You could define irony as a ceramic artist with epilepsy and think you came up with something original. Then you meet Peter Lenzo and see exactly how profound the impact that living with uncontrollable seizures has on the work of an artist.
Peter spends most of his days at Southern Pottery, a gallery and studio on Rosewood Avenue, where he builds the face jugs that have become his focus. When he tires, he naps on a rattan loveseat. When he’s awake, he wears a protective leather helmet, because a seizure can start with no warning. When he talks, his speech is slow and every so often rises gently, almost an octave in pitch — a side effect of the medication he has to take.
If you believe the axiom that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, then Peter Lenzo is one powerful man, and it shows in his art. He has taken what could have devastated him and turned it into inspiration.
“It totally changed the way I work, in that I used to do a lot of mixed media work,” Peter says. “I did a lot of work that had wood as well and a lot of fine cabinetry out of found wood. But that required me to use power tools. When my seizures got more frequent and my equilibrium got worse, I knew it was a matter of time before I’d lose a finger or hand. I had to let that go and go back to working with just clay. Then about a year or two ago, I started getting too dizzy at the potter’s wheel to throw a whole lot, so I started having other people throw for me.” Now Peter throws only some of his smaller pieces.
At first, the seizures, which started about 20 years ago, were infrequent. “They were once every six months, once a year,” he says. “It was more of a hassle because I couldn’t drive. Then they started getting more regular. The medication was causing me a lot of problems in between. The doctor said I had some brain damage from my seizures as well. My work started turning as a result of that. Now I think my work is driven by that.”
The work in question tends to be a skewed combination of face jug and memory jug, both of which are traditional Southern folk arts. Peter thinks of them as his journal, his way of telling a story about what is happening at that moment. The result can be humorous, disquieting, or a little of each. “I have all the objects on the outside,” he explains, “so the memories are on the outside instead of on the inside, a substitute for the memories that are not inside anymore. I kind of consider them as an ongoing narrative or like an autobiography that I’m telling.”
He also has a series of what he calls seizure pots, made on a day when he later had a seizure. “Sometimes when I go back and look at them I’ll detect something different,” he says. For example, a seizure pot he has for sale in the Southern Pottery gallery “has a kind of gentleness to it. The face is very calm, calmer than what I usually make.”
On this day, Peter is finishing a jug for his daughter, Roxanne — a present for her 18th birthday. He has completed the jug form and is working on adding the memory elements. “The head is me. That’s me crawling out [of the eye] and trying to tell a story that I can’t remember. This is an African king — a strong idealized self. This other guy is a polite, young, aristocratic gentleman – my idealized young boyfriend for her. This young couple is another idealized image. The mother and child figure — that has multiple meanings. I did a whole series of photographic images when Roxanne was a baby of me holding her in the position of these old virgin and child portraits, as if I were Mary and she were Jesus. Here I am the child and she is the virgin, reversing roles in my mind. But also seeing it in its traditional role as a holy image looking over her and protecting her. These old baby dolls are her babies for the future. Minnie Mouse is just for the playfulness, for keeping that alive, because she’s still very childlike and playful. I have a lot more things I want to put on it.”
At the time the seizures started to bring about the sea of change in his life, Peter was a professor of ceramics at the University of South Carolina. He loved teaching. According to Nancy Underwood, one of his former graduate students, “He was magnetic, with a visionary intelligence, not at all like the run-of-the-mill art teacher,” says Nancy, a fine arts teacher at Richland Northeast High School and the artistic director of the IndieReels Festival. “He talked about art in way that was edgy and lyrical at the same time. He’s the synthesis of everything an artist should be.”
To Peter, it was a particularly fulfilling time, but by the mid-’90s, it was over. “It’s something I’ve gotten past now, but when I had to stop I cried and I cried,” he said. “It was very, very hard. It had gotten to the point where I was having too many seizures, I was having them in the classroom, and I was getting too spacey in the classroom — I would start a sentence and not finish it on a regular basis.”
Now Peter lives with his daughter, a freshman at USC who chose to remain at home because her father cannot live alone. She makes sure he takes his medicine, gets to his doctor appointments, and doesn’t “get into trouble or anything.” He also has a son from his second marriage. “My kids have always been just the best,” he said. “I feel like I’m blessed to be around so many wonderful people who help me keep doing what I want to do. I go between my house and work. I have a simple life.”
Peter Lenzo’s ceramics are in the collections of The South Carolina State Museum, The Mint Museum, The Renwick Gallery at The Smithsonian Museum and private collectors.