Artist Profile: Sierra Pecheur
By Jenny Begun
Los Angeles artist, Sierra Pecheur, who turned 80 a few days ago, is uncommonly strong and dynamic. She brings a lifetime of wisdom to her ceramic sculptures and gives us the gift of seeing the world through her experience. Growing up, she didn’t think of becoming an artist, but liked being creative. At college, she took all available art classes and, when time came to start taking requirements, she transferred to San Francisco Art Institute. “There, I began to get a sense that I might want to do this, and because I persisted I got skilled.” She started as a painter in New York in the 60’s. However, her artistic journey took a detour as she plunged into acting.
In New York, she met John Vaccaro, the theater director who founded The Playhouse of the Ridiculous. After seeing her one-time singing act at the Village Gate nightclub, Vaccaro said, “You can’t sing a lick, but you sure can perform. You want to audition for my next play?” That was an outright offer because, according to Pecheur, “Nobody auditioned for John. He wanted you or he didn’t.” They went on to become lifelong friends and Pecheur starred in his productions as well as touring to Holland with the company. “[Theater] was an adjunct to being an artist. I got to put on costumes and create fabulous makeup. We did whatever we wanted to as long as it fit the subject matter. John totally supported finding your creativity. It was counted on.”
In the early 70’s, Pecheur moved to Los Angeles to work in film. Again, she had the good fortune to work with legendary creatives, one of whom was the director Robert Altman. “What was interesting about working with Altman and Vaccaro was that my storytelling was supported. I consider my art stories,” says Pecheur.
Painting, theater and film helped her to understand her own creativity. In 1985, Pecheur returned to her artistic practice and began working in clay because she didn’t want to start where she had left off. “Clay collaborates with me because of the nature of the material. I love working with it. When I was building ‘Innocent #2,’ a large sculpture to represent the innocents of war, the figure was standing upright; the whole body upright. I was talking about war and the irreparable damage that is done to soldiers, invisible a lot of times. During firing, the rib cage collapsed and I realized I was making visible the invisible.”
Born in Hawaii, Pecheur’s family moved to South Carolina when she was four. Here, a keen interest in skeletons of small animals took root. This fascination was to become the subject of her ceramic output. When her brother Chewie was dying of AIDS in Arizona, she would visit every other week from LA, carrying a backpack filled with her sculpted skulls and bones. She wanted to share them with Chewie by way of photographing them in the sharded, rocky desert. Looking at her pictures, her brother made a prescient observation, “You have the makings of an archaeological dig.”
When Chewie died in 1992, Pecheur did a studio show of the skulls and bones at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica. “I had written a piece about my brother’s dying and how extraordinary it had been, the two of us together, and the ability to talk about his dying, and to be there as he left. I told that story and I showed the skulls and bones.” Her goal was to confront a common fear in American society, to show that death was a part of life. Pecheur’s first full scale show addressed this theme in the exhibition titled DIG: An Imagined Archeo-Logism at Xiem Gallery in Pasadena, California in 2008. “In the center of the gallery, skulls and bones were piled in heaps and people bought them by the pound. I loved it! But the other thing it did was it broke the fear – people were in, picking up skulls and looking at the teeth and the eyes. They were in.”
This was a turning point for Pecheur. She realized that she wanted her art to be a catalyst for conversation. Topics she addressed in the past as a performer, “…labeling of women by men, inequities of rich/poor, black/white, inhumanity of war,” reappeared through her sculptures. Remembering her father’s bedtime stories, she started referencing the myth of Medusa, one of her favorites, using it as the lens through which to look at current events. “What was interesting to me, I had bought the party line that Medusa was a bad guy. But in Sanskrit, Medusa means Sovereign Female Wisdom. That is very different from the head-full-of-snakes image. In my version of the myth, she was the wise woman who intended for us to be taken care of on this planet and for us to take care of it.”
Pecheur believes that many female figures are caretakers akin to Medusa. “Eve is Medusa. There is also this little statue, about 4-inches tall, The Venus of Willendorf. Her curls are like tiny serpents. In my myth, she is the first Medusa, the caretaker of the planet, not simply a sign of fertility. She is 32,000 years old. She is still living. I created a version of her, ‘Willendorf Update’, who is blown wide open, heart broken, but still standing, still doing her job, taking care of this planet.“
Also from the DIG story, a power-male figure, called ‘The Big Cheese’ stands on spindly legs that carry a once-proud, wide chest, now hunched, with a rattle snake inside his head. Secured to a banding wheel, one can spin him around to see an exoskeleton, “…like a handle for corporations to pick him up and pour him out wherever they want a war for profit. His ass is drooping and flat. He personifies men in power who send other people’s children to war.”
In 2009, Pecheur participated in a group exhibition Meditations on the Apocalyptic, curated by Patrick Merrill for Kellogg Gallery at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. Here she continued the visual story of DIG. “Rather than create another doomsday message, I built an antidote, Angeles for the Afflicted. The angels bring hope of change for the dire consequences of a nation that stifles discourse, uses war as a first resort, sidelines women, people of color, and LGBTQ’s, destroys lands and oceans, and drives wildlife and cultures to extinction.”
For her most recent exhibition, curated by Alexis Kelley and presented last month by Studio C Gallery in Los Angeles, Pecheur built a series of wall sculptures in the shape of the human heart. Titled PUMP, it was the third installment of DIG, Pecheur’s magnum opus. Her ceramic hearts comment on a variety of frightening current trends, including immigration, discrimination, alienation, but mostly focusing on the critical levels of pollution. Many sculptures contain small objects, shells, bones, and trash, which the artist finds on the beach during her morning walks. There is a plastic hull of a toy boat, carrying a group of ceramic creatures, enclosed in ‘Tidal Heart (aliens in boat).’ Another sculpture, ‘Tidal Heart (boy, T-rex)’ has a toy dinosaur, a shell casing, and a slew of small plastic objects littering its surface.
“PUMP confronts the alarming collapse of our home, Earth. It’s important for me to look at our destruction with all the fury I feel, but also to offer hope and heart, in this case literally.” The heart muscle keeps pumping through trauma or joy. With time, broken hearts can mend, helping us to transform invisible scars into knowledge. “Through open dialogue, respect for others, and kindness, hearts can be restored to wholeness.”
Currently, Pecheur is working on a Space Aliens series. These creatures take multiple incarnations in her work. Observers and protectors of dolls, endangered species, water, air, and dragons, they are akin to the spirit figures that exist in every culture’s folklore. Creating contemporary mythology relevant to the present day and stripped of centuries-old layers of patriarchal propaganda, the artist infuses her sculptures with humor and irreverence that allow her to deal with the pain of destruction. Pecheur’s work finds its biggest supporters and collectors amongst younger audiences, 20s and 30s, who are tired of the absence of depth in most of the current ‘content’ that is barraging us from online, TV, radio, and in print. People are looking for art that can reach them through the heart. “I believe in silliness,” Pecheur says. “We are in a time of crisis and I can’t bear it without some joy and goofiness. We must work together. I want to create an alliance of empathy and energy and generosity.”
Explosive Heart, 2014, mixed clay, glaze, luster, PUMP by Sierra Pecheur. Photo courtesy of the artist.