Peter Woytuk | Animation and Repose

Goat, Bronze, H6, Edition 4. sculpture, southwest art.
Goat, Bronze, H6, Edition 4.

By Norman Kolpas

A major one-man show in the autumn of 1994 was fast approaching for sculptor Peter Woytuk. But he was focusing all his attention on other, more important matters. Steps away from his home and studio on 65 acres in upstate New York, he was busy hammering together a treehouse for his son, Nicholas, then 6 years old.

“I spent the whole summer building it,” Woytuk says with a laugh, recalling the satisfaction he gained from creating a small architectural masterpiece dedicated to his child’s amusement. Satisfying though that work may have been, however, the artist found himself just weeks away from the exhibition without any major new pieces to show.

Woytuk sprang into action. For quite a while he had been admiring cows and bulls he’d seen at rest on nearby farms. “Their whole mass and volume appealed to me,” he says, explaining his decision to create a sculptural grouping of three such animals at twice their actual size.

Ravens, Bronze, H6, Edition 4., sculpture, southwest art.
Ravens, Bronze, H6, Edition 4.

He began by fashioning small clay maquettes, casting them in plaster, and cutting each plaster cast crosswise into half-inch-thick slices with a band saw. Enlisting the help of a squadron of local friends, he placed each slice of the maquettes on an overhead projector, throwing its greatly enlarged image onto a thick piece of white styrofoam. After tracing the shapes and cutting them out along the outlines, the foam pieces were assembled inside the gallery “like a great big loaf of bread,” forming giant bovines over which Woytuk and his crew applied a final contoured plaster finish in time for the opening.

Three Bulls, Bronze. sculpture, southwest art.
Three Bulls, Bronze.

That was not, however, the final stage in the creation of these sculptures. The plaster versions were well received, and Woytuk found a collector willing to pay for the massive objects to be cast in bronze. Later, another set of the three bronzes found their way to the grounds of the Hotchkiss School in nearby Lakeville, CT. “Outdoor classes are held amongst them,” Woytuk says. “They’ve also become sort of a playground for children. They’re inviting and great to climb on.”

Woytuk adds that last comment with a note of bemused pride, as if he were quoting a review from a prestigious critic rather than remarking on similarities between his sculptures and jungle gyms. That may well be due to the fact that he regards his artworks not as ends in themselves but rather as part of “a process, the metamorphosis of an idea and an object through a variety of procedures.” For him the end result is not only the object itself but also the way other people respond to and interact with it.

Turkey Salt & Pepper Shakers, Bronze, 5 3/4 x 4 3/4 x 2 (Left) and 5 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 3/4 (right), sculpture, southwest art
Turkey Salt & Pepper Shakers, Bronze, 5 3/4 x 4 3/4 x 2 (Left) and 5 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 3/4 (right

Ravens are the subjects of many of Woytuk’s bronzes. They attract him, he says, because they are exceptionally bright creatures. “I’ve done some research on them. They spend a good 90 percent of their lives playing because they’re so adept at survival,” he says. Woytuk, who turned 41 this year, began sculpting the birds in life-size dimensions about 15 years ago, when he launched his professional career after concluding a four-year, full-time apprenticeship in the studio of noted portrait sculptor Phillip Grausman.

Today more than 30 individual Woytuk ravens exist, and the artist expects he may create a hundred of them over the course of his career. He delights in lining up the birds all in a row; recently, he mischievously added a cat disguised as a bird with a bronze beak mask to the raven lineup in Bird of a Different Feather.

Raven #21 On Three Large Apples, Bronze, 36 3/4 x 26 x 9, Edition 8, sculpture, southwest art.
Raven #21 On Three Large Apples, Bronze, 36 3/4 x 26 x 9, Edition 8.

He encourages a similar sense of playfulness among collectors of the ravens. “I’ll help people site them,” he says. “They can be put almost anywhere—on balustrades and handrails, on bookshelves, on rocks in back yards.” Their fine-feathered versatility has lately led Woytuk to combine the ravens with other objects that intrigue him, such as an old-fashioned rotary-dial phone, a large screw eye, and mangled aluminum cans.

While Woytuk is happy that collectors appreciate the humor of these works, he himself derives even greater satisfaction from “the element of invention and the distillation of form” that he puts into each sculpture. “Different pieces have different combinations of themes for me,” he says. “Weight is something that appeals to me. I like the overwhelming feeling of mass. Then there’s a vocal quality to some of my pieces, an animation. They’re in motion. Other pieces are static, very simple and refined, in repose.”

Asked about other sculptors whose works inspire such directions in him, he points to Constantin Brancusi, whose works also emphasize simplicity; Henry Moore, whose monumental abstractions often seem to have been carved by nature itself; Alexander Calder, who set abstract shapes humorously aswirl in his mobiles; and Pablo Picasso, whose sculptures pulse vibrantly with the force of life. “I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the works of other sculptors and collecting art books,” Woytuk says.

Woytuk’s monumental outdoor sculptures have garnered praise from collectors and critics alike. After he completed four life-size bronze elephants [see page 8] for the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro last year—a commission he won over hundreds of other artists—the International Herald-Tribune dubbed him “the greatest animal sculptor of the Western world in the closing years of the 20th century.”

Woytuk, however, shrugs off such weighty mantles. “I don’t really think of myself as an animal sculptor,” he says, remarking that animal subjects simply provide him with “a lot of freedom, a lot of room in which to explore and play. Ideas just come to me via the animal form.”

Some of his most recent explorations involve bits and pieces of objects he has picked up while rambling across the New England countryside with his two dogs. Putting them together into what he calls three-dimensional collages, Woytuk created a group of four turkeys. “They’re modeled as well,” he explains, “but using identifiable objects such as metal and wooden gears, sticks, nails, odd-shaped pieces of steel, cups, screws, a gunstock, and pieces split off of old logs in the woodpile for the wings. The whole thing is stuck together with plaster and hot glue. You make a mold off of that and cast everything into bronze. All the textures are homogenized by the casting process. It’s extremely satisfying.”

Woytuk is also beginning to explore new subject matter outside of the animal world. He reveals—hesitantly, at first—that he has been sculpting experimental, inches-high maquettes of popcorn. “There’s an incredible little world of form in popped corn,” he says, explaining his plans to eventually transform these small prototypes into monumental forms up to 10 feet high. Imagining popcorn at such a scale instantly brings to mind both Henry Moore’s organic bronzes and the humorous “colossal keepsakes” created by pop artist Claes Oldenburg.

But Woytuk’s plans don’t end there. Drawing on a passion he traces back to his high-school years in the Boston area and his years at Kenyon College in Ohio (from which he graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1980), he wants to produce fine-art, black-and-white photographs of his sculptures—beautifully printed works with a sensuous, tonal appeal similar to that of Edward Weston’s landmark images of bell peppers and seashells. The goal, he says, is “to make sculpture specifically so that I can photograph it, to make the photograph as important as the sculpture.” He may even use photogravure or photo-etching techniques to add yet another step to the creative process he obviously relishes.

One byproduct of such efforts that would please him is that an even broader spectrum of collectors could enjoy his work. “I like to have a range of sizes and prices,” he says. “I like that accessibility.”

Such a down-to-earth priority makes perfect sense, coming as it does from a successful and acclaimed artist who nevertheless would happily take off an entire summer to build a treehouse for his son.

Photos courtesy the artist and Owings-Dewey Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in July 1999