Sculptor Peter Zelle has worked with glass, clay and steel for 30 years. Explaining the early inspiration for his work, he recalls the wisdom of one of his teachers who suggested, “Living is the greatest art of all, and out of that comes the art product.” At 15, he witnessed the example of a creative life by observing his father’s great uncle, the sculptor/painter Peter Krasnow in his home and studio, then in his 90’s and still making new works and living creatively. Zelle had just begun working with clay, and at that point, he chose the direction for his own life.
After studying with Dale Chihuly at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Zelle earned a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. An apprenticeship with noted glass sculptor Howard Ben Tre prepared him for establishing Zelle Glass Studio in Minneapolis in 1992. Zelle’s list of public and private installations is lengthy, as is his list of commissioned works and gallery exhibitions across the country.
My art is an exercise of my physical intuition and my passion for color and form. I think of my sculptures as compositions, a word that resonates for me musically as well as spatially. I bring together shapes, patterns, textures, and colors in order to orchestrate a dynamic and harmonious whole. Perhaps the most striking aspect of my pieces is the luminous color radiating through the smooth surfaces, but equally important is the relief on the reverse sides. In fact, this is the first element that I address in my process, carving the shapes and textures into clay. It is only after I establish these spatial relationships (and cast a plaster mold from the original clay relief) that I decide the arrangement of colors that will accentuate the form and bring the composition together.
I want viewers to be moved by the scale of the pieces and the richness of the colors. I want them to be drawn into the interplay of textures and shapes, to feel the thickness of the glass, and to touch the polished edges of each piece. I hope these works create the same sense of awe that I felt as a 16-year-old, entranced by the windows in Chartres Cathedral, and as an 18-year-old, lying on the floor, staring up, amazed, at the Chagall windows in a small chapel in Jerusalem. In both encounters, the colors and forms transfixed me, dazzling my senses and transporting me outside myself. I want my own work to create a similar sense of excitement—a flash of recognition and the wonder of discovery. With these monolithic slabs of colored glass, I aim to provide viewers with a space for contemplation and a respite from the cacophony of the modern world.
PETER ZELLE: WHEN COLOR BECOMES FORM
In 2013, Minnesota artist Peter Zelle redirected his studio practice to create uncommonly large, cast glass sculptures. Neither the medium nor the process was foreign, as he had worked with glass since his college days in the mid-1980s at the Rhode Island School of Design. But the scale was. These new works, some of which measure more than seven feet in height, have allowed Zelle to create bold, abstract compositions and investigate the power of color on a challenging scale.
At RISD, Zelle shifted his early focus from ceramics to glass, drawn to the latter’s luminosity and color. He learned to blow and cast glass and studied with Howard Ben Trè, with whom he apprenticed for three years, following graduation. In 1990, Zelle returned to the Twin Cities and in 1992 established his Minneapolis studio. Early on he blew production ware – glasses, goblets, bowls and vases awash in a rainbow of color – and cast modestly scaled glass pieces, often in the form of houses. Beginning in 2005, Zelle focused solely on making cast glass sculpture.
On initial viewing, it is difficult to determine whether one is most impressed by the scale of Zelle’s glass sculptures or their dynamic surfaces of puzzled together form and color. Tall and narrow suggesting sentinels on a castle watch, each freestanding piece is supported by a steel armature that echoes the rhythm or posture of the work. Significantly, the sculptures’ two sides convey different but related aesthetics, though each comprises the same formal composition. One is flat and smoothly polished, and the other is a textured bas-relief.
In a near magical way, Zelle’s cast glass pieces slip back and forth between painting and sculpture. His luminous palette, whether vivid or muted, imbues each work with an expressive painterly feel. Yet his emphasis on irregular edges and his exploration of negative space reinforces the works’ sculptural presence. In aggregate, Zelle’s complex passages of abstract form and color suggest the emotional and psychological ideas and stylistic motivations of early 20th century artists. Variously, Matisse, Braque, Gorky and Kandinsky come to mind. Zelle also lists such Abstract Expressionists as DeKooning and Rothko, and the sculptor David Smith, as indirect influences.
In conversation, Zelle links his conceptual and technical process to that of composing music, as he orchestrates color, shape and form into a palpable visual harmony. He often titles works with musical terms such as sonata, composition and serenade. In three recent sculptures, the individual palettes and compositions reflect their musical titles, Woodlands Symphony, Summer Rhapsody and Autumn Nocturne.
Zelle’s sculptures require a labor-intensive process. He first carves the piece from clay, building and erasing shapes and forms until the abstract composition is resolved. In this ebb and flow of manipulating the clay over many days, Zelle finds that individual areas suggest certain colors. From the clay sculpture, he then casts a plaster silica mold whose surfaces are impressed with each striated edge, abstract shape, and flat or relief passages. Then, working in a highly intuitive manner, Zelle delicately sifts colored crushed glass, or frit, into the mold to create the work’s final palette. The mold is then fired and cooled over two weeks.
Ultimately, Zelle is a colorist and his cast glass sculptures are compelling, associative pieces that prompt the viewer to bring his or her experiences to the work, or simply be immersed in its dramatic color and form. Many evoke an oblique narrative quality: one sculpture might suggest cultivated fields viewed from an airplane while another might convey a vibrant landscape journey. Like most musical compositions, Zelle’s sculptures should be experienced over time to appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances of each. And like most memorable works of art, Zelle’s glass sculptures allow the viewer to find personal resonance within.
Saint Paul-based Mason Riddle writes about the visual arts, architecture and design and has contributed to a range of publications including American Craft, Artforum, Dwell, and Metropolis.