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For the week of July 11 - July 17, 2001

  Arts & Entertainment

Grace and whimsy 
in bronze

The sculpture of Peter Woytuk

Express Arts Editor

Inspiration often emanates from unlikely sources. For sculptor Peter Woytuk, who has a new show at the Anne Reed Gallery in Ketchum, it began with a tree house he was building for his son.

Woytuk's son hangs out with the bulls that greet students at The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. Courtesy photo

It was 1994 and Woytuk was to open a show of new work that fall. Building a tree house turned out to take longer than he thought and, as he said during a telephone interview from a Santa Fe, N.M. gallery, he "needed some big pieces to fill the show very quickly." Perhaps it’s not the glamorous tale of inspiration one would expect. Still, necessity can lead one into new territory just as easily as can other more divine sources.

Woytuk, who currently lives in Connecticut, drew on his early memories of growing up in the Midwest when trying to come up with something. "Visiting state fairs in my early years I found that reclining cow shape a very compelling mass. This big sprawling volume. I thought I would explore that," he said.

So Woytuk began by making small clay models of bulls, about 2 feet long, then cast them in plaster. The bulls were sliced into one-half inch slices, like a loaf of bread. He put the slices on an overhead projector and projected the enlarged cross sections onto a wall. From that image he cut out a large bull in extruded polystyrene foam. He then put the slices back together and cast the now large bulls in plaster. It was a sort of model-ship-in-the-bottle trick given that the gallery had a 3 foot, 6 inch door.

"When people walked in, they were confronted by these oversized bovine masses. The bulls were white. They were the only things in the room. It was a nice experience. I wanted the viewer to be overwhelmed by this mass."

Woytuk described how he then made a bronze version of the bulls—there are now five bulls in his "bull pen," two of which are in the outdoor sculpture garden at the Anne Reed Gallery. The bronze is about three-eighths of an inch thick, which translates into a bull’s weighing in the neighborhood of 1400 pounds. Woytuk has them bronzed at a foundry in Thailand, and ships them in a container ship back to the Unite States.

The bulls are "very languid, and at ease," Woytuk said. "Their first home was at Hotchkiss (a boarding school in Connectictut). They grace the front entrance. It was a fairly unused area of the campus. People started spending more time there. Now they hold classes there. Last summer there was a wedding in and amongst them. They’ve sort of taken on a life of their own."

And whether through their sheer mass or their simplified lines—not unlike sculptures by Henry Moore— the bulls do exude a certain peacefulness. For Woytuk’s part, what intrigues him about this work is the "distillation of form. That simplification of masses into concave and convex. The juxtaposition of form. People tell me they look very realistic. I think what they mean is they feel like they are alive. But they aren’t realistic at all. They have no ears or eyes. They’ve been stripped of prominent features."

Some of Woytuk’s other work includes a series of what he calls "cravens," birds that are somewhere between crows and ravens. This idea also found its inception in his childhood. Growing up in the Midwest, Woytuk heard countless tales of the huge numbers of crows that plagued the farms there. He found them to be intriguing animals. They are very smart birds, he said, "very adept at survival, so adept they spend most of their lives playing. Ninety percent of their day is spent having a good time."

"I try to do a few new ones every year. So, there is sort of a story line to them. It’s fun to show the whole grouping and their evolution."

Yet a third theme in Woytuck’s body of work has to do with what he refers to as the "ubiquitous piece of trash—the beer or soda can." He has enlarged them to 4 feet tall. The cans are squished and crushed in various ways and used as "sculptural building blocks."

Woytuk made these pieces in China. They, in fact, began as real beer and soda cans that Woytuk spent a great deal of time shaping just the way he wanted them. It turned out he spent much more time doing this than he planned. He would make a series during the day, and then the cleaning service where he was staying would throw them out at night. After a few rounds of this he started hiding the cans. In the end he became very proficient at making them.

In broad terms, what Woytuk is after with his art is the "shape (of the piece) and what it will convey … I am constantly intrigued by environment. Setting up formal environment, where negative and positive spaces happen, that kind of composition. I like groupings of things and color plays a role. There is a certain amount of levity to the work as well. I try to have some fun with these pieces."

All of the pieces Woytuk exhibits do have a whimsical quality to them. And whether the whimsy resides in the size of a given piece or the composition or the subject matter itself, Woytuk seems to relish that humor. He indeed has learned something from the ravens of his childhood.

Still, watching Woytuk install his show, it became apparent that the grace and gravity defying quality to his pieces is indeed illusion and results only from great effort and care. Just doing this show required a tractor trailer full of his work, welding equipment, a crane, two assistants, painting equipment, giant bolts and a great deal of heavy lifting.

But then emotional truth, pleasing forms and illusion have never been easy to come by in art.

What’s next for Woytuk? He will continue to work with oversize pieces, "dealing with scale. Juxtaposing small things with big things and a lot of pieces having to do with balance, gravity defying assemblages."

And as for the tree house that launched this project eight years ago? It’s still standing. Or hanging, rather. Woytuk used cables to suspend the tree house from three giant trees so it would move when the wind blew. His son, who is now 13, still loves it.

Who wouldn’t?

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.