I met Sam Perry many years ago
when I interviewed Viola Frey. Sam was her assistant right up to the end of her life. In those days he made large, blocky ceramic pieces, unglazed. I recall looking at them, hoping to find something that spoke to me, when suddenly I spotted a couple of large, unfinished bowl-shaped sculptures carved from wood. They jumped out at me with their simple and elegant beauty. A few years later, I met Sam again at one of sculptor Ann Weber
’s art dinners. Ann, a former student of Viola’s (and a former potter), is a long-time friend of Sam's. As with all of the art dinners at her studio (Ann and I collaborated on these), this one was a delight.
About that same time, I’d seen an exhibit of Sam’s sculpture at a space in downtown Oakland. By then he’d switched to wood. This new work clearly was a continuation of the work in wood I’d seen some years earlier. Somehow the wood brought out the visual poetry I hadn't found in his work with clay.
Then just recently and almost by accident, I was treated to another look at Perry’s work. Suzanne Tan and I were putting together our second Local Treasures
show for the revitalized Berkeley Art Center. Like the first one, most of the artists had been featured in works & conversations
. The exhibit would be made up entirely of the work of ceramic artists and we had decided to feature some of Viola’s haunting ceramic plates as part of the exhibit.
It turned out that Sam was still there in Viola's old studio. She'd left her building to Sam after her death, and her work is all stored there. So after selecting five of Viola’s plates for our Berkeley Art Center exhibit, I asked Sam to give me a little tour of his own work. It didn’t take more than a few minutes before I asked him if we could feature some of his work in our new issue.
Returning a couple of weeks later to take some photos, I noticed a wooden skateboard leaning up against a worktable. I had never seen one quite like it. “Is it yours?” I asked. It was.
“I’m a surfer,” he said. Lots of skateboarders are surfers, too, he told me. Somehow this piece of information resonated perfectly with an intuition I'd had about Sam, that he must have been a surfer. It's hard to pin down what it was about his elegant wood sculpture that gave me this feeling. I’d tried my hand at surfing when I lived in Southern California. It was a drive of sixty miles with my old balsa wood board on the roof of my ‘53 Mercury to Doheny State Beach near San Juan Capistrano. I still remember the surge of joy when, from the highway, I glimpsed that first sight of the ocean with its swells and white lines of surf.
The experience of surfing is one of life's great poetic pleasures and I can’t help thinking that, for surfers, art is nearby whether consciously or not. Joining an incoming swell requires the alignment of all one's capacities of improvisation to end up being carried on the face of a wave. That moment is the joyful unification of something elemental. How could surfers not carry this experience back to shore? - back home and, in some cases, to their shops or studios where they make surfboards or skateboards - or paintings, sculptures, songs or other forms meant to capture these indelible moments.
“I grew up in Hawaii,” Sam told me. He took up surfing about as soon as he could haul a surfboard into the water. His father made canoes, he told me. So the water connection goes deep.
Perry is not a man of many words. “I’m a maker,” he explains. It’s true of many artists. Words are not adequate. But then, words are never really adequate for the things that art captures at its best.
Perry told me he’d get to his father’s shop around 8 in the morning. “But my dad didn’t get there until 11.” So in those three hours he fooled around making things to suit his whim.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing to a little clay figure on a shelf. “That’s the first clay piece I made.” So clay and wood. And the call of the ocean. These are the deep touchstones of Perry's work. And wouldn’t it make sense to think that the beauty in the roll of a wave, in the ocean swells and in the dance of light playing across the water’s surface - that all of these have made their contributions to this artist’s sensibility? I have no doubt.