Peter Diepenbrock is a brilliant sculptor who lives in Rhode Island. His work www.peterdiepenbrock.com is stunning and profound yet somehow accessible and fun. I saw his website and knew I had to chat with him. And boy did we have a chat! Here it is …
“… I have found that the greatest challenge that an artist faces is simply how to exist as an artist. Making the art is the easy part ...”
MICHAEL: Peter, I love your work. It's so architectural yet somehow organic. Your sculptures are refined and sophisticated yet your materials are raw and honest. First off, your budget for materials alone must be huge. No? Your works look so large and intricate.
PETER: Yes, the materials and subsequent labor required are definitely a significant issue in building large format sculpture. The benefit of large public commissions is that once the competition is won or the private party has provided the deposit, the funding is available. If I do my planning correctly, the prior commission will have left over materials, which can then be used for additional speculative pieces. These smaller spec works (three feet to twelve feet tall) are typically more spontaneous, where I can do some experimentation and explore some new methodologies or test out a constructive theory. But the time required to build the spec works, requires a profit percentage to be also left over to pay forward so to speak.
MICHAEL: I would imagine the majority of your work is through commissions. No? I mean, how would sculptors survive otherwise? The average, middle class American couldn't afford one of your works. Sad, but true. No? I guess that's what public art is for?
PETER: Yes, the majority of my work is commissioned, but not always through public competitions. Those have the more substantial budgets, but I also do a lot of work for residential clients.
MICHAEL: Wow. You must have some well-heeled clients.
PETER: On the affordability front, I have tried very hard to cover a very broad range of price points, starting with my semi-classic Dinobite Bottle Opener that sells for just $60.00. For nearly 10 years, I developed a collection of “table top” gift products that I wholesaled across the country at stores like The MOMA store, Nature Company and Barneys and nearly 400 other small boutique stores. But the production (limited edition) mindset is completely different than the mind set required for the big one of a kind, site specific work. That mind set, I find to be so much more fascinating and engaging.
I have also explored sculptural wall pieces or “structural paintings,” as a way to broaden my offerings. These have been very well received by home owners, starting as low as $750.00, but you are generally correct in assuming that the typical middle class family would not be purchasing my work. Those who do tend to be double income executives, lawyers, and investment bankers – That’s the 1% crew.
MICHAEL: It is indeed.
PETER: Nonetheless, there are definite, seemingly unavoidable cash flow crunches that occur between commissions and can cause some undermining affects on the studio momentum.
My wife and I are both full-time, self-employed artists and so the financial challenges can be intense. But we are committed, determined and always march forth.
MICHAEL: Your work is simultaneously organic and architecturally strong. Is this your consideration while you're in the process of creating art? What goes through your mind while you're creating? Also, these are BIG pieces. You must have a team, No?
PETER: Michael, that's a sweeping, nearly unanswerable question, honestly. Yes, that is an aspect of my intention. Very little goes through my mind while I am creating. I have a team when needed.
MICHAEL: When a lot of people - like me - look at great sculpture, I don't think they're sure whether it's the work of an architect/builder or a more organic artist-type. Which drives you most? Is it both? How do you balance these things in your own head? Or ... Is that even a consideration? I ask because your work clearly represents both ... as far as I can tell ...
PETER: There are several ways to talk about this and they are very much intertwined. On a business level, my work as a public artist can be compared to a residential architect designing and then managing the construction of one or two houses a year. The design concerns follow a similar curve as well, starting with site concerns and conditions, client tastes and stylistic desires, to costs, material choices, shape, volume, functionality and overall aesthetics. Designing and then fabricating large sculptures involves all the same concerns, but then, one gets to add the good parts: feeling, symbolism, visual metaphors, non-functional expression of values and essentially the richness of abstraction, meaning and aspects of the spiritual humanistic dimension.
This wonderful extra dimension, a kind of fourth dimension perhaps, is where the artistic mind enters the story. But before diverting too far from the “architect,” it is worth pointing out how these camps have converged in recent decades. When Frank Gehry utterly destroyed the omnipresent power of the 90-degree angle in architecture and opened the door to a new form of wildly exuberant structures and asymmetric organic forms, he became one of the most robust sculptors in history. Sculptors are simultaneously reaching toward the scale typically held by buildings and seeing value in “shelter” as a rich, form-metaphor worth exploring.
MICHAEL: That’s interesting. And so, how do you actually work and create?
PETER: What I do is very simple. I work most of the time alone, with only occasional assistants needed for finishing. I essentially hand-build everything I design. I am obsessed with form-generation based on the repetition of small elements. This incremental, one plus one plus one, approach, allows me to build very large structures, six ounces at a time. The additional advantage in using small pieces is in how organic forms, with compound curvatures, and parabolic sweeping lines, can be made, by hand without any use of computer-aided controls or heavy equipment. My large works end up weighing 4000-5000 pounds! And ultimately do require heavy equipment to move and install them, but not to create them. So the organic, enters the story in the process for sure and also in the end forms themselves. Does this help explain this potential dichotomy?
MICHAEL: Yes it does. And so, when did this journey actually begin for you? What was your first exposure to sculpture? Are you now doing what you imagined yourself doing and being as a kid?
PETER: I started making random boxes and little projects in my dad's workroom at the age of five. Although an attorney, he nonetheless taught me the basics of carpentry, while building fences, dog houses and various house projects around our home in Sacramento. In 7th grade, my mom encouraged me to attend The Sacramento Waldorf School, which had an enormous focus on art history and hand crafts. I followed up high school with two years of philosophy and literature at The Evergreen State College. The next step was industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design. RISD was incredibly influential, but sculpture, as a practice was still not evidently clear to me as a path to follow. Design was at the core, with a fascination with the concept of development that was taught in industrial design.
MICHAEL: And what about sculpture?
PETER: Sculpture as a practice began after graduation, with found object assemblages. In this respect, I am a self-taught sculptor, having missed all the fine art curriculum that was offered in other departments. I often felt I existed between two or even three fields: design, high craft, and sculpture. So my practice as an artist has slowly evolved over the years.
MICHAEL: What was your relationship with art like as a kid?
PETER: When I was a kid, we had a huge book of Leonardo da Vinci drawings, which I poured over for years. Michelangelo rounded out the influencing, but I still had no idea where it would take me.
While traveling in Italy after college, we visited the famous designers' offices of the Memphis movement. I was actually disappointed to discover that their avant garde design work was only a small part of their practice, the other being more practical design work. It was there that I determined to create only one of a kind, original work and not compromise my vision with service based design. So here we are making public sculpture, with more unknowns to follow!
MICHAEL: Isn't it interesting how sculpture and design are all around us? The world is one grand design. WE are design and sculpture! I don't understand how and why more people don't “get” this. What do you think?
PETER: You know, that really dawned on me at RISD, where we all had our eyes opened up wide! The world of design is all AROUND us, and yet, even at Waldorf with all of its art focus, there was almost zero design awareness. It was revolutionary for me to suddenly tune into the whole realm of design.
But, even after my last reply to you, I did reflect on my lack of exposure to the “fine art” critique, and overall dialogue, that does go on at art school. I think a little more of that would have been useful in expanding aspects of my theoretical approach. On the other hand, most of that dialogue has evolved into rather ridiculous art speak, and can be more about obscurity and pretension than a true desire to express original thinking. A lot of “Emperor's New Clothes” syndrome is going on.
MICHAEL: That’s for sure.
PETER: Last year, while touring all the grand madness of Art Basel, we ended by visiting the Design Pavilion. It struck me again why design has such value to me; it is intensely honest - great use of materials, inventive compositions, refreshing originality, dramatic, with an overriding excellence in the “making” and no pretense, no film flam, no obscure bullshit with inflated price tags. Yet still, I see an arena that falls between a realm or region of creative output, that can bridge the two.
MICHAEL: I think that sculpture is one example of proof that human potential is almost limitless. I mean, the fact that you can create like that! Does this ever cross your mind while you're working?
PETER: I do agree that there is profound potential in the great human experiment, though our destructive capacity seems to be only growing. But I thank you for suggesting that sculpture can play such a profound role. Oddly enough, in sculpture, limitations in material and structure, seem more prominent than limitlessness. A real wrestling match between the artist’s will to manipulate the material and the resistance of that same material from being manipulated. But in spite of this material challenge, in general, I have found that the greatest challenge that an artist faces, is simply how to exist as an artist. Making the art is the easy part. Wrestling with hard tangible materials can be grounding, even comforting, in a good way, while wrestling with the existential aspects of survival and meaning can be relatively disturbing.
Regarding what goes through one’s mind “while creating,” I will break it down to Before, During and After, but not in order. While I am working, it is more FURY and ACTION than anything. I get into an intense, rapid decision, rapid execution mode, for 5-6 hours straight. Welding is extremely uncomfortable, with heat, grinding, sparks, noise, with a driving pace to get “there.” I am building and evaluating proportion by eye, by hand and striving toward capturing the right curve and line … until the sun sets.
The “Before” phase involves a deeply meditative, back of the mind, search for archetypes, for essentials, where one is “listening with one's eyes” and essentially trying to divine a theme with some personal and universal human significance. It is really all contemplation. The Greeks saw contemplation as one of the more profound ways to understand how the universe works, how we fit in and how we might evolve. This is a slow, shadowy, incremental, form of mediation.
MICHAEL: And the “After” stage?
PETER: The “After” stage is much closer to home. I love going back into the studio late at night, after a mad push during the day, to observe what actually happened. It fascinates me! Clamps, odd rigging to hold elements in position, but before they are fixed in place, rods, curves, chain falls, shadows of an evolving structure coming together. These nightly “process moments” are never seen by anyone and yet are the most interesting. Process is in many ways, my thematic focus, where the final form means a great deal less to me, than how I got there. But one is fleeting, while the other is lasting.
There is an aspect of the observer and the observed coexisting in the artist, having these two identities separated by time, one by day, one by night.
MICHAEL: Wow. Nicely put. What role do you think sculpture plays in the world today? I mean, what's the point in spending all of that time creating a public installation that at least half of all people will ignore while they're smoking and checking their mobile devices while standing right next to it?
PETER: Nice bait and switch Michael; raise me up just to smash me back down. But it is an excellent question.
MICHAEL: No bait and switch intended, but …
PETER: I suppose humility is the best defense. On one hand, an artist has to recognize that just because they are fascinated by something and invest their lives exploring it, there should be no expectation that it will resonate with anyone else.
We do it for our own very personal reasons. The same goes for nearly all the paintings in the museums, most viewers walk right by, and even more, never enter the museum in the first place. But for those who do enter and do stop and look closely, a single work of art can change a person’s whole orientation to the world or to the past or to their own personal future. Art has the capacity to be truly transformative. Just as we discussed earlier regarding design, the simple fact is that the majority of any population simply has no interest in art. It is essentially blind to its existence unless it trips them on the street.
MICHAEL: It’s a shame.
PETER: When I am driving down the road with some over-sized strange sculpture hanging out the back of the truck, I often scan to see if anyone notices. Most never even glance over, but then sometimes, a car pulls up alongside, opens the window, and the driver starts hollering out in excitement asking all about it at 60 miles an hour. That person is my audience, the others, not so much.
MICHAEL: HAHAHA …
PETER: But on the positive side, I am amazed that community leaders and institutional planners across the country are incredibly supportive of public art and believe in its power to create meaningful “place making,” in urban centers, that encourages awareness and interaction between people. Can an art object manifest transformative thought? I believe it can, but perhaps just one person, at one moment, at a time. In the end, it won't likely be the art object itself that does the transforming, but the concept or thought behind it that will.
MICHAEL: I find it so interesting that if you even mention the word "sculpture" to many people, they'll blurt out “Michelangelo” or “David” or “Leonardo da Vinci.” This is also true when it comes to painting. Most folks know the name, "Picasso," but they may not know the fantastic artist who lives right down the block from them. What do you think can/should be done to change this?
PETER: If you mention “escape artist,” everyone thinks HOUDINI. Or mention genius, and Einstein gets the prize. I guess you have to give these towering historic figures credit for reaching a kind of critical mass in the collective consciousness of the Western World. But when you read Houdini’s biography, you learn how hard he worked in promoting his name, over his peers and copy cats, to achieve international fame. He WORKED it, and earned the notoriety, and oddly enough, it is lasting ... almost permanent. I suppose there is nothing “that can be done” as this kind of selective awareness, is how history works. Once a person achieves a certain level of recognition, their story enters a kind of self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating hyper loop.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. How much of a role does your environment and availability of materials play in your work? Would your work vary according to whether you lived in Phoenix, New York or Sydney or anywhere else?
PETER: Without experimenting with a regional change, it's a little hard to say. But, I don 't think it would alter my approach that much. I am relatively self sufficient on the day to day level, but I do need good local suppliers and industrial specialists from time to time. I think what would change is on the client side. We live in a small village on an island, in the smallest state in the country, connected to the mainland by bridges, with an active artistic community, but collectors and corporate art buyers are very rare in Rhode Island. I do believe if we were located near a more robust cosmopolitan area, it would certainly stimulate my studio practice in positive way... maybe we should move. J
MICHAEL: Apart from the need to fill empty spaces or invest, what do you think corporate and cultured clients understand or “get” about art that perhaps others (who aren't art lovers) do not?
PETER: As we have discussed, a big portion of the population is relatively blind to the existence of design and art or at least have little interest in it. But for those that do, I think it simply makes them happy or connected or inspired. Art appreciation is extremely expansive. To have the economic capacity to purchase and collect art, and to do so, gives that person a way to connect to the artistic community socially, as well as philosophically. Collecting provides a web of relationships that can run deep and can provide a level of satisfaction that may not come from say, following sports. I think many collectors have a latent desire to be artistic, but don't feel comfortable engaging in “making,” so they support those who do. It’s a kind of vicarious enjoyment. It is a form of celebrating life too. Perhaps being in a position to collect art also reinforces that person’s identity and gives them a sense of achievement and the collected objects help to define their sense of self, in an ongoing way, and in a way they can share with others. In this way, a collector can feel the same benefits of art that an artist feels in creating art in the first place. Perhaps these are two sides of the same coin.
PETER: I think it is also worth mentioning how unique art is in the value spectrum. Art has the capacity to hold the inherent value of itself, while most everything else is so transient and non-lasting. Houses degrade, cars break down, youth disappears, people die, neighborhoods change, once great corporations become irrelevant, but David still stands with all the majesty it had over 500 years ago. That is a very, very cool thing!
MICHAEL: You're absolutely right. You know, I still can’t let go of this feeling that people and society need to learn how to respect the past while also looking and moving forward. There are SO many gifted sculptors today who are doing work that RIVALS David! I say that cautiously. What do you think?
PETER: I have recently added a new byline to my business card: The Practice of Spatial Reasoning. I have coined this line in order to address this aspect of preconception that people have when you say, “I am a sculptor.” Instead of thinking about the David, they have to ask me what it means, and the conversation sets off in fresh directions.
Spatial Dynamics is a term describing the external conditions of what might be considered sculpture and Spatial Reasoning refers to how the mind explores spatial concerns internally. This kind of re-framing of how the sculptural field is described, allows one to go far beyond figurative sculpture (like the David) and enter a much more contemporary discussion. Michelangelo famously described his sense that he was liberating the form from the stone (The Slaves), a reductive process. In my work, I think of generating my forms out of thin air. These sculptures are spontaneous definitions of space and enclosures that demonstrate transparent structures or forms as energy fields (listen to Antony Gormley talking about how he sees the figure) vs. a solid. And the focus departs from the human being as subject to the universe as subject. We ARE evolving.
And Yes, there is extraordinary work being done by brilliant artists all over the world today and I have no worries that the past is dragging them down, or overshadowing their accomplishments today. The David is extraordinary, but there is plenty of good recognition of current artists to go around. It's all good!
MICHAEL: Yes indeed. Thanks Peter. I could go on and on with you, but I’ll let you get back to work.
PETER: Many thanks Michael. Great experience!
Check out Peter Diepenbrock at www.peterdiepenbrock.com.