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The Fine Art of Being Peter Max

by Peter Proko

In what has become an annual rite of passage, iconic artist Peter Max will return to Stone Harbor’s Ocean Galleries over the July Fourth weekend to show- case his latest works alongside some of his most recognizable pieces. Even at 78 years old, Max paints every day and continues to unveil new creations, like this month’s cover of the magazine.

We spoke with Max ahead of the upcoming exhibition to find out more about his passion, his fondness for the Shore and how he’s evolved over the span of his remarkable career.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: You’ll be returning to Ocean Galleries this July Fourth weekend, what can visitors expect from this year’s exhibit?
PETER MAX: Some classics and some new works never seen before. I’ve also recreated some familiar works in new color spectrums. But I always like to have a few surprises.

SJM: Lots of folks have traditions for the Fourth, and you could say that one of yours is visiting Stone Harbor. What makes the place so special for you to revisit year after year?
PM: It’s always a pleasure to visit Stone Harbor. The fresh air and views of the Atlantic Ocean are a special treat for the senses as well as the small town charm. But I especially enjoy seeing my friends and fans—the people who come to my gallery shows—they are all relaxed and in good spirits, and we have a great time.

SJM: What are some of your favorite memories from the time you have spent in Stone Harbor?
PM: Mainly the new people I meet and the familiar faces who I have seen at previous shows. Meeting new friends and seeing old ones is my greatest pleasure.

SJM: Your work has appeared on a cruise ship, on a plane, even in promotions for The Voice. In what ways is it gratifying to see your work branch out from paint on canvas into these other projects?
PM: There was an expression in the ’60s coined by Marshall McLuhan that said, “The media is the message.” To me, “the media is the canvas.” It’s great to have a canvas on a gallery or museum wall, but it’s something special to see my art blown up on a cruise ship or a Continental Airlines’ super jet.

SJM: Your mother was a fashion designer, what did she teach you about not only creating something, but refining it?
Mainly, she gave me the freedom to create. She would leave various art supplies on the balconies of our pagoda-style house in Shanghai when I was a young child and she would tell me, “Go ahead and make a big mess, I will clean up after you.” She also hired a young Chinese nanny to look after me and she taught me how to paint with a calligraphy brush, using the movement of my wrist. Those lessons have inspired the way I paint today—even how I sign my signature.

SJM: What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given, regarding art or otherwise?
It wasn’t so much advice as it was a teaching of discovering the inner state of peace within me and allowing my art to flow out of that. It was a gift of yoga and meditation taught to me by the yoga master, Swami Satchidananda. I met him in Paris and invited him to America and helped him to found the Integral Yoga Institute. The drawings that emerged after meeting the Swami gave rise to my whole cosmic ’60s style.

SJM: You’ve been a vital part of the art world since the beginning of your career. How challenging is that to pull off without compromising your approach, style, etc.?
There was no compromise. I just tapped into the evolution of consciousness that was arising out of the new ’60s cultural revolution and expressed myself, just as The Beatles did with their music.

SJM: How do you think you’ve evolved as an artist?
Many times when I reach the peak of a certain period, I feel an urge to just stop, take a break (in my case a long private retreat in the 1970s), and create a new way of expressing myself. After my Realism period, I moved on to innovative graphic design, then to collage, then to my cosmic ’60s style, and finally Expressionism.

SJM: What keeps you motivated to continue to create instead of just riding off into retirement with a storied career to look back on?
I don’t think an artist can do that; there are always new ways to express oneself. Of course the energy changes as you get older, but the artistic quest for expression continues.

SJM: You have a great connection and affinity for music, and some great musicians say they don’t sit down and write, rather they hear the music in their head and sit down to an instrument and it flows out of them naturally. Do you have a similar approach to letting the art flow out of you?
Yes, absolutely. When I painted in Realism, it was like I was a classical composer, but when the music evolved to rock ’n’ roll and jazz, my art and free expression went along with it and I got into the groove of improvisation.

SJM: I’ve read you are going to be involved with the 50th anniversary of Woodstock in a few years, can you share what the project will entail?
Producer Michael Lang and I are dis- cussing it. Last time, for the 30th anniversary, I created a 600-foot wide by 80-foot high stage set. For the 50th anniversary I don’t know yet. I hope to surprise myself.

SJM: At one point you were living in Woodstock, correct? What were some of the more memorable times you had there, what was the scene like?
It was a great time. On weekends I would meet music manager Albert Grossman for brunch and we were joined by such greats as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Band.

SJM: Do you think about your legacy, is that important to you?
Yes, of course, like any other artist.

SJM: At Ocean Galleries you get the chance to meet with fans of your work, what do you enjoy most about that type of interaction?
It’s so nice to get feedback from others and to receive their appreciation. I enjoy seeing my work through their eyes.

SJM: Of all the pieces you’ve created over the years, is there one or a few that give you the most sense of pride of accomplishment?
There are so many, it’s hard to say. It’s usually the genre itself that gives me pride. I love so many works from my different periods—my collages, my cosmic ’60s work, my expressionistic works, my lady profiles, etc. I have been blessed by abundance in my work and it’s hard to pick out favorites. I might say a “Blushing Beauty” at one time, or I might say an “Umbrella Man” at another.

IF YOU GO: “Peter Max Celebrates America the Beautiful” opens Friday, July 1 at Ocean Galleries in Stone Harbor and runs through Monday, July 4, from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, with all artwork available for acquisition. Guests will have the opportunity to meet Max when he signs purchased artwork from 7-10 p.m. on Saturday, July 2 and from 1-4 p.m. on Sunday, July 3.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 3 (June, 2016).
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