St. Louis Artist Peter Manion Returns To Making After A 10-Year Hiatus

 In Culture, Feature

Entering St. Louis artist Peter Manion’s celadon brick studio building is like stepping into a wordless storybook, whose author is busy dreaming. Large fabric cutouts fill half of the space, depicting clouds, lightning bolts, a telephone receiver and a faded, sideways banner that reads “Cry Daily.” Below, a circle of sculptures resembles rocks, or bewitched duvet covers. The noon sun casts whimsical shapes that bounce from plane to plane.

On the west wall a pair of colorful, irregular towels hang like psychedelic elephant skins. “They’re interchangeable, and movable,” Manion explains, removing one synthetic hide and manipulating it into what resembles a small boulder on the floor. “They’re made of plaster and felt. They start out flat but become something different every time.” As Manion lifts and touches these pieces, their lightness is shocking. What seems monolithic is malleable, what seems fixed is highly flexible. At one point Manion approaches the wall illustrations and starts tossing them off, one after another. “There’s no adhesive here. These exist here because of the felt’s magnetic connection to the wall,” he says. “They can fall at any time, and I let them. It’s exciting when it happens.”

Though playfully irreverent in process and simple figuration, Manion’s new project clearly relies upon a literal and conceptual gravity. “My thinking is that all things are dying and changing—and that’s what makes me want to make art. Nature, as it’s affecting us, is doing the same to them.”

st louis artist peter manion sculpture painting alive magazine

Peter Manion portrait, by Krista Valdez

You came back to making art after about a ten-year hiatus. How did your time away inform what you make now?
When we returned to St. Louis from Louisville, Kentucky, my wife and I bought our first home and rehabbed it. That’s how we got into construction. My father helped me buy another property, and that sort of took on a life of its own. I never expected art to disappear. I looked at it as, “Art brought me to this point.” I really loved working with old homes and thought, “Hey, maybe this is my calling.” But after ten years, rehabbing turned into a job. When the economy tanked, I had to make the choice about whether I wanted to stay at my small company or stay home and take care of my kids.

So the work came about the same time you were a stay-at-home dad?
Yes, it did. I had encouragement and time, and it took a few years to even say I was an artist. I made work, took care of the kids and volunteered. From there I sort of blossomed. I found my process and practice early on, worked at it, had some success, and then it snowballed.

My new sculptural work is an extension of that time of transformation. It’s a better place for me than my paintings and drawings. This work has a more real, satisfying feel for me—more authentic.

st louis artist peter manion sculpture painting alive magazine

You recently completed a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. How did that experience influence your new work?
That was huge. It was a goal that I didn’t think I’d achieve. I applied with my sculpture work, which was a huge departure since my paintings and drawings were my bread and butter, what people knew me for. But I felt like these sculptures had the most potential and possibility. In Vermont, I had an epiphany in terms of where I wanted to go with the work, and that’s where I am now.

How did your time in construction affect the way you make your new sculpture pieces?
For a while, as an artist, I was relying on my construction sense of problem-solving to figure out how to fix or make things using nontraditional materials. I wanted some paintings to become sculptures and vice versa. But there was always this motivation to sell it, and it became a commodity. Like my job in construction, some of the paintings lost the “me” factor. My experiments in sculpture are helping my paintings and drawings become more authentic because they’re less motivated by what people expect. Some use stickers, Vaseline and mixed media. They’re almost “painted” in a sculptural way

With these new sculptures made of plaster and felt, I do them the way that I did things as a contractor. What’s counter-intuitive to the idea of art is that you can play with it and don’t have to preserve it. I consider the formal issues, but I’m not making the marks on the surface; they come naturally from where the plaster cracks. Essentially, I’m trying to minimize the hand of the artist to allow the viewer to look at it and find their own story and meaning.

In today’s political climate, so many issues—of our perception of things, people and how we interact—are affecting artists. I don’t really assign a meaning to each sculpture. But in my psyche it’s important to think about how we can see each other without making judgments.

st louis artist peter manion sculpture painting alive magazine

It seems like perhaps the time you spent taking care of your kids has informed your method of making—the idea that the work is activity-based, hands-on, made from humble materials.
I feel like I’m using a different part of my brain, or a larger part of my brain. It’s almost always forbidden to touch the art. But here the viewer is required to touch my art to make it what it is. I try to stay away from this idea of preciousness, even though I love what I’m making. With my paintings and drawings I keep fingerprints and marks on the border. I didn’t want it clean and perfect.

With some of my drawings, I incorporate my kids’ drawings and use children’s stickers—like this conch shell. I’m using things that my kids are playing with, and [I] take them and work with them. It adds a nice, unexpected element. And my kids get really proud.

Tell me about the “Cry Daily” banner. It looks a bit like a newspaper title.
I was in a residency in Spain and this was my motto. It was an intense time—a month of not speaking the native language. It totally altered the way I live. I was so excited to be there, but it was lonely. Crying is the only way that expresses when you’re both sad and happy, and I found myself crying a little bit everyday—in good ways and bad. I almost got a tattoo of the motto on my arm.

When it was first made, the piece it was really bright, and the black text was really crisp. But as I folded it and shipped it back from Spain, and it was moving and changing. It slowly degraded and started falling apart. In a similar vein, as an artist getting older, I’m transforming. I’m realizing my aches and pains. I want the work to be one thing, just like me, but also have the ability to become something else.

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