27 February 2002 |

Peter Voulkos, ceramics artist
Artist and teacher Peter Voulkos, who spent a lifetime raising the potter’s art from a quiet craft to fine art and taught ceramics at Berkeley for almost three decades, died Saturday, Feb. 16. A resident of Oakland, Voulkos died of an apparent heart attack after teaching a college ceramics workshop in Bowling Green, Ohio. He was 78.

A nationally and internationally known artist, Voulkos is credited with leading an American revolution in ceramic sculpture. He came to Berkeley in 1959, when he was hired to set up the ceramics program for the design and decorative arts department. Under his leadership, the department quickly became a magnet for talented young potters.

Born Panagiotis Harry Voulkos to Greek immigrant parents in 1924, in Bozeman, Mont., Voulkos worked as a molder apprentice making engine castings for ships after graduating from high school. Drafted in 1943, he spent three years as an airplane gunner in the Pacific during World War II and then studied art on the G.I. Bill at Montana State University.

As a student Voulkos won first prize for pottery at the Montana State Fair. It was the first of many awards, which included the Rodin Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association, and honorary doctorates from four U.S. art schools.

After receiving a graduate degree from Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts in 1952, Voulkos and his new wife moved to Helena, Mont., where he managed a pottery production center.

Influenced by the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s, Voulkos progressively moved away from his utilitarian art background and changed the way he worked in clay. His work became marked by mass and weight; the cutting and tearing of clay; and a bold, painterly use of glazes.

One artist who came to Berkeley to work with Voulkos, beginning in 1959, was Jim Melchert, now a Berkeley professor emeritus.

“Peter Voulkos changed my life,” recalls Melchert, who assisted Voulkos in the campus’s new pottery shop. “Voulkos was a very charismatic person. He thought of himself more as a catalyst than an instructor. He was someone whose presence made things happen.”

As a mentor, Voulkos took a personal interest in students’ development, and made a point of working in the same shop as his students.

“It meant that we were all exposed to a professional sculptor working,” says Melchert. “We’d come in in the morning and see pieces he had done overnight.”

Voulkos became a full professor in 1967; in 1975 he transferred to the art practice department, where he worked for another decade. After retiring from Berkeley, he continued to exhibit, and to create both cast bronze and ceramic pieces in his studios in Oakland and Berkeley.

Voulkos is survived by his wife, Ann Adair Voulkos; their son, Aris; a daughter, Pier, from his first marriage; a brother, John, of San Francisco; and two sisters, Mary Baptist, of Morgan Hill, Calif., and Margaret Dull, of Athens, Ga.

The campus will hold a memorial for Voulkos at 4 p.m., Monday, March 25, in the Berkeley Art Museum, Gallery A. There will also be a memorial at the Oakland Museum on Saturday, April 6.

Thanks to Scott Savitt for this obituary.


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