A sculptor has quietly moved into Oak Park from South Carolina, creating and refining fantastical clay works at Terra Incognito six days a week on average. And through the end of December, twenty-two of his sculpted heads, each telling a story of sorts, will be showing at the Oak Park gallery. More than a third have sold. The artist, Peter Lenzo, who turned 65 last week, has art at institutions such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington D.C.), Racine Art Museum (Wisconsin) and Arkansas Arts Center (Little Rock).

He moved to Oak Park in June 2019 to live with his younger brother Kris Lenzo and his family. Both brothers are disabled. And, it turns out, both are artists. Peter, four years older, was struck by a car while riding his bicycle in his 20s. The resulting traumatic brain injury led to seizures later in life, which now affect his memory. Kris was in a work accident at 19 and uses a wheelchair. He looks out for Peter, making sure he eats right and gets exercise. Kris dances with Momenta, Oak Park, and teaches their Everybody Can Dance workshops in addition to performing. He recorded a piece, “Midnight Ride,” to be viewed virtually during the pandemic. 

For Peter, what started as an assignment for his middle school art students became a focus of his art in the last two decades. Peter wanted to introduce an African-American art form to them, “face jugs,” which have a rich history in South Carolina going back to slavery. He began working on samples at home.

“To be able to demonstrate it, I had to learn how to do it, so I sat down and started making some and I just fell in love with them,” Peter said. “It felt like I was making what I was supposed to make.”

The forms grew from there when his young son suggested adding pieces of fired clay as teeth for the faces. Next came sculpted twigs and leaves. They “started going around these little antique junk stores looking for porcelain things” that his son liked.

Now Lenzo adds 100-year-old-plus antique doll heads; such objects as sculpted wishbones, purchased from another artist’s installation after it was taken down; his own sculpted kiln gods and other found objects. 

The works take on meaning, reflecting what is happening around Peter. With hopes of having a grandchild, a fertility-themed piece is in process. Multiple faces in the show relate to the pandemic, such as King COVID, Plague Doctor (1918), COVID Dreams, Plague Devil and another Plague Doctor wearing a sculpted pointed leather mask that Peter said was used during medieval times. He even has a head telling the story of the “election fiasco.” It includes a salt and pepper shaker he obtained in DC years ago in the form of the Washington Monument and the White House. 

“It’s like each one is a page in a journal,” he said. “It’s what’s going on outside and inside of me.”

His sculptures with funnels on their heads are reminiscent of the Tinman from the Wizard of Oz, referencing the characters’ quest for a brain.  

“I think about memories … I have dementia,” Peter said. “These heads are all hollow. They’re made from a thrown pot on a potter’s wheel and then they’re altered by pushing in and pushing out, so the heads, my portraits, are empty because my brain is not working right, but I’m storing memories on the outside.”  

Peter developed his passion at an early age. He began working with clay when he was 10 and his mother signed him up for a ceramic class. 

“My parents were really into having us all into extracurricular activities and pushing us toward musical instruments or sports teams or something besides just going to school,” Peter said. Those classes were hard to come by, but he took more when his mom could find them. In high school he discovered the pottery wheel. 

“I scammed my way out of two other classes and took two ceramics arts classes in the middle of the semester and started doing it pretty constantly from that point. I was 14.” 

It was then that he decided he would be a potter. 

While Peter exercises a certain amount of control in sculpting the clay before firing — carefully selecting tools and brushes among a large collection of packed containers — he also leaves some to chance. The artist takes pieces of broken, colored glass from bottles and embeds them into the clay. How they melt, coloring and highlighting the sculpted face as the molten substance drips down during firing leads to surprises. 

“Glass is like a ceramic glaze, but it’s missing one ingredient and that’s the ingredients that makes it stay on the pot,” Peter said. “So it just runs right off. But the thing I like about it is it really defines the lines of the piece, those things that I know are there, but I can’t see them until the glass identifies it.”   

It can take 40 hours to complete a complex head. Peter has a timer set so he remembers to take a break, to get up and move. While he said memory loss has become worse over the years, when he sculpts, he is 100 percent whole again.

“Working with clay is the only time I feel like I don’t have any deficits,” he said. “What I want to make, I can make.

“Most everything else in my life I do so much worse now,” he said. But when it comes to his art, “I can do this as well as I ever could. It’s the only time I feel normal.” 

To view the exhibit online: terraincognitostudios.com. To inquire about in-person viewing at Terra Incognito, 708-383-6228, 246 Chicago Ave, Oak Park. View Kris Lenzo’s dance “Midnight Ride” at momentadances.org/dancing-at-a-distance.

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