Ab­stract artist Peters has 2 home­town solo shows

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - EL­LIS WIDNER

“Paint­ing … al­ways paint­ing.” Those three words ap­pear at the top of each page of painter Sammy Peters’ web­site.

It’s a mantra, of sorts; maybe a motto; per­haps a guide to life or a work ethic; words that just might re­veal some­thing about who Peters is.

The de­sire to paint “is there pretty much all of the time,” he says. “I want to do some­thing that is pos­i­tive in the work. I’m a bet­ter hus­band and fa­ther when I paint. It feeds into my life, causes my mind to be in a good place.

“I be­lieve in pos­i­tive things and I want to do some­thing pos­i­tive in the work. I feel I’m do­ing some­thing for the planet. Whether I am or not, I have that sen­sa­tion that draws me back to paint­ing.”

Three other words, along with a cou­ple of punc­tu­a­tion marks, pro­vide a tem­plate of sorts for the koan-es­que ti­tles of most of his ab­stract art­work since about 1995. For ex­am­ple, there’s Ob­ser­va­tion: pres­ence;

re­vealed, one of the paint­ings in the su­perla­tive ex­hi­bi­tion “Sammy Peters: Then and Now” at the But­ler Cen­ter for Arkansas Stud­ies. The ex­hibit sur­veys his work since 1962 and is ac­com­pa­nied by a full-color cat­a­log.

“It was some­thing that came to me; there was no prece­dent for it,” he says. “I needed a ti­tle for a work. I tried to be cre­ative, but all of a sud­den I didn’t want the

ti­tle to be spe­cific. The words that res­onate with me re­flect my per­son­al­ity to me; maybe not to some­one else. Like paint­ings, I have no idea how peo­ple will react. The ti­tles are more about me than that par­tic­u­lar work.

“I didn’t want to cor­ral a paint­ing, make it this and not that.”

It has been nine years since the gen­tle, soft-spo­ken Peters has had a solo ex­hi­bi­tion of his often large can­vases in his home­town. So it’s only fit­ting that the Lit­tle Rock artist’s ab­stract mul­ti­me­dia paint­ings get not one, but two show­cases.

“Then and Now” is a ca­reer sur­vey or­ga­nized by Peters and Greg Thomp­son of Greg Thomp­son Fine Art. The show hangs through Aug. 26 at the But­ler Cen­ter. Thomp­son also is pre­sent­ing Peters’ works in a mini-show that is part of the “South­ern Ab­strac­tion” ex­hi­bi­tion at the North Lit­tle Rock gallery through Aug. 12.

It’s a lot of vis­i­bil­ity for the artist, whose last solo Lit­tle Rock show was in 2008 at the now-closed Heights Gallery.

Still, it’s not like Peters has been fly­ing un­der the radar since then.

He and good friends/fel­low artists David Bailin and War­ren Criswell have shown their work to­gether, at Arkansas State Univer­sity in 2014 and at the But­ler Cen­ter in 2015, un­der the ti­tle “Dis­parate Acts.” Peters had a solo ex­hibit at Arkansas Tech Univer­sity in 2014 and solo ex­hi­bi­tions since 2000 in Santa Fe, N.M., and At­lanta, Hous­ton, Mem­phis, Phoenix and Scotts­dale, Ariz.

Their friend­ship — the men meet weekly for lunch, some­times joined by other artists — doesn’t man­i­fest in his art.

“We’re on au­topi­lot in a dif­fer­ent galaxy,” Peters says, laugh­ing. “There’s an elec­tric­ity ex­change in our dis­cus­sions about art, what we like and don’t like. David and War­ren are bet­ter at art his­tory; War­ren knows more about lit­er­a­ture than David or I. War­ren’s also writ­ten about my work, which was very help­ful to me in un­der­stand­ing what I do as an artist. David’s just writ­ten some­thing about my ti­tles, and I’m look­ing for­ward to read­ing it.”

Thomp­son, who met Peters 20 years ago as he be­gan his ca­reer as an art bro­ker and later a gallery owner, holds Peters in high re­gard per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally.

“He has a Bud­dha-like calm­ness with a dry, in­tel­li­gent sense of hu­mor and per­spec­tive,” Thomp­son says.

Peters, he says, is “an in­ter­na­tional artist.”

“I put Sammy up there with Willem de Koon­ing and Jack­son Pollock. I think he’s one of the most im­por­tant artists to come out of Arkansas … out of the South … along with Car­roll Cloar, Robyn Horn. There is a time­less res­o­nance to Sammy’s work, there is depth and an al­most East­ern sen­si­bil­ity I con­nect with.”

“Then and Now” had ear­lier stops in Fort Smith and Mem­phis in 2016. Each it­er­a­tion of the tour­ing ex­hibit has been a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.

“The con­tent that changes is in the ‘now’ part,” Peters says. “When my show in Santa Fe closed this spring, I added some of those works into the mix.”

Peters sees him­self as in­flu­enced by early ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists such as Pollock, de Koon­ing and Franz Kline.

“The drama in their work was a lit­tle overblown,” Peters says. “My work is quite a bit dif­fer­ent. When it comes to art, the viewer and the artist dance to­gether. The view­ers can have their read­ing, what­ever causes them to fall in love with it. But it’s not nec­es­sar­ily the same feel­ing the artist feels when he fin­ishes it. Some­times I’m ex­hil­a­rated when I fin­ish a work, other times I’m just glad it got fin­ished.”


Sam and Ju­ran Peters moved their fam­ily to Lit­tle Rock from Shreve­port when Sammy was 6 years old.

“I grew up in a house­hold with a lot of art. My fa­ther was an artist and a sign painter who owned Ace Signs in Lit­tle Rock; dad was very en­cour­ag­ing about my pur­su­ing art. He’s the main in­flu­ence.”

Oth­ers made an im­pact as well: Lit­tle Rock Cen­tral High School art teacher He­len Terry Mar­shall, Arkansas painter Ed­win Brewer and high school friend and painter Pa­trick McFar­lin.

“It was very eye-open­ing; He­len Terry Mar­shall brought in films about ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists and oth­ers into our class­room. She took us on art trips to the Mem­phis Col­lege of Art.”

Brewer was a highly re­garded artist, as were his fa­ther, Adrian, and grand­fa­ther Ni­cholas. Ed­win Brewer taught at the Arkansas Arts Cen­ter and Lit­tle Rock Univer­sity (now the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Lit­tle Rock) in the 1950s and ’60s. Peters and his fa­ther painted with the Brew­ers on oc­ca­sion in Ed­win Brewer’s stu­dio be­hind his home in the Hill­crest neigh­bor­hood.

“Ed­win was a men­tor to me,” Peters says.

McFar­lin and Peters got bet­ter ac­quainted in col­lege and later shared a paint­ing stu­dio. In the early ’60s, Peters knew his di­rec­tion was in ab­strac­tion. McFar­lin be­came a fig­u­ra­tive painter and has had a stu­dio in Santa Fe some three decades.

One of the more fas­ci­nat­ing turns in Peters’ life came when he and McFar­lin moved to the Berke­ley, Calif., area around 1964 at the in­vi­ta­tion of McFar­lin’s cousin.

“I had stud­ied drama at the Arkansas Arts Cen­ter and I thought I might like film­mak­ing and di­rect­ing,” Peters says. While act­ing in a play in Berke­ley, he was in­tro­duced to a mem­ber of the San Fran­cisco Mime Troupe.

“I was an as­sis­tant di­rec­tor on some of their projects; they did plays, too, such as Wait­ing for Godot.”

The man­ager of the Mime Troupe was Bill Graham, the rock im­pre­sario whose Fill­more club be­came a hot­bed of ’60s psy­che­delic rock; he worked with bands such as Big Brother and the Hold­ing Com­pany (with Ja­nis Jo­plin), the Grate­ful Dead and Jef­fer­son Air­plane.

Peters was en­gaged to work on posters for Graham’s ac­tiv­i­ties, but Peters was miss­ing his fam­ily in Arkansas and de­cided to move home. McFar­lin stayed for a time be­fore re­turn­ing to Arkansas, then on to Santa Fe.

The posters for Graham’s shows be­came icons of ’60s psychedelia.

No re­grets, Peters says.


All th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences, and many oth­ers, in­clud­ing his 40-plus years mar­riage to Pam, have brought Peters and his art to this point. And it’s all there on the walls of the But­ler Cen­ter and Thomp­son gal­leries. Clearly, he has ded­i­cated his life and ca­reer to ab­strac­tion and its pos­si­bil­i­ties. Peters has been faith­ful to that vi­sion. His open ap­proach to cre­ativ­ity gives his vi­sion an un­com­mon depth ar­tis­ti­cally, tech­ni­cally and emo­tion­ally.

Through his use of a di­verse and some­times al­most clash­ing pal­ette, drips, overand un­der-paint­ing, scrap­ing, splat­ters, col­lage and more, Peters finds free­dom to ex­press what he sees, be­lieves and feels.

“Paint­ing is like breath­ing, it’s a heart­beat,” he says. “When I’m in the stu­dio, I’ll see what’s hap­pen­ing in the stages of evo­lu­tion in the two or three works I’ve got go­ing. Maybe I’ll see some­thing I haven’t no­ticed be­fore and use that as a de­par­ture to start an­other paint­ing.

“I like a di­vided can­vas, I like edges, where one thing leads to an­other and might go over to the other side of that can­vas. I like the sur­prises that emerge. As I’m work­ing, it’s a lit­tle bit like the sur­re­al­ists. They would do au­to­nomic [spon­ta­neous] draw­ing. Let one thing lead to an­other. That in­trigues me, as does the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, which is part of what I do. When I go to sleep at night or if I’m in a quiet place, I can key in a thought of a dream,

which will lead me to a more ex­pan­sive vi­sion. That place leads to an­other place. It’s a bit like con­scious dream­ing.”

Peters’ so­phis­ti­cated com­po­si­tions are fluid, with an un­de­ni­able sense of move­ment, a strik­ing in­tel­li­gence and a rhythm born in the artist’s heart and mind and ex­pressed through his skill­ful hand. There are threads of thought, place and di­rec­tion a viewer can fol­low through the var­i­ous ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal el­e­ments he em­ploys. As large as some of his can­vases are, they seem like a world the viewer can phys­i­cally en­ter.

More re­cent paint­ings have an oc­ca­sional, fas­ci­nat­ing sparse­ness that sug­gests med­i­ta­tive or meta­phys­i­cal as­pects; per­haps a sense of ur­gency or maybe re­flec­tion brought on by the pas­sage of time and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Through­out, the paint­ings of Sammy Peters re­veal a rest­less spirit, an in­tu­itive artist who isn’t afraid to go forth boldly and un­pre­dictably; he is an artist who is still hun­gry, still want­ing to break new ground.

And the sur­prises have emerged steadily over six decades, as “Sammy Peters: Then and Now” and his work in “South­ern Ab­strac­tion” make abun­dantly clear. They likely will con­tinue to do so.

“Paint­ing … al­ways paint­ing.”

Cour­tesy of Sammy Peters

Sammy Peters’ 2017 paint­ing of oil and mixed me­dia on can­vas, Ob­ser­va­tion: pres­ence; re­vealed, is part of the ret­ro­spec­tive “Sammy Peters: Then & Now” at the But­ler Cen­ter for Arkansas Stud­ies. The work is 60 by 48 inches.

Cour­tesy of Greg Thomp­son Fine Art

is a 2013 oil and mixed me­dia on can­vas. The 60-by-72-inch work is part of Lit­tle Rock artist Sammy Peters’ works in “South­ern Ab­strac­tion” at Greg Thomp­son Fine Art. Ten­ta­tive: un­der­ly­ing; spa­ces

Cour­tesy of Sammy Peters

An acrylic and duco on ma­sonite work from 1963 by Sammy Peters is ti­tled The Name’s Not. The 42-inch-by-60-inch paint­ing hangs at the But­ler Cen­ter for Arkansas Stud­ies.

Cour­tesy of Sammy Peters

Sammy Peters

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