What does it say about a young college graduate who, rather than attemping to enter the corporate or professional world, pursues a career in the rather esoteric medium of ceramic art?
It must say that money, security and “settling down” hold little interest to said artist. What does it then say about this person who interrupts his study with an internationally known ceramicist for the sake of a float trip down the flood waters of the Mighty Mo to the Mississippi Delta?
That’s exactly what mixed media artist Kjell Peterson recently attempted to do, and his installation, From the Redwood Forests… to that effect is currently on display in the Bemis Underground through Aug. 13.
After graduating from California College of Arts and Crafts, Peterson came to Omaha to intern under Jun Kaneko. But the wanderlust got the better of him whose sojourns and side trips since graduation have included working on an Albacore tuna fishing boat out of Olympia, Washington, and for good measure, commercial fishing for halibut in Alaska. Though he has settled in Omaha since 2009 under the tutelage of a master, “It’s not enough. I’ve been feeling stagnant,” he said in his artist talk following his show opening.
Then seven months ago, Peterson devised the next leg of a life long journey which he calls in his artist statement “an experiment in transformation…that will investigate the concepts of identity, place and human connectedness via the landscape.” His experiment is on record in this exhibit with a canoe, photo documentation, a video and a sculpture or two.
Ironically, the climax of Peterson’s experiment never happened as planned. When he tried to enter the Missouri River in late June at flood stage, the Coast Guard prevented his attempt. The artist came to the Midwest from the redwood forests to the muddy waters and it was Mother Nature and the law bar the door.
The setback was temporary. Our existential artist as a young man swallowed his pride and disappointment and even felt somewhat relieved.
“I felt torn,” Peterson said. “I wanted the Missouri River canoe trip to be the centerpiece of the exhibit. Though the river was intimidating, I just wanted to give in and let it take me even if it didn’t make sense.”
Peterson also had mixed feelings about certain prior commitments he made, especially to key people prior to and during the planned expedition.
“I wanted to fulfill my commitment to (Kaneko),” he said, but how far can I push trying to redefine for myself what it means to be a studio artist. And there are all my friends who were going to join me on the trip at certain stages down the river. I so wanted to share this journey with them.”
It was his friends who came to his rescue when they suggested an alt plan. He and several companions made day and overnight floats on Nebraska’s Calamus, Platte and Elkhorn rivers. A record of these excursions and purification rituals in improvised sweat lodges along the way can be seen in Peterson’s interesting photo series, Three Seasons in Nebraska.
Ordinarily, vision quests or walkabouts are performed solo, all with a similar intent: to find and prove oneself in nature and discover an identity via multiple levels of existence. But globally these events happen increasingly via the latest e-device or with others, planned or otherwise.
Author William Least Heat Moon wrote movingly, first in Blue Highways in 1978 and later in his more ambitious River Horse, of his need to discover or reclaim whoever he was through a series of anecdotal and introspective journeys, mishaps and musings. The lead characters in Kelly Reichardt’s three films, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, are all on similar quests and suffer through various stages of lost and found, success and failure.
Peterson “suffers” too in this life-affirming experiment but mainly for his art which ultimately defines him, but the journey and its inspiration is far from over. Underground Curator Joel Damon says that the artist’s rebuff at the bank of the Missouri was “just a hiccup. And even though there is art in the gallery, it’s just a record of his adventure to this point.”
From the Redwood Forests does have an archival look and feel. It also reminds one how ready-made this welcoming space is for installations. Though Peterson’s more representational work drew first attention at opening night, small groups seem to hover longer around the more conceptual pieces.
One can’t miss or help admiring his beautifully crafted and graphically adorned long wooden canoe, Vasudeva, made of laminated cedar. With a large painted eye to ward off evil spirits and ribbons of blue stripes, this very seaworthy vessel graced the venue and looked ready for its next launch.
Likewise, his popular Sweat Tent, which several viewers tried out sans hot rocks and steam. Since sweat lodges implement a purification ritual, one is acutely aware that one’s perspiration and impurities permeate the blanketed surroundings, a sure sign of how one impacts their environment and must then adapt to it as well.
25 Portraits, a series of ceramic monoprints not only documents the many friends on his journeys but bear witness to Peterson’s adept markmaking and clay and glaze technique. But his large glazed ceramic wall piece, Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) titled at a 45 degree angle speaks volumes about how disorienting and challenging any confrontation with nature can be, especially a snow and ice-covered monument or maybe even a flood.
In the face of such obstacles, Peterson’s response is a two channel video, Untitled (100 days at Sea) that features two ebbing and flowing ocean horizons that meet in the corner at midlevel in the frame. The lesson here is to find one’s balance in nature…and to hope that one’s POV of the sea is never that of the two hopeless souls in the film Open Water.
Another conceptual piece, Plains Dream of Mountain, features several bare-legged people covered with a blue shroud. Take a peak underneath and one discovers tree limbs in place of torsos, indicating perhaps that any transformational experience in the wild is transitional and part of the process.
The oddest, most sophisticated work here is the sculptural Awaiting God, a four sided mirror with legs protruding sitting on a chair. More transcendental than religious, this intriguing work suggests that one’s life is the sum total of all that reflects upon it and is then absorbed.
Since that image/reflection is constantly changing, it also suggests that while Peterson is "awaiting," he isn’t likely to sit still for very long.
From the Redwood Forests… continues through Aug. 13 in the Bemis Underground, 724 S. 12th St. For details go to bemiscenter.org.