looking at factory smokestacks, the pipes coming out of the ground here and there, the maze of electric wires -- all the things he works into his craft, his art. And then he saw it -- a great big food factory. It must have been 15,000 square feet. It was just what he wanted for a place to live, a place to work.
So he scratched his head a while, thinking how he could pay for the building. And he went to his dealers and proposed a new series of 200 ceramic plates. The dealers didn't much like the idea, but a businessman, a friend, did. "He said. 'You need money? I'll get it for you.' And he wrote me a check. We shook hands and I went home and started to make plates. Now the dealers are having to buy the plates from him -- and it's costing them," said Voulkos, the artist as the entrepreneur.
Voulkos' ceramic plates sell for $1,500, going up soon to $2,000. That's a lot. "Prices for art today ard over-inflated, taggering," Voulkos said. "But people don't care, they figure out a way to get tax write-offs on art."
The plates are about 18 inches in diameter and clay-colored with holes poked in them. There are blisters here and there. Lagre hunks are epoxied back in, and they are measled with red spots. They sell like hot plates. They are plates to stand on shelves in art niches, not plates to eat from. Some of the bowls he's made -- also with holes gouged in them -- he calls "soup bowls for people who hate soup."
No wonder. Voulkos is probably the biggest signature in contemporary pottery in the country. In the past 20 years, he has lectured, demonstrated, juried and joined in more than 200 art events across the country. He has held 20 one-man shows and been a part of 100 group shows. He is a full professor of art at the Universtiy of California at Berkeley. But through his cross-country appearances, he has shaped, as though with a potter's wheel, a whole generation of artists/craftsworkers.
Recently he came to Washington to give a two-day clay workshop sponsored by American Craft Council's local chapter and Greenwood Gallery and tospeak twice at the Renwick Gallery. Voulkos, whose parents are Green-born, likes to play Zeus and the thunderbolt. On the day of this interview, his lightning was dimmed by the hour, 1:45 p.m. -- 1:45 a.m. is more his time.
At 54, he still likes to wear striped Tshirts all the time to enhance his ouzo image. He has a strong face with a stubborn nose and generous lips, usually pulled back in a grin. He's balding in a U pattern, leving a patch of black hair poking out at front.
His hands seem far too sturdy and big for his thin arms. He stands about 5 feet 11 inches, but hunches over when he walks --he's been called the gorilla of the potting wheel. He likes the macho image; he growls and swears as he works. Studets love his demonstrations. They're counted as great theater on their own, sort of conceptual art or happenings.
Currently he is the subject of a major retrospective organized by the American Crafts Council's Museum of Contemporary Art, now touring the United States (Milwaukee Art Center, Feb. 19-April 15). Voulkos, because his work is exhibited in first-class art galleries, is taken seriously by art critics, and his work is priced as the fine art it is.
So it isn't surprising that his plates have bought him the space he wanted. Along about now, Voulkos will be moving kiln, foundry, easel, ceramist wife Ann Adair and 4 1/2-year-old son Aris into the food factory.
"Our other place," said Voulkos, "another warehouse-factory sort of building a few blocks away, was getting crowded. Aris takes a lot of room. I need to isolate the studios from him. I'd come down to work and my pliers would be gone. Or my screwdriver would be all messed up. He brings in all his friends with their tricycles and they trash my tools.
"But the new building is going to be fine. Though when I went to look at it the other day, all that space almost spooked me. We'll use about 4.000 square feet as living quarters. The metal working studio -- a great big 30-foot-high space -- will take about 5,000 square feet. The rest will be the pottery, the painting studio and the outside deck.
"It should be great. That way, I could work on a bronze sculpture, a pottery plate and a painting all in the same day if I felt like it."
Voulkos likes the idea of moving, one studio to another -- sort of an inside trucking. "I don't like to be trapped. I don't want to be caught in a corner. I like to be free."
That's why, he says, he likes real estate. He has four big warehouse bildings, divided into 14 studios. In all, he has 35 separate rentals. Most of them he remodeled himself with his own hammer. "Didn't drive a nail into my new studios," he said. "Couldn't afford to. More economical for me to go make plates and hire the other work done. It didn't come out too bad. I have a friend, a builder. I give him free rent in return for his work. The new studios took 2 1/2 years.
"I get energy from doing something different like real estate. It's interesting. It gives me an energy I don't get from anythong else. It helps me and other people."
This studio, like the last one, where he lived for 14 years, is at the side of the railroad tracks. He likes to see that train coming down the tracks, the symbol of moving on.
He teaches 2k-30 students 12 hours a week -- mostly sculpture, some in clay. He likes to teach by doing his own work with a rnning commentary. He likes students. You can tell he gets a real charge out of them -- at Berkeley or on the road. For a long time he ran a sort of perpetual Saturday night of poker-playing, pool-schooting, musicplaying at his house. everybody would come when they wanted to and stay all night.
Voulkos is very much an all-night man. He sleeps late every day. Even on his road trips, he won't teach a class before 2 p.m. He likes the evening lectures far better, and even then he puts the movie, "voulkos and Co." (made under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts), on first, so his lecture begins about 9 or 9:30 p.m. After a lecture, he likes to keep his fans around him, talking, ever brighter and moe frantic as they drop their eyelids one by one.
The local Greek artists always see that he's provided with good food, drink and company when he lectures around the country. "I only go to the big cities now.I go when I want a trip. This afternoon, I want to see the East Building of the National Gallery and then check up on the Hirshhorn."
Voulkos is fond of saying he decided to be an artist because he heard they could sleep late.
The night hours are when he works at his art as well. "Some evenings I create art. Sometimes I search art out. Sometimes I run into itaccidently," he said. "It takes about five minutes to throw a large plate. Another 20-30 minutes before it goes into the kiln. But there's all that time before it's ready made. All that time, driving around in the truck. Thinking. There's no way to put a price on the time. But art is the way I get it all out.
"I've always liked to make things. I make things to change my life. I like my life to change every day. Through my art, I can. It helps me as a person."
For the last few years, Voulkos has concentrated much of his energy on his large bronze schlptures. But he hopes with the new studios to spend more time on pottery.
"I hate to keep bronze around the house," he said. "I try to get it out of my sight as soon as possible; otherwise, they have to take it away from me. It's never finished. You can keep on working on it -- cut, saw, weld, pound. I have to get rid of it. otherwise I'll saw it down, weld it over again.
"Clay is different. Clay has immediacy. You touch it, it moves. You can't change it, after it's baked, except by breaking it. You have to respect it; it's an elemental thing."
Voulkos didn't start as a potter. He graduated from high school in Bozeman, Mont., the third of five children of Efrosine and Aris Voulkos. He worked as an apprentice molder making Liberty ships from 1941-1943, until he was drafted to serve until 1946, mostly as a nose gunner, with the Army Air Corps in the Pacific.
His Army aptitude tests showed he was taleted in engineering and art. He decided on art. He was wild about painting when hefirst started at Montana State University. But the art department said he had to take a pottery course to graduate. "I said, 'No way I'm going to fool around with that.' But when I felt that clay going around in my hands, I fell in love with it. I worked on it night and day. I couldn't get enough clay, so I went out and dug it up myself."
Rose Slivka, in her entertaining book, "Peter Voulkos" (published by the New York Graphic Society with the American Crafts Council), writes that Voulkos brided the night watchman by making him a pottery mug and keeping it supplied with coffee. Voulkos, for a time, wouldcrawl through a window to get into the pottery studio so he could work at his preferred night hours.
He won the first prize at the 1949 Montana State Fair. (Slivka says he still carries the prize, a $2 check, around in his pocket.) After graduating from Montana, he went to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he did hismaster's thesis on lidded jars.
When he went back to Montana, he met a brick factory owner, Archie bray Sr. Bray provided him with a ceramic workshop in Helena in return for Voulkos's help in his brickyard. Voulkos ran quite a successful production pottery there for some time -- making useful objects, vases, plates, cups and saucers.
In Montana he was visited by two other great potters of the period, Shoji Hamada of Japan and his great friend Bernard Leach of England.
His pottery attracted much interest and many students. At that time, pottery was not counted the great art form it is now. If you were an artist, you were a painter then. In 1953, he had the experience that broke through the fence around find art.
He was invited to teach for three weeks at Black Mountain College, an avant-garde art hot house in Asheville, N.C. Painter Josef Albers, compose John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham were there at the same time. He was invited to go on to visit New York City where he met Franz Kline and other abstract expressionists (he calls them A.E.'s). This was a revelation to the midwestern boy who'd never seen museums or art except in books.
Voulkos often has decorated his pots with wide slashes of thinned glaze in the abstract expressionist manner, recalling Kline, and the gouging and pimpling of his pottery has been compared to the action painters, such as Jackson Pollack.
Voulkos then moved on to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, leaving there, Slivka writes, by request when one of his students plastered mud on the walls to start a ceramic mural. In 1959, he went to Berkeley to establish a ceramics department at the university. By that time, he had abandoned the traditional forms of ciay -- the Greek vase, the age-old plate and cup forms. He was working then more with builtup slabs then the traditional spun shapes.
He began to work in bronze when he shared a studio with a bronze sculptor in Los Angeles in 1957. He moved to his own studio in a warehouse in 1963.
Since then he has alternated between ceramics and bronzes. His 30-foot-high bronze sculpture is outside the Hall of Justic in San Francisco, a commission he won in a competition. He has another 25-foot-long sculpture at the Federal Building in Honolulu. In Washington his ceramic work has been shown at the National Collection of Fine Arts and the Fendrick Gallery, as well as the Renwick Gallery.
So here he is, the man who proved you can be a potter, and still be accepted in all those high-class galleries, command those high prices, any yet be the artist his mother wanted him to be. No wonder Voulkos struts around.