LOS ANGELES - Peter Voulkos, the Montana-born artist who launched an American revolution in ceramic sculpture, died early Saturday morning of an apparent heart attack. He was 78.
Voulkos, who lived in Oakland, Calif., died in Bowling Green, Ohio, where he had just finished teaching a ceramics workshop at Bowling Green State University.
Voulkos was the fountainhead of a new strain in American art. When he began, pottery was considered a minor decorative art or a hobbyist's craft. Six short years after the artist moved to Los Angeles, however, his work was the subject of a solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
In the 1950s, Voulkos and Rudy Autio were artistic upstarts. They were the first resident directors of the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, an artists' colony for ceramicists that continues today to nurture promising talent, and both were overturning conventions about clay.
Both went separate ways - Autio settled in Missoula and Voulkos in California - but a friendship remained. Both are now main characters in any textbook about modern ceramics, credited with liberating clay in the 1950s by giving it new form, shape and expression.
Working from an unassuming classroom studio in the old Los Angeles County Art Institute in 1954, Voulkos was the pivot around which an important group of ambitious young artists turned, establishing what became known as Otis Clay.
"Peter opened a door," said Manhattan gallerist and ceramics historian Garth Clark, who featured Voulkos' work in "A Century of Ceramics," a landmark 1979 book and exhibition at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, N.Y. "He removed ceramics from the death grip of good taste, which is what the decorative arts tradition had been."
Kenneth Price, Voulkos' former student and today the most important direct heir to his ceramics legacy, once explained the significance of his teacher's career. "In one way or another he influenced everyone who makes art out of clay," Price told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. "He is the most important person in clay of the 20th century."
When Voulkos was hired to teach ceramics at the County Art Institute - later renamed the Otis Art Institute - in 1954, he arrived to find a classroom outfitted with little more than a table and a working sink.
Voulkos and student Paul Soldner built several prototypes of pottery kick-wheels from scratch. Soldner's welded X-frame kick-wheel became the California classroom standard, while Voulkos' ceramics changed the direction of the art.
In 1959, Voulkos was chosen to develop a ceramics program at the University of California at Berkeley, where he remained for 25 years.
"I've been a teacher all my life," Voulkos said in May 1995 on a visit to Missoula for a workshop. "I love the feedback from the audience, and they are picking up something from me, too. I love that kind of energy. I am performing."
He was born Panagiotis Harry Voulkos to Greek immigrant parents on Jan. 29, 1924, in Bozeman. He served three years in the Pacific as an airplane gunner in the Army Air Corps before studying art at Montana State University.
Voulkos is survived by his wife, Ann Adair Voulkos; their son, Aris; and a daughter, Pier, from his first marriage. A memorial service in Oakland is pending.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.