Voulkos and Callas
A Collaboration for the Ages
Peter Callas is a pioneering figure in the field of ceramics and built the first Anagama in North America in 1976. An Anagama, in Japanese “cave kiln,” is a type of kiln that was brought to Japan from China via Korea in the 5th century AD, consisting of a single-chamber kiln built in a sloping tunnel shape with a firebox at one end and flue at the other. In an Anagama there is no physical barrier between the stoking space and the pottery space, allowing flame and ash to interact with the surface of the clay and, in contrast to electric or gas-fueled kilns, they are fueled solely by a continuous supply of firewood. The length of an Anagama firing depends on the size of the kiln and can vary anywhere from two to twelve days. The fire must be fed and stoked around the clock and the final appearance of pots depends on many factors including both the reached and sustained temperatures, the amount of ash, and the wetness of the walls and the pots themselves.
It takes a vast amount of knowledge and skill to utilize the Anagama’s effects on pottery to their fullest potential: Peter Callas is one such master. He forged a special connection with Peter Voulkos starting in the 1970s which turned out to be one of the most important ceramic collaborations of the 20th century. Their story is told here through the images above, most of which were taken of the two men working at Callas' studio and Anagama kiln, and the following discussion we had with Peter Callas.
When and how did you meet Peter Voulkos? How did your working relationship develop?
During my time at the Archie Bray Foundation I became close to Rudy Autio, who talked a lot about Voulkos. He encouraged me to visit him on a trip to California, which was a memorable encounter. After my Piermont, NY Anagama kiln was completed, Pete had a retrospective show in New York where I told him about it. I brashly stated, “I have this kiln and can fire anything you make and make it look better.” I picked him up at the Plaza hotel the next day and took him to the kiln and my studio. Soon, he came back east and made a series of plates in 1979. As time went on it became a collaboration and ended up lasting 23 years. By 1990, I was doing most of the heavy work because he was aging. He retired from teaching, which freed up an enormous amount of time to work on his clay art. Through the 1990s I would fly to the west coast annually and spend 6 to 8 weeks making stacks, plates, and buckets with him. In the summer he would spend a month at my home making work. It became very symbiotic and Pete at one point stated “We are going down as the most important ceramic collaboration in history.”
What was it like working with Peter?
He was a huge figure in the clay world and I was energized just being around him, and enamored by his charisma. Through the years it became obvious that he had vices and demons which unleashed a somewhat macho side that was a bit overwhelming and intimidating being that I was 20 years younger. It did tarnish our relationship slightly but, in hindsight, it was an enormous opportunity and great honor to be his partner.
How did the present Stack come about and what role did you play in its creation?
This stack was made in my Belvidere studio and fired in 1998. This was three years into using Shigaraki clay, which we shipped home from Shigaraki, Japan in 1995. The clay fit Voulkos’ character and had a huge effect on his ceramics. By that time, I was throwing and assembling the work while Pete concentrated on marking and shaping the outside; he left the firing and placement in the kiln to me which to some extent gives the work its presence. The limited production of Voulkos stacks made with Shigaraki clay means there is a genuine shortage of this type of work.
The Lost Tapes
Peter Voulkos at Peter Callas' Studio
Video courtesy of Peter Callas