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

The grizzled ash glaze, the darkened scorch marks, and the scabrous textures produced by the long kiln firings...magnify this sense of archaic presence. Like phoenixes rising from the ashes, the stacks emerge as enduring creations from the combat between earth, fire, and the artist's will.

Karen Tsujimoto

Peter Voulkos

Few artists can revolutionize an ancient medium, but Peter Voulkos did just that when he brought ceramics into the realm of fine art starting in the late 1950s. Born in Bozeman, Montana in 1924, he studied painting and ceramics at Montana State University and later received his MFA from California College of the Arts in Oakland. While Voulkos began his career by creating utilitarian objects such as bowls and vases that won him wide renown, he began to contemplate abstraction and other fine art principles when he spent the summer of 1953 teaching at Black Mountain College, there he met Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Josef Albers. From there, he visited New York, meeting many of the Abstract Expressionists.

Voulkos returned to California to teach at Los Angeles County Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) from 1954 to 1959 and it was in this period that his works really began to evolve. As the decade came to a close, Voulkos moved away from creating functional items, instead morphing vase-like structures into sculpture. He slashed the clay in certain instances and aggressively applied paint to the forms like canvas. No longer content to create works that hid their process of creation, Voulkos made the very act of creation paramount to the understanding and appreciation of his work, much like the Abstract Expressionists that he had associated with.

Voulkos’ artistic output piqued the interest of Peter Selz, the Curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1960, he invited Voulkos to exhibit six of his paintings alongside a number of his sculptures as part of the New Talent series, one man exhibitions that the museum had been offering since 1950 to artists who had not yet had solo exhibitions in New York. Voulkos used this opportunity to illustrate the connection between painting, the classic example of fine-art, and ceramics. After his show at MoMA, the artist spent the summers of 1960-1962, and 1964 in New York teaching and creating work at the famed Greenwich House Pottery and Columbia University.

Peter Voulkos brought ceramics into the realm of fine art. He died in 2002, but his legacy is remembered in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Auction Results Peter Voulkos