Peter Zelle / Bio

Peter Zelle

Peter Zelle


In 2013, Minnesota artist Peter Zelle redirected his studio practice to create uncommonly large, cast glass sculptures. Neither the medium nor the process was foreign, as he had worked with glass since his college days in the mid-1980s at the Rhode Island School of Design. But the scale was. These new works, some of which measure more than seven feet in height, have allowed Zelle to create bold, abstract compositions and investigate the power of color on a challenging scale.

At RISD, Zelle shifted his early focus from ceramics to glass, drawn to the latter’s luminosity and color. He learned to blow and cast glass and studied with Howard Ben Trè, with whom he apprenticed for three years, following graduation. In 1990, Zelle returned to the Twin Cities and in 1992 established his Minneapolis studio. Early on he blew production ware – glasses, goblets, bowls and vases awash in a rainbow of color – and cast modestly scaled glass pieces, often in the form of houses.  Beginning in 2005, Zelle focused solely on making cast glass sculpture.

On initial viewing, it is difficult to determine whether one is most impressed by the scale of Zelle’s glass sculptures or their dynamic surfaces of puzzled together form and color. Tall and narrow suggesting sentinels on a castle watch, each freestanding piece is supported by a steel armature that echoes the rhythm or posture of the work. Significantly, the sculptures’ two sides convey different but related aesthetics, though each comprises the same formal composition. One is flat and smoothly polished, and the other is a textured bas-relief.

In a near magical way, Zelle’s cast glass pieces slip back and forth between painting and sculpture. His luminous palette, whether vivid or muted, imbues each work with an expressive painterly feel. Yet his emphasis on irregular edges and his exploration of negative space reinforces the works’ sculptural presence. In aggregate, Zelle’s complex passages of abstract form and color suggest the emotional and psychological ideas and stylistic motivations of early 20th century artists.  Variously, Matisse, Braque, Gorky and Kandinsky come to mind. Zelle also lists such Abstract Expressionists as DeKooning and Rothko, and the sculptor David Smith, as indirect influences.

In conversation, Zelle links his conceptual and technical process to that of composing music, as he orchestrates color, shape and form into a palpable visual harmony. He often titles works with musical terms such as sonata, composition and serenade. In three recent sculptures, the individual palettes and compositions reflect their musical titles, Woodlands Symphony, Summer Rhapsody and Autumn Nocturne.

Zelle’s sculptures require a labor-intensive process. He first carves the piece from clay, building and erasing shapes and forms until the abstract composition is resolved. In this ebb and flow of manipulating the clay over many days, Zelle finds that individual areas suggest certain colors. From the clay sculpture, he then casts a plaster silica mold whose surfaces are impressed with each striated edge, abstract shape, and flat or relief passages. Then, working in a highly intuitive manner, Zelle delicately sifts colored crushed glass, or frit, into the mold to create the work’s final palette. The mold is then fired and cooled over two weeks.

Making such immense work required Zelle not only to devise a new conceptual and technical approach to casting sculpture, but also to build a new kiln. Custom-designed by the artist and two colleagues, Zelle’s bright yellow Bonnet kiln measures 7 x 8 feet and contains two large beds onto which the bonnet is lowered. Given Zelle’s ongoing explorations in process and aesthetics, it seems fitting that his studio is the former site of General Mill’s research laboratories in the 1930s. The Betty Crocker test kitchen was a floor above.

Ultimately, Zelle is a colorist and his cast glass sculptures are compelling, associative pieces that prompt the viewer to bring his or her experiences to the work, or simply be immersed in its dramatic color and form. Many evoke an oblique narrative quality: one sculpture might suggest cultivated fields viewed from an airplane while another might convey a vibrant landscape journey. Like most musical compositions, Zelle’s sculptures should be experienced over time to appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances of each. And like most memorable works of art, Zelle’s glass sculptures allow the viewer to find personal resonance within.

Saint Paul-based Mason Riddle writes about the visual arts, architecture and design and has contributed to a range of publications including American Craft, Artforum, Dwell, Metropolis, and Surface Design.  


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