Arts | Oregon

Sculptural Retrospective Exhibit For George Kokis Opens Saturday

The Register Guard | Nov. 7, 2013 2:36 a.m. | Updated: Nov. 7, 2013 10:50 a.m.

Contributed By:

Randi Bjornstad

It’s called “Playing with Anima Mundi,” which translates to “soul of the earth,” and it’s billed as a sculptural retrospective exhibit for George Kokis, art professor emeritus at the University of Oregon who during his career specialized in exploring new processes and techniques in the field of ceramics.

Much of the work in the show, which opens Saturday at Clay Space, comes from Kokis’ personal collection of non-utilitarian ceramics, leading up to his non-permanent work of the past decade, which he describes as “melt-downs.”

The difference is that his 50 years’ worth of earlier work, which he describes as “functional but not domestic,” was made from stoneware clay and fired in a kiln. His more recent work is not fired, so it gradually disintegrates, a process he records photographically.

“A funny thing happened when I retired,” Kokis said. “I was thinking I would have far more time in the studio, but something felt wrong — I was making more stuff, but I already had so much that I had accumulated.”

Remembering an exercise he used to do between major projects offered him the solution.

“I would build a sculpture on a wooden table and then put it outside to see what would happen in the weather,” he said. “Some pieces would last months, some would disintegrate almost overnight. Then I would use the clay again.”

The technique allowed him “more freedom to build in ways that I couldn’t if I were going to fire a piece in the kiln. It was what I needed to do.”

Kokis has about 130 pieces in this exhibit, much of it having been stored in his garage for decades.

“I didn’t know what to do with it, but Jim Laub, one of my former students from 30 years ago, thought of the idea of a show. So it will all be on exhibit and for sale,” Kokis said.

Proceeds from the sale will benefit Clay Space, a community art center Laub started in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood to offer a space for artists to work and sell their creations and would-be artists to learn.

Kokis, 79, has been an artist since his early childhood years in Harlem on New York City’s upper West Side.

His father was a merchant mariner, and his mother worked in a factory, and in the early days of World War II, “I could wander around anywhere I wanted,” he said.

“We all could — most of the men were away, and many of the women went to work.”

One day, he and some friends “stumbled into the Metropolitan Museum of Art across Central Park” from their neighborhood, and from that day sculpture was his passion.

“The museums were all free then — it’s such a shame they can’t be any longer,” Kokis said.

“I started bringing things up to my room — paper, wood, clay — where I would sit at a desk by the window and make little boats, animals, all kinds of shapes.”

After the war, his family became naturalized U.S. citizens, and his original name, Kostandinos Koukounakis, became George Kokis, “because George was my middle name.”

He went to an “arts high school,” where he was enthralled by the art but not by anything else.

“I used to go in the front and out the back — I was very bad at attendance,” Kokis admitted. “I just squeezed by at the last minute and graduated.”

At loose ends after high school, Kokis knocked around, doing a variety of jobs, for three years.

One day, while playing a pickup game of basketball on a neighborhood court, he got “into a scrape” with one of his teammates.

“The vicar pulled me aside and asked what was the matter with me,” Kokis recalled. “I told him I didn’t know what to do with my life. He sent me to a vocational adviser, and I said I wanted to do art.”

The adviser told him about Alfred University, 400 miles northwest of New York City, with one of the best art departments anywhere.

“It was tuition free, so I took a train ride to get there, and I carried some of my sculptures with me,” Kokis said.

“It turned out to be a mecca for ceramic artists, and they only admitted 25 people to the program. But I got a phone call, and I was accepted.”

He and his wife, Cynthia Kokis, had met in church as teenagers — she went to Hunter College — “and she was very supportive of my going to Alfred,” Kokis said. “I was a very lucky guy.”

After finishing college, George Kokis returned to New York City, where he worked as an apprentice in an art studio for a year.

Married by then and looking for a bit of excitement, the young couple went to Puerto Rico for a year, where he worked for the Air Force, running an art and craft studio, before returning to New York.

He took a job at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where he fired ceramics and substituted for an art instructor, which gave him an entree into teaching.

That was another lucky break, “because while I worked there, I found out there were some people from Alfred (University) who were starting a National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, so I was able to get in on the ground floor of that,” Kokis said.

“That led to a teaching position at Ohio University, where I taught for seven years.”

While there, he met a sculptor named Hank Murrow, “who had been teaching there but was going to move back to the West Coast, to Eugene, where he was from,” Kokis said.

“He told his department head at the University of Oregon about me, and I took a leave of absence to spend a year at the UO.”

At the end of the year, the Kokises decided they wanted to stay, and he joined the faculty, teaching from 1973 until retiring in 2004.

By then, Kokis had developed Parkinson’s disease, which he has had for a dozen years, causing muscle tremors and affecting his voice.

“But when I do art, the Parkinson’s is not there,” Kokis said. “I notice the difference right away when I start working.”

Besides continuing to create sculpture, the former marathon runner does his best to stay physically active.

“I still run — what I call running, anyway,” he said.

Although sculpting has consumed his career, Kokis always has considered teaching “to be another creative activity.”

“I have always taken risks with my art, and I have tried to do the same with my teaching,” he said. “I have approached both sometimes not knowing what I would do, then trying things to see if something happened or it didn’t.

“To me, the best approach is always to think, ‘What if?’ and then do it.”

As for his new show, he’s thrilled to see his work coming together in one place.

“It has been wonderful to handle all of these pieces again after all these years,” Kokis said. “Even if not even one piece sells, it will still be worth it.”

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