Peter Callas: Life on Fire
Video courtesy of Peter Callas
A Conversation with the Artist
Peter Callas is a pioneering figure in the field of ceramics and built the first Anagama in North America in 1976. He has since become America’s preeminent authority on the Japanese wood-firing technique. An internationally acclaimed ceramist, he combines this ancient firing technique with the wabi-sabi aesthetic of imperfection and abstraction, resulting in energetic, dramatic works that pulse with life and appear to have been born straight from the fires of the earth.
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 a firing depends on the size of the kiln and can vary anywhere from two to twelve days and the fire must be fed and stoked around the clock. 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.
We sat down with Callas to discuss his life, work, and connection with the late, great Peter Voulkos.
Can you describe your artistic background, what drew you to ceramics, and why you decided to make it your life’s work?
My career in art began in college when I took a ceramics course in Nebraska. After transferring to The University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA in my sophomore year I became an art major and graduated in 1973. As an artist in resident at The Archie Bray Foundation I fell in love with the material and the process and decided to make it my life’s work.
Do you come from a creative background? How did your family and the place that you come from shape you?
My parents were very inspirational to my interest in the arts. My stepfather was a Hot Jazz aficionado, so music was always in the background. Both my parents shared a passion for collecting fine art, especially French antiques, so growing up there was a treasure trove of art in our home.
How would you define the style of your work and its development?
From the time I spent in the Pacific Northwest I grew to love nature’s rugged beauty. The Pacific Rim exposed me to Asian ceramics, especially Japanese ceramics, which help mold my style of abstract art in the wabi-sabi style.