Peter Manion, a father of two and an artist based in Saint Louis, Missouri sat down with me via Facetime to talk about his work, his process, and what ideas spring out of sculptures made of plaster and felt.
I found his work through following Don Fodness, a fellow Denver artist, on Instagram during his residency at Vermont Studio Center. Peter and Don were in Vermont at the same time and Peter’s work stood out to me based on his mark making and the way in which the mark making was being created on the wall and then transformed into a floor sculpture just minutes later.
Peter and I began our conversation by speaking about where his love of art really came from. “Early on, I would say, it was for identity. As a kid, I was bad in school, and art was sort of my refuge.” Peter didn’t get serious about making art until his senior year of high school when a teacher came up to him “and just said, ‘I think you have some ability.’ It was the first time that I’d ever found something that I owned.” Teachers like this are what high school students need, someone to champion their skills and talents, so following this year of encouragement, Peter found his way to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he received his BFA in 1994.
From 1994-2000 Peter worked as an artist, but he speaks about his experience saying, “I never understood why I was doing it, except for identity, and I was almost feeling like maybe I was a fake. I was never making it from a place of purpose.” This led to a 10-year hiatus from art in which he began rehabbing houses and working in contracting. Though a common situation for artists who lose their way or their passion, Peter returned to the art world and has established himself well within the art world ever since.
"It's not about identity anymore
it's who I truly am."
Now working out of a studio he rehabbed himself, Peter creates often humorous, child-like, engaging works on paper and sculptural works, with both practices feeding into one another in an organic way. Upon returning back to the art world in 2010, Peter explained to me that “it's not about identity anymore, it’s truly who I am. I feel so much more rooted and grounded in what I do. … it was like having a reset button. … I was redoing all those years where I never really understood why I was doing it in the first place … it was freeing in that way. Where I am now … I have the freedom not to worry about liking or disliking, being included or not being included. I’m old enough now; I have my kids, I have my life, I love what I do, I love meeting other artists and supporting other artists, it’s sort of like all that ego just floated away. My identity was a bit that was blocking me … from what it really meant to be an artist.”
Stemming from his background in carpentry and building, Peter rarely uses traditional materials anymore, primarily working on found paper and felt, using plaster, dyes, inks, and spray paint to create marks and compositions, often using common household repair tools rather than any formal art supplies.
His works on paper inform his sculptural practice, acting as a space to plan and think about form and composition before moving into the 3D world. Departing from his older work, this new way of working has changed his perspective on his practice, now calling himself a sculptor, being recognized as a sculptor, and thinking in terms of three dimensional objects rather than two dimensional compositions. This method of creation often flips as well, with his sculpture now starting to inform his painting work, with Peter saying, “I think in the long run it is helping my paintings and my works on paper to make them better than they could have been.”
Always viewing this work as a side project, his sculptures came to him by accident. “Everything has a purpose. If you work in your studio, and you’re there all the time, you’re gonna see things happen that you’re not gonna see if you don’t get there enough.” Trying to instill a sense of fun back in his work, Peter began painting images of underwear as a symbol for his aging body, gaining weight around his midsection and growing fatter. These images created a fun atmosphere, and gained some regard in his circle. From here he began to tap back into his carpentry roots and began applying plaster on paper. Peter spoke of plaster, saying, “Whenever you remove wallpaper from a wall it’s stained, and it’s soft, and there is something so supple, it’s like a fresco, it’s just beautiful.”
Having plaster in the studio, Peter was photographing his work using a large piece of black felt when he accidently wiped some of the liquid plaster on his backdrop. Now ruined, his backdrop worked his way into the studio, with Peter adding more plaster, cutting the underwear image out of the plastered felt, and finally finding an ideal method of creation. Flexible yet strong, plaster bonds to felt because of the small fibers felt is made from. Plaster will get in these fibers and create a bond that allows rigidity, while keeping the whole object quite flexible and non-crumbling.
Calling his work ‘interactive sculptures’ these objects are held to the wall via static electricity. These sculptures fall, and when they fall viewers and artist are invited to place them back on the wall, playing with the idea of preciousness of an object, allowing the work to change each time it falls or is placed again on the wall.
This creates also a performative action to the work, Peter allows people to place the works back and also play and move his floor sculptures, with viewers often confused by material and weight of the object. This is where Peter finds joy in his work, finding art interesting when “the viewer is confused. When the viewer is trying to find where he or she sits with this piece.”
As we progressed in the interview I began to sense a feeling of identity coming back through his work. Peter began describing his work as an exploration of “perception, and how people perceive you. How people make judgments too soon without opening their eyes or their brain to just investigate. They make assumptions and stop learning when they do that.” This exploration of perception comes out in the finished work, defying most traditional craftsmanship norms. Peter is highly satisfied when viewers “see my fingerprints in the borders. I love for things to be torn or uneven. For me it’s like saying I’m not a fucking artist from Pier 1, you’re getting something that’s from me and this is my history and that aspect is crucial to my purpose.”
Being a process artist, and someone who loves to defy all art world norms, this idea lights me up with excitement. It is always great to hear where people come from when they make their work, and especially where they come from when they display it. Showing the fingerprints and the stray marks gives viewers that look into the creative process and connects the audience with the person making the work, as well as the location in which it was created. In a way, providing a history not just for the artist, but for the work as well as a tangible object.
Thought not rooted in the vain concepts of identity in which Peter’s work resided coming out of school, his work still straddles that line of personal investigation. “I think back then my identity was ego and really blocking my self off from being a better person and an interesting and more intuitive artist, and I think that is the nuance that has changed.”
Peter’s sculptural work is currently represented by Alfa Gallery in Miami, FL. He is in the process of planning shows throughout the year, both performances within St. Louis and opportunities outside US borders.