(ABOVE) Struggle No. 19 • A complex machine, representing civilization, is attacked by an organic form, the embodiment of the abused environment
To look closely at sculptor Peter Dallos’s intricate welded-steel sculptures is to glimpse the events, both devastating and beautiful, that have threaded through his life.
By Carolyn Males
“I love Zoom,” sculptor Peter Dallos exclaims as he leans in toward the screen. Even though we’re on separate computes more than 300 miles apart, I feel as if we’re in the same room. In normal times, Dallos and his wife, Joan, would be here on the island. But for the past several months, they’ve opted to wait out “the misery” (as the artist has dubbed the pandemic) at their log cabin in the North Carolina mountains.
Before we connected I’d scoped out his Wikipedia page along with his online galleries: A fifty year-career doing groundbreaking work on the neurobiology of the human ear. (“I specialized in the small outer hair cells of the cochlea,” he tells me, boiling down the complexities of his expansive research to a quick visual for my untutored brain.) National and international science awards. Solo exhibitions of his sculpture at New York and Chicago galleries. Juried shows at art museums. Nine pieces in the permanent collection of the US Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
I should have been intimidated. Instead I was totally charmed by the brilliant, witty man who now speaks to me with a backdrop of his Haitian paintings collection.
To understand the roots of his own art, the 86-year-old sculptor begins with his childhood in Hungary.
By the close of World War II, Allied bombings and Nazi occupiers had all but destroyed the once splendid city of Budapest. Hungary, a close ally of Hitler, had enacted racial laws starting in the late 1930s, barring Jews from intermarriage and certain occupations including civil service and the armed forces. However, able-bodied Hungarian Jewish men were soon forced into labor under brutal conditions on military-led, war-related projects.
In the 1940s, Dallos’ father had disappeared on one of those forced marches, never to return. Meanwhile, as the German occupiers searched for Jews, Peter and his mother scrambled to avoid deportation and death by hiding in a safe house run by the Swedish Red Cross. Then in December 1944, Soviet and Romanian troops began the Siege of Budapest. By February, the Nazis had been ousted.
“When the Soviet troops came in and liberated the country from the Germans, it appeared as if things would be wonderful for the rest of our lives,” Dallos says with an ironic smile. But it was not to be.
In 1948 the Communists took over, pressing the country under the thumb of yet another totalitarian regime. Eight years later, while Dallos was an engineering student, the Hungarians staged an uprising against Soviet rule. Once again, Russian tanks rolled in. Thousands would die. He, along with 200,000 of his countrymen, fled.
An international rescue committee helped him emigrate to America, where he’d finish his degree at Illinois Institute of Technology followed by a Masters and PhD in biomedical engineering from Northwestern.
Afterwards, the university offered him a faculty position. To his surprise, it was in audiology. “I told them I had no clue about the ear. But they said that’s okay. You can go to the library and study.” He shrugs. “So I did, and, I discovered that the human ear is an absolutely fascinating structure.” During his half-century tenure there, he became one of the country’s foremost experts in the field. Upon retiring in 2012, he and Joan embarked upon a new phase of life in the Carolinas.
[Q] So, how does one get from a career in auditory neuroscience to a career as a master sculptor?
[PD] When I was twelve or thirteen, I wanted to become an artist. I drew and painted all the time and studied with a very prominent Hungarian artist. But as I grew a little older and a little smarter, I decided I was not good enough to make painting a career. So I got into engineering instead.
Then immediately upon finishing graduate school, I started to collect art. I got into the Chicago art scene. It was extremely vibrant and avant-garde with artists and trends like the Chicago Imagists that were trail blazing. Art collecting was a significant development in my life, so I was never a naïve or outsider artist. I understood contemporary art quite intimately.
[Q] What made you finally take the leap into sculpture?
[PD] In 1988, my wife and I were at a show at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I made the offhand remark, “You know it must be really fun to make sculpture.” And so she filed that away. Three days later she told me she had enrolled me in a welded sculpture class at the Evanston Arts Center. Well, you know I’m extremely busy and don’t have time for nonsense like this, I told her. “Well,” she replied, “I paid the fee and it is not refundable.” So I went and took the class and fell in love.
[Q] Why metal?
[PD] I love the feel of metal, the ability to work and to shape it, to create something out of scraps that was new and which meant something to me.
Back in Budapest I went to a technical high school that was also college prep. And for four years we had one full day of shop each week. I came out of that along with some summer employment as a skilled tool-and-die maker. I could make anything out of metal with machines. That, along with the welding class, gave me the background to do sculpture so I kept doing it while I was still fully engaged in my research.
[Q] Your early series are commentaries on a dystopian world.
[PD] My sculpture has influenced the way I am and the way I interpret the world. That’s where my Struggle and my End of the Road series came from. These are works that try to put the individual and civilization into the context of the very large world that threatens them.
The End of the Road was from the view of how a single individual can be devastated or hindered by circumstances for which he has very little control. So in all those pieces the individual somehow arrives at the juncture where he is blocked from going any further. And he now has to make a decision about what to do.
[Q] Fantastical Machines seems to be a departure from those earlier series.
[PD] I began looking at the machine as an abstract object. I thought, why not glorify the machine as something that is the pinnacle of an achievement –– creating something that will do something for you that was never there before?
[Q] The War Memories series, now at the Holocaust Museum. is chilling. They often feature a small figure about to be engulfed by dark forces.
[PD] What I was trying to symbolize in a simple form was the overwhelming nature of the conflagration and the totally inadequate capability of a human to deal with it. It’s overwhelming domination of war over the individual.
[Q] Yet your new work is about beautiful flowers.
[PD] This interesting situation of having been here now since mid-summer and being completely isolated in a way mellowed me, so I am doing something totally different. I’m doing a series of orchids –– some in full bloom, others at the beginning and ends of blooms. In other words, I’m trying to gentle me down. My wife is a great gardener with tulips and other kinds of flowers, but I look mostly at the orchids because they are really beautiful.
Local Art & Poetry
I remember in the back seat
Of an old Ford
A friend had in the ‘50s –
Arms and legs akimbo
And fear and ignorance
And God knows what —
And it was not pretty,
And it was not love.
And when I got married
My dad asked me,
“Is there anything you want
Like he had answers
Or I had questions!
And it took me the better part
Of a lifetime
To learn love,
The kind that gets under
The kind that gets under
When you scratch at life.
— Art Cornell