Interviewsand Articles


Sam Perry at Sanchez Art Center

by Richard Whittaker, Oct 6, 2015



I first met artist Sam Perry in 2000 when I interviewed Viola Frey. For many years, Sam was her assistant. In those days, in his own work, his medium of choice was clay. Before leaving Viola’s studio, I checked out Sam’s own work. Among his large clay pieces, I noticed one beautiful wooden bowl he’d carved. It stood out and I remarked on it as an indirect way of saying, “Maybe wood is your medium.” A few years later, I got an invitation to an opening of his sculpture in Oakland—all pieces carved from wood. Later on, I featured a portfolio of Sam’s outstanding wood sculpture in the magazine, issue #25.
     In June of 2015, Jerry Barish, director of the Sanchez Art Center in Pacifica, California, asked me to talk with Sam at an exhibit he arranged. He began by introducing me…

Jerry Barrish:  This is my favorite part of an exhibit when we have our artist talk. How do I find these shows? I find them in numerous ways. I found Sam Perry in works & conversations. Richard Whittaker is the founder and editor. The magazine comes out twice a year. I’ll just say that it’s really a wonderful magazine. And not only that, it's a very important magazine. He’ll tell you how you can get a copy or subscribe.
     So I called Richard up and said, “I'd like to go to Sam’s studio in the East Bay and see if I could talk him into showing here.” And I invited Richard to interview Sam. And here we are. So maybe Richard will speak a little about his magazine and then introduce Sam, the artist of this fabulous work.

Richard Whittaker:  Thank you, Jerry. I just want to say one thing about Jerry. The quality of work that he brings here to the Pacifica Art Center amazes me. This show is a good example of that. I don’t know how you do it, Jerry. Am I right that you don't get a salary?

JB:  No. It's a volunteer position.

RW:  See, there's something special about working pro bono, like you do and bringing such a high level of work to the community. It's quite a gift to Pacifica.

JB:  Thank you, Richard.

RW:  I don't want to bore anybody by talking about the magazine. It's a labor of love like the work that Jerry does here. It's still sort of under the radar. But I do have many impressive institutional subscribers like the Metropolitan Museum, the Kandinsky library in Paris, Harvard, Stanford, RISD, Columbia and a lot of others plus all kinds of good individual subscribers—and the website gets a lot of traffic. I’ve left some copies for you and please feel free to take one. I count on donations to keep it going. One of the best things about it for me is getting to meet really special artists like Sam. [turns to Sam] I think I first met you many years ago, when I interviewed Viola Frey.

Sam Perry:  Yes, we did meet there.

RW:  How many people here know of Viola Frey? Well, she was a very special artist and I’m going to want to ask you some questions about her, Sam. But before I get to that, I remember seeing a piece of yours that first time at Viola’s where you also had a studio, and I remember thinking, “God, that's beautiful!” Then maybe six or seven years later, I remember seeing your work in a show in downtown Oakland and it was pretty much all wood.

SP:  Yes.

RW:  And I thought, “This is really pretty amazing work!” Then a few years later I was just knocked out by seeing your work again. This last time, when I visited your studio for doing the piece in the magazine there was all this great work, and I also remember spotting a skateboard.

SP:  Right.

RW:  I think I asked you about that?

SP:  Yes. I mean, here’s a brief history of my background. I worked for Viola Frey, who was a ceramic artist. I got my degree in ceramics and my Masters in ceramics, but I grew up in a woodshop. I grew up in Hawaii. My father made Hawaiian racing canoes, so we had 40-foot long wooden boats in our shop, and I'd spend my weekends there. My parents got divorced when I was young so I spent Saturday and Sunday at my dad's shop; that was my quality time with my father, and as I got older, I started working there. Earlier, it was a place where I could find ways to occupy myself, for instance, I used to make skateboards for all my friends because we had a lot of scrap wood. This was a time when skateboarding came back with the invention of the urethane wheel and everything; there was the big explosion of skateboarding.

RW:  You were doing that in Hawaii? [yes] In what year roughly, would that be?

SP:  That would be the late 70s.

RW:  And you would be about how old at that time?

SP:  Yeah, probably 12, 13, 14, 15. So the skateboard in the studio came from me talking to a friend of mine who is also an artist and who lives in Hawaii. He said, “I made a longboard.” [skateboard] And I decided to make one. So I made it retro, like they were when I was a kid, not all these big flat things and stuff. So I just keep it around the studio; I rarely ride it.

RW:  But you also surfed. Right?

SP:  Yes. And I still surf here. And my father is very involved in canoes and paddling, so I spent a lot of time in the water as a child.

RW:  So what was that like for you as a teenager? What space did it occupy for you?

SP:  As an early teen, it occupied a good space. That's what I would do on the weekends or after school, probably until I was about 13. I lived about two blocks away from the beach, so I could walk down there with my surfboard. Then, when I got older, it occupied less time. I was a really blond-haired kid, and as I started going to the more popular surfing spots in North Shore, I usually got harassed a lot—never beaten up or anything, but just stupid stuff. So I started windsurfing, which is a whole different thing. That's basically what I did my late teens and early 20s, a lot of sailing and windsurfing, because you didn't have to deal with a crowd.

RW:  Yes. I’ve had a little bit of experience with surfing—nothing, I think, to compare with yours, but enough to have a sense of how compelling it can be. Could you say something about your feeling for it? For actually being out there surfing?

SP:  Well, in the last, probably eight years, I started surfing in California. I didn't surf at all in California before. I me I moved here and spent 20 years or more without ever surfing, then I'd go home for a couple of weeks and pick up a surfboard and just have fun.
     But I had a friend who took me out here and I realized it's not really that cold with a wetsuit. And where we were surfing, you have the long waves you can ride. It’s a lot of fun. So now I always go out first thing in the morning. You get that sunrise and the amount of marine life here is more than in Hawaii, certainly. You’re among seals swimming or dolphins, and in Hawaii it’s not that often.

RW:  Wow.

SP:  Sometimes it can be unnerving. So there's a certain kind of—you know, surfing is a very solitary sport even though you're sitting on your board with a bunch of guys.

RW:  And what's the attraction part of it?

SP:  Surfing? I think it's a rare thing where you can commune with nature this way. You're riding a wave which, even if you're skiing down a mountain, it's not quite the same thing. That mountain's going to be the same the next time you go, and the next time you go. But that wave, every next wave is going to be different. So there's a certain kind of connection that happens there.

RW:  See, I think that's interesting. I'm asking about this because I think it's actually kind of a deep thing to have that. The wave is moving…

SP:  Right.

RW:  You really have to be in the moment.

SP:  And you have to learn how to read how it's coming in, all the currents in the water.
     With my early work I got into these curvilinear forms—it's not that obvious with this work here—but what really motivated me was the force that water exerts whether it's river currents or ocean waves that push you around and up and down, these forces that are not necessarily visible, but acting on you—like wind, even, for that matter.

RW:  I've had the intuitive feeling for years that surfers and artists belong together, and I've never been able to figure out why I feel that way. But what you've just said makes so much sense to me, especially with your work, to think of a relationship with the forces acting through water. Do you think there's a relationship between surfers and art? What would you say?

SP:  I don’t know if I could say yes for everybody, you know? But for me, certainly, to some degree. Yes, absolutely.

RW:  I felt it would be interesting to ask you about that. What happened that made you come to the California College of Arts—I think it was still CCAC back in those days.

SP: Still Crafts in my day.

RW:  What took place there?

SP:  I went to a really good high school in Hawaii, the same one Barack Obama went to, and it had a really great art department. And for me in high school, pottery and ceramics was about the only thing I excelled in. I had some great teachers there who pushed it, and I was pretty much a straight C student in everything else.
     When you grow up in Hawaii, it's pretty much “when I graduate, I'm getting off the island.” So going to the mainland was more or less what I knew I was going to do. And I wanted to go to art school my first year out, but my parents were like no, you're not doing that. So I went to North Carolina then went to East Carolina University, which also had a very good ceramics program in their art departments. But I never went to see the campus so when I got off the plane and that was the first time I saw the place. So it was a little bit of a shock. And I didn't get into a single art class in my first semester of my freshman year. Well, I had art history with 300 other people in an auditorium. So that was it. The second semester I was taking basically your foundation: design and drawing.

RW:  Was that the first time you've been in the U.S.?

SP:  No. I'd come to California several times and even New York. But I realized by the second semester that I was probably going to be a junior before I was working in clay and I didn't want to do that. So I convinced my parents to help me out and went to California College of Arts and Crafts.
     And it was a wake up in so many different ways. Number one, you were immersed in an art school. I was working in clay from day one. The other thing is that it was ceramics that I was completely unfamiliar with. There were these bright colors, not this high-fired stoneware look. It was low fire, bright colors; it looked like it was painted. So it was strange, and it was sculptural. Viola would say “anybody can throw a pot.” Anybody in this school could. So there were a lot of things I wasn't familiar with. I kind of had to get more sculptural and this and that. I never had Viola as a teacher until I was a grad student.

RW:  Really?

SP:  Yes. She was a very imposing figure at school and I think the first two years I was there, she was either on sabbatical, or she only taught upper division students.

RW:  Now you ended up spending something like 17 years working with her as her assistant?

SP:  Yes.

RW:  I mean that's a long time.

SP:  It's a long time. I worked for Viola for ten years, probably, and then she started having health problems. Viola was a unique person. She didn't really get along with her family. She had a circle of artists that were kind of her family and watched out for her. She was a generous boss and a great person to work for, but I realized that if I left, she would be in a bad space because she had physical difficulties and they progressed. She never got back to 100%. She had cancer; she had strokes. So it would have been very bad for her if I said, “I can't do this anymore.” And also at the same time, it gave me the opportunity to do my own work. I had a studio. I mean, she took a lot of my time five days of the week, but I would work in my studio at night. Then I had another job I'd work on the other two days.

RW:  You mentioned that she was an imposing figure. Now I heard stories that many students practically worshipped her.

SP:  Yep. They either worshipped her or hated her.

RW:  And my interview with Viola, I found it very difficult to get her to share her inner experience. You had mentioned earlier when we were chatting, that when people tried to find out more about what she was thinking or feeling, that she just…

SP:  Right. She would get worse. She'd push back.

RW:  Push back. And I try to be sensitive. I'm there asking her questions and I can see she's uncomfortable; she's not answering. At she was in poor health. At one point when I asked a question and she literally does this [I imitate her getting up and starting to hobble off]. She was leaving, and I said, “No Viola. Please don’t go.” 

SP:  Right. And I mean that probably the reason we got along so well is I didn't ask those questions. I mean I did not.

RW:  That's what I wanted to know after all these years.

SP:  Right. I mean everybody wants to know what are her deep thoughts. I don't know what they were.

RW:  Okay.

SP:  I think when you're in an artist studio assistant relationship, I don't think the artist wants to be asked why what's this mean? You know? They don't need that in the studio; it's just aggravating. And a lot of times the artist doesn't have the answer to why he's doing it when he's doing it. He might be able to go back and look and, you know, “I must have been doing this or that,” or “thinking about this” when I was making this.
     A lot of times you get the piece roughed out and your idea is kind of visualized, but it doesn't have the finished quality yet. So there's a huge amount of tedium in making work like this [gestures to his work on display]. I've got to sand it; I've got to make it a little thinner there because it doesn't look right. I think there's a huge amount of tedium in any kind of art.

RW:  Okay. Having spent all that time with Viola, what are the things that you took away that have been helpful to you?

SP:  Well, Viola's studio and my studio are somewhat the same. It's dusty, it's dingy and nothing looks like it does in the show, but then she had this room and all her finished work was in it. When people went in there it was just overwhelming. That's one thing she taught me. Have a room with your finished work, and that's where people can see things.

RW:  That's interesting.

SP:  And also just the pure plodding of it all. You have to do it every day, every day. I mean, I don't have the opportunity to do it every day right now.

RW:  She was like that though. Right?

SP:  She was like that. Every day. That was it. That was her life.

RW:  So what happened? You used to work almost entirely in clay.

SP:  Yes.

RW:  And now it seems that you're working almost entirely in wood. Is that right?

SP:  Yes.

RW:  What happened there?

SP:  Well, I worked for Viola for 17 years, who did large-scale clay. I did large-scale clay. I found at the end of the day, I just had no energy to do the same thing and not get paid for it. It's just so much work, the process of clay. And if I wasn't interested enough in what I was doing, I’d get something halfway built and it would dry out. So I kind of just hit a wall. For about probably four years, I just did drawings and realized that I had zero interest in the sculpture I was doing.

RW:  In the clay sculpture?

SP:  In the clay sculpture. I felt like I was repeating whatever I did. And at the same time, I worked at a place in Woodside called Runnymede Sculpture Farm. A San Francisco person started an outdoor art collection, and he bought two pieces of Viola's. And since I would install her pieces when they were sold, I went down there to install them, and this guy kept calling me back, “Hey, I got this new piece; do you want to come down to install it?” So eventually two or three days a week I’d be working down there.
     It one hundred acres of woodland and there’s just tons of wood that’s alway falling. I’d cut it up for firewood or just leave it to rot on the ground. I kept just thinking, “There's something I can do with this.” So I took a chunk home and started fiddling around with it, and basically doing the same subject matter that my ceramics was about, but with a little more freedom because I didn't have the structural issues of clay. The other thing I really liked is that it kind of created a problem/solution-kind of thing. With clay, when we’d buy our clay, we would get it in a one thousand pound plop; we'd call them dinosaur plops. That's how you got it. We had to figure out what to do with it from scratch.
     But with the wood, each piece has a shape. What are you going to do with it? Often the shape gives me an idea of something to do with it. So it gave me an entrance to finding new forms and a new vocabulary of shapes. That was a lot more exciting. And it allowed me to become simpler in what I wanted to do; I didn't have to be as complex. Because wood as a material—I don't know exactly how to put it; it has a certain kind of spiritual quality. You can just take a piece of wood and shape it and polish it up and it has an aura about it.

RW:  That's interesting, because I remember seeing some of your clay work. I don't know if it was finished or not, but it didn't affect me at all like your wood does. Your wood pieces kind of sing and I wasn't hearing that from the others.

SP:  It definitely resonates. And the clay was more of like an accomplishment. Can I do this? Can I make this go like that? You know? Dealing with structural ceramic issues. Those things were interesting to me, but actually, a lot of that was satisfied with Viola's work because her work kept going bigger and bigger, and I was involved in figuring out how make it work. So my interest in clay was getting satisfied and I was about done, “This piece is going to be…uh, it's got a crack in it.” You know?

RW:  Yes. So would you talk a little more about wood as a material? You already referred to wood as having a certain spiritual quality.

SP:  Right. I mean I'm not saying people can't make clay that has a spiritual quality. But for me, I was not getting that from my work. And the other thing is that wood allows me to start something, put it down, and come back to it. A lot of times you start something and you don't have the resolution in your head. You have the general idea, but you don’t know how it's going to completely resolve itself at the end.

RW:  Right.

SP:  So I'll put it down and go, “This is driving me nuts! If I work anymore, I'll screw it up.” So I put it down and start a new piece. Then I come back to it later and figure it out. The piece in the far corner, the big bowl.

RW:  Yes. I see it.

SP:  That probably took three or four years. I mean it didn't take three or four years to make, but I let it sit at least two. It had a big crack at the top. At some point I cut it out; it was an idea, and it was horrible; I hated it. I should have left it natural. So I put it down and then I finally came to this thing: it needs to be like two halves. I wanted to keep someone interested all the way around and through.

RW:  That's such a real live thing when you're working on a piece and you get to a point and you like what's going on, but you don't know what comes next.

SP:  Right.

RW:  And then you know, this is like a dangerous place.

SP:  Right.

RW:  I mean that that fear comes up.

SP:  And I think especially with the subtractive method of sculpture. Once it's gone, it's gone, you know? With clay, you can get away with it a little bit. You can put it back, you know.

RW:  How do you know when a piece is finished?

SP:  It's pretty easy. I know it. In fact, I say there are two stages. Like when a piece is finished, or when it's done. I don't know if that's the right way to put it. I'll get pieces to the stage where they're 95% finished. I just put it aside because that 5% is probably 50% more time. It's the tedious part, the sanding, just fixing little lines—you know, make it more this way or to pull off a little bit more, to make whatever illusion you're trying better, I guess. It's just crisping up lines; straightening little bumps and curves.

RW:  When you finish the piece and you know it's done, do you find that looking at it a month later, six months later, a year later, that you still can say, “Yes!”? Does that still happen for you?

SP:  Absolutely.

RW:  I mean, that's a big thing.

SP:  Yes. I have no problems with that. Usually, after six months or a year passes, I go, “How did I do that?” Because I don’t remember. It's like, “How did I get all the way in there to do this, that, or that?”

RW:  You've spent a lot of time at the Runnymede Sculpture Farm so is there anything from your experience there that you’d like to talk about?

SP:  Well, I probably wouldn't be working in wood if I didn't work there. I've worked there for 25 or 26 years. It's the Rosekrans family, who are the Spreckels people. And they are an incredibly generous family. I mean, it's a great job. I tell people it's like being a park ranger, except you've got to take care of some art. It's three days a week year round being out in the open.
     While Viola was alive the only reason I could work seven days a week is I had two days a week there that was something completely different than the other five in the studio. And that gave me a little bit of a rest. I didn't have a girlfriend, I didn't have a life other than that and my own studio work.

RW:  And now you are married and you have a child?

SP:  I'm married and I have a one-year-old. So things change fast.

RW:  How are you feeling about everything right now, in terms of your work?

SP:  My work? Obviously, I'm not spending so much time in the studio because I have a one-year-old, but I’m happy with what I’m getting done. You know, I wish I had more time in the studio. And I've got a pretty good-sized studio. I would say 65% of it is piles of wood that are just trees. I at the point where I'm saturated; I have no room. Every time a big tree comes down I have the luxury that maybe I just want a part of it. You know? Maybe a one-thousand pound trunk, or something.
     So I get to be very choosy. And usually, because the wood is fresh, I get to it before the bugs do. I have to wait probably three years before I can work on a piece of wood. So I may have a crystal clear idea when I first see that piece of wood. But chances are, three years later, I have no idea what it was.

RW:  Now you've been working with wood how many years would you say?

SP:  About 15.

RW:  What have you learned about wood?

SP:  I think what I've learned, and part of this is just splitting firewood. You can learn an amazing thing about the structure of a particular wood that way. The majority of it is live oak, the species. I’ve learned where can I remove wood without removing the integrity of the piece, that is, not making it fall apart—knowing the interior structure and how I can do what I want to do and making it work.

RW:  Like for instance, this piece behind you here.

SP:  Right.

RW:  How in the heck do you do something like that?

SP:  I can tell you: drills. I was doing knots and stuff and I did a big freestanding triplicate piece. The one over there I intended to be on a stand, but I just didn’t feel like it wanted to stand up from the bottom. And I couldn't see how that was going to work without putting a big steel plate on it, or you know, just being too heavy-handed on the piece. Really, I start and I nibble. I never take giants cuts. I mean I nibble, nibble, nibble.

RW:  I see.

SP:  And I usually get to the stage where I go, “This is kind of what I want, but I want it a half inch thinner the whole way around or so.” So I go in and do it.

RW:  Okay. You move it along and wait for it to give you some feedback?

SP:  Well it's not even that. A lot of times, like with something like that, I don't necessarily know what the back's going to be, for instance. I have to nibble on one side so you know what the other side's going to be. Then you kind of start following your lines and then when it disappears into a solid chunk of wood, you're asking now where do I think this would come out? I use a lot of long drill bits and I'll drill a teeny little hole through, then I’ll work it larger and larger and larger, and bring in saw blades and stuff. But I usually get a rough outline shape of what I want and then start to pierce it.

RW:  Maybe this is a good place to open this up. Maybe there are some questions for Sam?

Audience:  What type of wood do you like best?

SP:  I love madrone, which is the brown wood over here. Madrone doesn't grow very big around here, but the trees have these really beautiful, kind of gentle curves, and the wood itself is really hard; it's so dense that it carves like a piece of coal. But the majority of the wood I use is live oak and it tends to get a lot of teeny checks, as opposed to one giant split like some black oak or valley oaks do. I mean, I just learned this through having failures or something.

JB:  A couple of people who are in the gallery asked me what kind of wood it was and then I thought that if it was really important it would be on the label.
Does that matter to you, in terms of people knowing?

SP:  It doesn't matter, no. That's why I don't put it on the label. To me, each piece is made out of wood. I'm not trying to make like a gourmet menu or something, you know?

Audience:  Is it much of an issue with you in your creative process of deciding if and when to use power tools as opposed to hand tools?

SP:  No. I use power tools as much as possible.

Audience:  Whatever it takes then?

SP:  Yes. I'm not trying to be Mr. Nature or anything like that. I mean, I do a lot of hand sanding, but if I can do anything with a power tool, I'll do it. I mainly use air tools because I've smashed my fingers eight million times with power tools. An air tool, at least, will just stop when it finds a knot.

Audience:  Would you go as big as a chainsaw?

SP:  Yes. I would say every piece starts with a chainsaw.

Audience:  That piece in back of you? Did you do two loops and then put them together?

SP:  No. It's one piece of wood.

Audience:  Do you pre-visualize the pieces? Do you do drawings or is it real intuitive?

SP:  Both. Sometimes it's pretty intuitive and sometimes I'll do drawings. I'll draw it out especially if it's a piece that I can't necessarily make. I don't always make maquettes, but I do for things that are fairly complex where I'm going to need to figure out how to start them and where they're going to be. I'll make maquettes out of paper, rope, anything you know, that's going to work, foam rubber.

Audience:  Are you more efficient in the studio now that you have less time in there?

SP:  Definitely, yes. I kind of get there and do things instead of get there and hang out, look at the computer.

Audience:  How did your time in your father's workshop influence you?

SP:  Other than making me really confident in wood and tools, I think actually, I would say it gave me an appreciation for wood. I mean, in the shop we were mostly repairing and restoring very old canoes. They’re made out of a wood called koa, which only grows in Hawaii. It's a beautiful dark, rich wood that they make a lot of furniture out of. So at a young age I learned the beauty of just a piece of wood this big. Wow, this piece is beautiful! Then you'd have another piece that wasn’t, just because of the grain.
     My father was an insurance agent; he only worked in his canoe shop on the weekends. It was the same with my grandfather who started the canoe shop. It wasn’t really a hobby and it wasn't an occupation because they couldn't have made a living doing it. The work they did with canoes was all for canoe clubs, and canoe clubs are kind of like a baseball league that starts with 12 year olds and goes up to 60 year olds these days. They don't have a lot of money necessarily—some do, some of them don’t.
     So you'd repair the canoe for barely any profit; it was kind of like giving back, or whatever. Then, when the canoe was almost done, you'd invite the canoe club to come down and do the finish sanding on it. And the canoe clubs treat these canoes like, they're very spiritual about them; the canoes are all blessed.
A lot of the canoes went back 50 or 60 years. You can't get logs like that anymore. A lot of canoes have been around so long that they probably only have like 50% of the original wood left in them because they've gone through so many repairs.
     So what I learned at a young age was that I was good with my hands. I could make and do things a lot of the other kids my age couldn't do. I'd make skateboards or whatever. And then when I was in high school and was making ceramics, it was an extension of that. I was recognized as being good by my teachers. So when you go through high school with deans telling you you're not going to do this or that, it was nice to have someone say, “You're really good at this!”

Audience:  How much time do you spend working on a piece?

SP:  I've been working on a piece similar to that one [points] probably about 20 hours a week now for a month and I'm not halfway through.

RW:  Unless there's a burning question still out there maybe we can adjourn. We thank you so much, Sam.



About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.


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