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Georgette Zirbes ‘62

Reflections on my Peeler years

I came to DePauw in September 1958, attracted to a small liberal arts college that had a reputation for strong academics.  Since I thought that I would be a chemistry major, I enrolled in a 5 hour chemistry course my freshman year.  I knew I needed a balance in my studies so I also took a 2 hour drawing class.  Over the year, my time and energy shifted dramatically from chemistry to drawing.   By fall of my sophomore year, I was a fine art major, already behind in meeting the requirements for a major.

The Art Department had moved into the old Carnegie Library just in time for classes to start in fall 1958.   There were four faculty, Reid Winsey, Ray French, Garret Boone, and Richard Peeler.  I did not understand until years later how fortunate I had been to have landed in a rigorous academic environment that included an Art Department that had four accomplished faculty and a newly renovated facility, called The Art Center.

I did not take a ceramics class until my junior year, but I knew before I took the class that that would be my concentration.  Richard Peeler had recently been hired and was committed to building a reputable pre professional program.  He had a strong and rigorous work ethic that was contagious.  The basement of The Art Center was my home for the next two years.

The late 50’s and early 60’s were years of incredible changes and innovation in the field of ceramics.  Most notably, Peter Voulkos on the west coast was developing his work and teaching methods that were based on the deconstruction of the vessel.  Most ceramic artists and teachers, up to this time, were creating ceramic works that were based on constructing the vessel.  There was tremendous tension between the two very different approaches.  Richard Peeler’s process was constructing vessels but he was aware of the changes going on in the field.  He would put out publications on the studio table and give a sigh of frustration about the images of deconstructed works.  We would all gasp with uneasiness and then rush to find out just what these images were about.  

Richard and Marge Peeler shared a personal and professional life.  They invited us into their home and studio in Reelsville to share a home cooked meal and to observe a little window into what life as professional artists might look like.  This was a powerful example for future possibilities for aspiring young students.

I came from a working class family where education resulting in a job was the key to my future.  My likely destination was to be teaching in the public schools somewhere in the Chicago area, but I just wanted to keep learning and making stuff.  Richard Peeler talked to me about considering graduate school.  When visiting artists came to DePauw, he asked them to talk to me about programs that I should be considering.  I had no money and my portfolio was minimal, representing just four semesters of ceramic work.  In those days, there were only three choices for graduate study in ceramics.  Alfred University was a small school in rural upstate New York.  Cranbrook was an art school in a monastery like setting in suburban Detroit.  Ohio State University had a fine arts department within a very large university.  Since I was ready for a Big University,

I only applied to Ohio State.  Richard Peeler had contacts there and helped me put together my portfolio and seek financial aid.  When I was admitted and received full financial aid, I felt like I had put off reality for two years.

After completing my graduate work I applied for a Fulbright Grant to Japan. I knew that I needed more experience before I could seek professional employment.  Richard Peeler again came to my support by writing a letter of support and helping me make contacts.  I was again fortunate to be awarded the grant and could once more put off reality.  I lived in Japan for almost three years,

Richard Peeler, who was also an accomplished photographer, had the idea for a project that would involve filming some of the prominent Japanese ceramic artists.  He was granted funding for travel and an extended stay in Japan, during my second year living there.  I was able to assist him in making contacts with the faculty at the Kyoto City College of Fine Arts, who would introduce him to some of the ceramic artists.  I also traveled with him on some of his filming excursions, assisting with the process.

Thank you Richard and Marge Peeler for helping me prepare for and establish a professional career as a teacher and working artist.  I recently retired after 37 years of teaching at the University of Michigan, School of Art & Design.  I continue to be a practicing professional artist.