There was a little bag on the table. "Okay, everyone reach in and take one," said Nipun, clearly relishing the moment. There were fifteen or sixteen of us at a CharityFocus retreat and Nipun Mehta had come up with a new surprise. Each of us pulled out a little ceramic medallion with the word "peace" in bas relief and a cord for wearing it around the neck. Each one was in a different language. Then Nipun began the story, "These are peace chains. There's this guy...." It was the first time I'd heard about Joe Peace. Here's his story. He's an artist, not a manufacturer or businessman. And so this story should be measured in personal terms. It belongs to the human scale. There's a deep proportionality in Joe's work, deep because it applies so fittingly to us as human beings.
In CharityFocus, there's a special appreciation for the impulse of service, of giving for the greater good, and of giving as an act of personal change. And there's also great pleasure taken in spreading the stories of people like Joe. When Nipun told this story to us, I made a note to self: future interview. And that future arrived when unexpectedly I found myself seated next to a man at another gathering. "Joe Peace," he said as we introduced ourselves. "Joe Peace? We've got to talk..." --Richard Whittaker
works: Joe Peace, that's the name you go by.
Joe Peace: It's my alias. I'm still Joe Murphy.
works: Okay. Tell me how you got started doing this and how long have you been doing this?
JP: The peace chain project, the artwork I call a peace chain, I've been making for 19 years. I started when I was 25 years old.
works: Tell me about the roots of this.
JP: It was 1991, April 23rd, a little after lunch. The short answer is that I wanted to use my art to make the world a better place.
works: Remembering the exact date and time, something must have happened right there.
JP: There was a process. I was wanting to make an artwork that could reach a lot of people and really be a positive influence. Part of my art is problem solving. What can I do with what I have to achieve what I want? I'd been working with clay for many years. I started in high school seriously working with clay. I was fortunate to go to a high school that had a ceramics department. I went to all the classes and did independent studies and became good friends with the ceramics teacher.
works: Was your first experience with clay in high school, getting so involved the way you did?
JP: Actually one of my first experiences with clay, real clay, was when I was eight or nine. My family was going through some hard times. They were in therapy and I would go with them to these therapy sessions. One day they said, okay, why don't you go to the art therapy session tonight? You can go and we'll do our thing.
They put a big chunk of clay in front of me and told me to do a self-portrait. I just went wild with it. I was able to make what I was visualizing in my head. It was a very cartoonish head figure. The mouth was wide open and the ears were really big. The eyes were big and the hair was in spikes and I think I put something through the ears. It looked pretty wild.
works: And that sort of got you somehow?
JP: Yeah. I loved it. It was so tactile and I was able to really create my vision with it.
works: What was it like to see that head you made?
JP: It was fun for me. Of course, it was done in a therapeutic context so we talked about it and, "Oh, are you okay?" It was pretty intense. But it was fun. I wanted to make something that was funny. Throughout my childhood, I used to draw quite a bit. Even before that experience with clay I was really drawn to artwork. I remember very early trying very hard to color within the lines and practicing and figuring out how to do that. Then I won a couple of prizes in first grade and second grade and so I identified myself as an artist and continued drawing. I always found a lot of peace in being able to draw and make things. I used to draw a lot of robots and hot rods. And it was about the time Star Wars came out, and that was very artistically inspiring.
works: Seeing the photo of the Christo gates and you mentioning that you'd gone to New York and had worked on that right away made me think you have a whole art background.
JP: Yes. I don't know if I was ever particularly encouraged in any way. I'd always been told, well, you could be an artist, but you'll never make a living at it. I never believed anybody when they said that. I said, no, that's what I'm going to do. In the early 70s there was a movie on PBS about Christo's Running Fence and I remember watching that as a child, having identified myself as an artist, and seeing what artists do on a huge scale. It really struck me, "Oh, this is what artists do. They make giant things that bring people together." That always stuck with me and I always remained interested in Christo's work. Later I worked on his umbrella project and then on the Gates in New York.
works: So you were moved specifically by Christo and working on that big scale and the collaborative aspect to his work.
JP: Yes. The movie really demonstrated it well, Christo with his vision and Jean-Claude, and how they put it together with all these steps. And it also showed how people who didn't know about Christo and Jean- Claude would come to the project and be inspired.
works: When you graduated from high school you'd be 17 or 18. And you said you started at 25 with the peace chains. So what came in between?
JP: In between I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study at the University of Colorado in Boulder. And they just happened to have a great art department and fantastic ceramics department! When I went to college I didn't know what I'd major in, but I knew it had to have a ceramics department just so I could get my hands in clay. I kind of stumbled into the ceramics department and spent the next five years there. I got to study with some great teachers, Betty Woodman being one of them. She recently had a retrospective at the Met-in 2006, I think.
works: Who were some of the ceramics people you looked up to at that time?
JP: Well, Scott Chamberlin and Betty Woodman were just great and I could see how they lived their lives and made their art. But my high school teacher, Phyllis Lerud, who still makes pots, was a big one. And at CU a lot of great visiting artists came through, like Robert Arneson. I was influenced by the California funk movement, Clayton Bailey and De Staebler and Voulkos. Then there was the potter George Ohr, who was around in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was a great showman and I often paraphrase his line, "No two alike!"
works: So what kinds of things were you doing at Boulder in ceramics? Throwing? Handbuilding?
JP: Both. I always enjoyed throwing pots, but I was more interested in sculptural pieces, very organic, abstract forms. I always looked at microscopic organisms and patterns that occur in nature. I think it translates down to the pieces I make, the peace chain pieces. But I was interested in making some larger pieces.
works: So you did make larger sculptural things in those days?
JP: Yes. And that had a lot to do with the facilities that were available, huge kilns and lots of space. There was a lot of time to experiment and do anything I wanted. And I was able to take some other subjects that I was interested in.
works: Like what?
JP: Like conservation, literature, creative writing.
works: So what happened when you left CU?
JP: I knew I was going to make something big and the place to do that was Los Angeles. I was definitely pretty bohemian. I loaded up my VW van and headed out to LA. It's like they say about LA, you don't go to LA to make your art, you go there to make it BIG! It was warm and New York didn't appeal to me so much. So I ended up in Venice and met some of the artists in the area. There was a ceramic artist, William Attaway, and we became fast friends.
I was hanging out there and getting on my feet and working on a few things, but still with this idea of wanting to reach people, create a stir with my art and really get it out there. This is about the time the first Persian Gulf war happened.
works: Desert Storm
JP: Desert Storm. I had the time to go to protests and some of the organizational meetings. I was finding there was a lot of bickering among different groups. It was a little contentious at times. Then the war was over before we knew it. Not long afterwards I thought, well, I want to make something from clay. I want to make something for peace and I want it to be connected-like a chain letter or a peace chain. That's it! A peace chain
! I'll make it the rest of my life. I'll give it away and people will just give me money and I'll keep making it!
works: Wow. And this came to you all of a sudden? I think you mentioned a date.
JP: This was April 23rd, a little after lunch. 1991.
works: That is amazing.
JP: I just saw it. The details weren't worked out, but I knew I would make these things and I would give them away. I was also on Venice Beach where there were a lot of performers and people doing their art. I wanted to bring something down there. I was working a couple of part-time jobs and needed to make a living. I just figured, if people love it, they're going to give me money, because they'd love it, too.
works: You'd just make them and give them away?
JP: Yes. I let people know that I would accept donations. That was the early conception of it.
works: I want to go back to that moment on April 23rd. I think there's something mysterious about it. It was how long ago?
JP: 19 years ago. Almost 20.
works: And ever since then, this is what you've been doing?
JP: Yes. In varying degrees. I still had part-time jobs to help pay the bills. Maybe ten years ago I was able to start focusing on it full time. I figured out a style I could make the right quantity of. I was able to get them out at the right shows and it got so that, surprisingly, I knew pretty much the amount of money I'd get.
works: But what you're doing is not really about the money, is it?
JP: No, of course not. I'd have to love it to do it.
works: In your big smile, I can see the joy of it. [laughs] Would you talk about the act of giving a little?
JP: Yeah. I was very interested in making a public artwork just like Christo does, but here I was, a young kid in LA living out of a van. I didn't have the funding that he has. So I wanted to make something that I could just put into people's hands even if it meant giving it to them. I wanted to share this sense of peace and joy I get from making my art-and which really represents, I think, the underlying flow of the universe in all its joy and abundance.
works: Now what part represents the joy and abundance?
JP: It's just the love created by me first in making the pieces and enjoying that and having that artistic process. I think that's a good metaphor for the everythingness of the universe. And then, as an extension of that joy of making it, I wanted to create a joy in people experiencing the artwork.
works: And then the act of giving. Is that part of it?
JP: Yes. Absolutely. I just went with the philosophy do what you love and the money will follow. I didn't want to put any limitations on the exchange. And over the years, I've found ways of explaining how it is I'm able to do this. Much later I was introduced to the idea of dama through the Buddhist teaching. They also offer their teachings and accept donations to support it. I heard a nice explanation: give what you can, so you feel generous, but not too much, so that you feel resentful. My version of that is: they're free. I accept donations. It's a sliding scale from zero to infinity. But I suggest three to ten dollars apiece. Over time I've found that people like to have some kind of parameter because it's such an unusual approach.
works: You're helping them out because most people struggle in front of having no directions.
JP: Absolutely. So it's a little urging to be generous, but it's also a kind way of explaining it. And it's practical because when I have a show it's fifty deep with people all around my tables. It's quite intense. People are taking pieces and throwing money in the donation orbs and giving me money and asking questions. There's just no way I could do a transaction with each one of them.
works: Are you free from any worries about the money?
JP: I try. [laughs] There's a point, say at a show like "power to the peaceful" at Golden Gate Park where I'm just mobbed. There's a lot of young people. I really make an effort to interact with them and explain what I do, and the generosity part of it. Early in the day I try, and it gets busier and busier-lately, I've had assistants. It helps if there's an interaction with a human being. People learn, oh, this is really an artwork that some human made, like you made that! You made that! And there's a point where it gets so busy and so packed that I have to just let go. Whatever happens, happens. [laughs]
There are some people who are more generous and some who are less generous. There are people who will sneak pieces into their pockets and if I see them I say, "What do you say?" And they go "Errghhh-ah, thank you." So there's a point where just too much is going on and I know, okay, I'm just letting go now, just letting go. Those are beautiful moments being able to let go of that worry.
works: That's not an easy place to get to where you can really let go.
JP: No. It has influenced the shape of the work. Before 2000, I spent more time on each one. But then I realized, I want to reach more people. So I came up with several designs that I was able to make faster which involved making different press molds and stamps. They became more pendant-shaped. They continue to evolve and I'm always coming up with new designs.
Going back to Venice, when I came up with the idea I was working at a friend's studio. I walked in and picked up these scraps of clay off the floor and made these pieces about softball size, maybe seven of them. For me they were small because I'd been making larger sculptural pieces. So I made these pieces and said to my friend, "It's a peace chain. I'm going to make it the rest of my life." [laughs]
He was like ka-ching. "Yeah. That's good."
So I continued and they eventually developed into pendant-sized.
works: Over the years, I'm sure you must have some memorable stories you can tell.
JP: Yes. When I was still in LA maybe a year or two after I started-this was after the LA riots-I went out into the neighborhood. The tensions were pretty high, a lot of very distinct racial tension. I didn't know the calming effect of the pieces, but I wanted to test it. I went to the neighborhood rec center and showed people what I did, and offered them pieces. There was a group of guys looking pretty tough. I walked up and said, "Hey, it's a peace chain. I'm an artist and I live in the neighborhood." It was like-they just relaxed.
works: These would be black guys?
JP: Yeah. And I'm a white guy.
works: And there was racial tension.
JP: Yeah. It was noticeable. There were comments being made. And I remember that. And as soon as I explained it, they relaxed. Okay, you're cool. Then I gave them to the kids that were around. And they'd say, "Ohhh, I'm so glad that I'm a part of peace." So those two interactions are emblematic of a lot of what has ensued over the years, the kids really getting it and certain situations being defused.
works: It must be very gratifying.
JP: It is. It's gratifying to see the effect of my artwork. An important part of this was having people interact with it and having it influence their thoughts and their lives and to have their interpretation become an extension of it.
works: And as you've said, certainly part of your work is the giving of it, too.
works: That's a very powerful act and not one that this culture promotes so much. We're more about getting something, right?
works: So it's kind of radical, I think.
JP: Yes. It's totally my intention to be-yeah, to be radical-subversive, in a way.
works: It's a subversive move that, instead of creating tension and polarity, it removes tension and polarity. Isn't that right? Because that's the story you just told.
works: I mean, that's a beautiful thing.
JP: [laughing] It is. It is.
works: What are more of the things that keep you going? Because something has kept you going ever since you made this decision. Or this decision was made. I don't know who made it.
JP: You know when the idea came to me I thought, why didn't I think of this before? It seems like it was already there. I just happened upon it. I was surprised nobody else was doing this already. It just seemed like such a simple idea that was so obvious. But all my experiences led up to that moment.
As to what keeps it going, it's just so many moments like that and so many stories-just little stories. It's the small things. Like people tell me they see them on people riding on the bus, and then they have this little instant connection. They talk to each other. That's beautiful! Or people have a few peace chains that they share among their friends and that's their own little circle within a circle. One guy told me that he'd been in a potentially violent situation and remembered he had a peace chain on and decided not to go there. "I chose to be peaceful," he told me and it was because of this piece. I was fortunate enough to be able to tell him, that no, this was just a piece of clay-he made that decision. And he was like YES, YES. [we both laugh].
I'll just riff on some more stories. There's one guy who has been a fan for years. He'd given his mother a piece and she loved it for many years. When she passed away she was cremated with it. And the piece survived the cremation. They asked if he wanted it back. He took it back and he wears it all the time. He told me the story and then pulled it out, "And this is the piece."
works: [a few moments of silence] That's a great story. You have some more?
JP: Here's one thing that happened very early on. It was fun living in LA and running into famous people and having little interactions. One day I was in a sushi bar in Hollywood and one of my friends told me, hey, that's Madonna over there at that table. I thought, okay, this is the only chance I'll ever get to meet Madonna. I walked over and apologized for disturbing her dinner and I gave them pieces. She said thank you. She was very gracious. The neat thing was that about a year after that, I met a young person who told me, "You gave me one of these on Melrose and like a week later, I saw Madonna wearing one on MTV! I was so blown away at how far these had gone." [laughs] I was pretty thrilled about that.
works: I've heard you've made and given away a huge number of these.
JP: A little later this year it will be half a million.
works: A half a million? Incredible! They must have traveled all over the place by now.
JP: The medallions have been spotted on every continent, including Antarctica. People tell me they see them all over the world-on backpacks and people, in temples in Thailand and in odd places, just everywhere. I've run into them in my travels as well, the furthest away being in Australia. I was giving them away out there and somebody came up and said, "I'm wearing one."
works: And so you still feel like making these the rest of your life?
JP: Yes. My goal is to make very many more for a very long time. The reason I know I'll do this the rest of my life is that I'm making them right now. I've always considered all my art to be one piece, and I feel like it's right livelihood.
works: Yes. And a force for bringing people together. I mean you went to the organizing meeting of the anti-war people and there was contention even there.
JP: Yes. And in many of the peace rallies I've gone to since, many here in San Francisco, people have gone to all the booths and have said to me, "Yours is the only one that gives me hope." ??
You can learn more at Joe Peace's website: www.peacechain.com