Robert Peterson | A Reverence for Form

Peaches and Plums, pastel, 19 x 26. painting, southwest art.
Peaches and Plums, pastel, 19 x 26.

By Gussie Fauntleroy

A section of concrete pipe, its large, round end open to the viewer, lies against an empty background in a painting that hangs on Robert Peterson’s living room wall. The pipe’s texture is smooth— its presence quiet, immobile, and solid—almost soothing in its strength and subtle tones. Removed from its function in the world, it is pure form.

Peterson glances at his painting and then leads the way out the back door, across a neat lawn, and into his studio. He pulls open a flat drawer and takes out one of his most recent pastel paintings, placing it on his easel.

In this work, two oranges sit in an otherwise empty, shallow cardboard box, one orange partly covered by the box’s flap. Their color is rich and true. But it is the roundness, the almost three-dimensional solidness of form, that strikes the viewer. There is a feeling of ultra-realness, a quiet but powerful physical presence in these pieces of fruit.

That sense of presence and form has been an essential aspect of the Albuquerque, NM, artist’s work since he began creating still-life paintings of industrial objects, among other subjects, more than 30 years ago. For a number of years Peterson painted in oils. Then about a decade ago he switched to pastels, and a subject he had painted only once or twice before came to the forefront and stayed: food.

Red Onion, pastel, 26 x 17. painting, southwest art.
Red Onion, pastel, 26 x 17.

Peterson does not paint overflowing cornucopias or lavish displays of sumptuous edibles but instead favors simple arrangements of fruit, eggs, an onion, or a couple of chiles. Often these objects are set against quiet backgrounds; sometimes they sit on a reflective surface or in a simple metal, glass, or plastic container. Peterson is particularly interested in groupings of two or three for the sense of balance that can result from such an arrangement.

He always paints from life, usually working on one painting at a time. Having plums or apples in front of him, carefully taking them in with his eyes for hours at a time, lets Peterson absorb their plum-ness or apple-ness and helps him recreate that essence in the painting. (And if he works quickly enough, he jokes, he gets to have his art and eat it too.)

In Peterson’s bright, newly enlarged studio, trays full of broken pastels sit beside his easel. Using his fingers to rub the rich, saturated color into the paper, he compares the experience to sculpting clay. It’s a strongly tactile way of depicting form, he says, while still working with the challenge and pleasure of line in the original drawing.

“I want to render forms that create space so that the space defines form,” he says, writing his thoughts on a yellow legal pad and handing it to his visitor.

Eggs and Cans, pastel, 19 x 47. painting, southwest art.
Eggs and Cans, pastel, 19 x 47.

Peterson, who has been deaf since childhood, communicates with his wife Reyna (who is also deaf) through sign language and with others by writing or through a teletype operator on the telephone. His most powerful form of communication, however—his art—needs no written, signed, or spoken language. Inhabiting a quiet and acutely visual world, the artist uses his masterful technique to express both the stillness and the ephemeral yet radiant life in the subjects of his still-life paintings.

Robert Peterson in his studio. painting, southwest art.
Robert Peterson in his studio.

With a smile, Peterson recalls that the subjects of his earliest drawings were hardly still. At the age of 5 or 6, he spent about a year in a Chicago, IL, hospital being treated for rheumatic fever. Out his window he could see a slice of Lake Michigan between two tall buildings, and occasionally a sailboat would glide briefly between the buildings. Sitting on his bed with paper and pencil, the young boy would attempt to draw the boat before it disappeared.

When he was 8, Peterson and his family moved to Albuquerque, where he was enrolled for a time in public schools. His hearing had begun to diminish, however, and it was hard for him to keep up with his teachers’ words. Consequently he spent much of his class time drawing. His teachers let him draw, but his mother eventually decided he needed academic instruction as well and sent him to the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe. Later he attended Gallaudet College in Washington, DC, and then returned to Albuquerque in the early 1960s.

After a series of noncreative jobs, which he quickly realized were not suited to his interests or artistic sensibility, Peterson received his first major artistic recognition when his work was included in the 1970 Fine Art Biennial in Santa Fe. At that point he decided to take a chance on himself, shake loose the chains of his job, and focus on art.

Cherries on a Plate, pastel, 19 x 26. painting, southwest art.
Cherries on a Plate, pastel, 19 x 26.

Walking over to an expanse of empty floor in his studio, Peterson unrolls and spreads out an old canvas, circa 1969. It’s a large oil painting of two immense industrial oil tanks in a semirural setting. Despite the changes in style, technique, and subject matter, however, the thread that ties this early painting to the artist’s current work is clear.

The tanks, silver-gray and free of commercial logos, are solidly rounded, their form defining the surrounding space. Within a few years after this work was painted, Peterson had eliminated the naturalistic setting and context. Against empty backgrounds, railroad signal lights, tools, and other industrial objects took on the purity of form that had attracted the artist all along. At times, the edges of objects disappeared, breaking down the boundaries between mystery and the commonplace, between realism and abstraction.

Lemons and Reflection, pastel, 26 x 19. painting, southwest art.
Lemons and Reflection, pastel, 26 x 19.

Somewhere toward the end of his oil-painting days, Peterson painted a couple of eggs. Curved, hard, smooth, and solid like the industrial objects he loved, the eggs contained an additional element: the nascent power of life. Like the innumerable images of food he has created since then, they were symbols of nourishment with a quiet sense of completeness in themselves.

These Zenlike qualities in the artist’s work come as no surprise when one learns of Peterson’s longtime interest in Eastern religion, philosophy, and culture. The bookshelves in his comfortable, uncluttered home contain volumes on Buddhism and other forms of Eastern spiritual thought, and he and Reyna have traveled to Tibet, Nepal, and other parts of Asia.

Peterson does not practice meditation as such, with closed eyes and an ancient technique. But in his studio his eyes absorb the oranges on the table, and he renders their likeness with a purity of focus that may be a kind of meditation. And the sense of balance in his images reflects the heart of Eastern spiritual thought.

That same Zen sensibility extends to his studio, which he keeps as neat and uncluttered as possible. This is where he heads each morning before breakfast. He works until late morning, takes a break to eat, then returns until evening, sometimes going back to his easel again after supper.

“Many times you’ll see that it’s possible for an artist to use any available space—it doesn’t matter if it’s a dump—to create art,” Peterson says. “I like to pay a little more attention to the working space. It’s like a sanctuary, a second home.”

In Peterson’s studio, the ephemeral—an egg, an onion, a lemon, a plum—are transformed on paper into objects both perfect and permanent. A sense of solidness and completeness radiates from these images. “Perhaps completeness,” says Peterson, “is an expression of peace.”

Photos courtesy the artist, Munson Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, Valley House Gallery, Dallas, TX, and Jerald Melberg Gallery, Charlotte, NC.

Featured in December 1998