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Bending The Rules

In his earlier years, the sculptor would leave his works raw, allowing the steel to show through and weather with age. Today, he powder coats them in bright crayon colors. Says fellow artist Randy Slack, “When you see a Deise, you know it’s a Deise. There’s nothing else like it.”

Peter Deise explores the world through the curves and spirals of his sculpture.

By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Paul Markow

“When I started doing sculpture, I was trying to find myself in art, rather than finding art,” says Peter Deise, when asked why he got into sculpting. “As opposed to trying to be an artist, I was just trying to be me and communicate who I am through this 3D medium.”

Deise (pronounced “dice”) steps away from an imposing metal form that dominates the entrance to his studio. Giant spirals of steel plate coil and converge, entwining to create an intricate scrollwork before exploding outward like the uncontrolled release of hundreds of tightly wound springs. It’s energetic and almost anxious yet simultaneously playful. For the past three months, he’s been perfecting the piece in preparation for an upcoming event at Bentley Gallery in downtown Phoenix.

“My work is primarily an overlapping of science and art,” he continues. “Science is real; it’s learning about life. The art is my brain filtering that and trying to relate to it in its own way. And steel was the hardest thing from which to create these delicate forms, so that’s why I went with it.”

For the last 25 years, the California-born and -raised artist has been a staple of the Grand Avenue scene, making sense of the world around him through the use of raw metal and fire. On a small parcel, fronted by a parking lot, Deise has crafted an open-air studio where he can be found working year-round, at all hours of the day. “I had an old studio just down the street, but I needed a bigger space for a piece I was creating. I was only going to rent it for a month. It’s been 15 years now,” he says with a laugh. 

“I like to convey the idea of energy unfolding. It flows and undulates like flags, like seaweed, like life itself.”

—Peter Deise, sculptor

1.  large yellow sculpture hangs like an oversized nest or cocoon at architect Andy Byrnes’s Phoenix office. Byrnes, who owns several of the artist’s pieces, has recommended Deise to many of his clients. “His work is organic, and the bright powder-coated colors take it to another level,” he says. “I truly understand and appreciate how difficult it is to create what he does.” 2. Sculptor Peter Deise rests on one of his works in progress in his Phoenix outdoor studio. 3. Homeowner Robert Falk is a fan of Deise’s art. One of many of the sculptor’s works that Falk owns, this piece measures about 4 feet high and weighs several hundred pounds. “We’re not primarily collectors of modern art, but we were really pleased to discover Pete’s work. It fits very well in our house, which is all steel, glass and concrete.” 4. “When you put a color on a piece, it changes how you see it. When it’s white, it can be blinding. It needs to have more elements than, say, a red piece does to highlight the curves,” states Deise. “You can work on something for three or four months, and then you add color and it changes overnight.” This public sculpture sits outside the downtown Phoenix offices of an architecture firm. 5. Small remnants are shaped into delicate pieces of jewelry. “He does these itty-bitty pieces that he calls ‘Deise Candy,’” says gallery owner Lisa Olson. “The color makes them so poppy and modern. Pete has a free spirit to him, and it really shows in his work.”

A massive rusted steel gate divides the studio into two work zones—one outfitted with tables for cutting and shaping large sheets of metal; the other for assembling the hulking projects. Piles of scrap litter the ground, while completed works from years past dot the property, providing an insight into the artist’s evolution. A weathered shed that was once an office space now serves as storage for excess materials and smaller sculptures. Shading the lot from the Valley’s harsh sun is a tall mesquite tree that Deise planted from seed when his son was born, shortly after he moved into the location. 

Self-taught, he dabbled in drawing and painting during his younger years, but the dimensionality of sculpture drew him in. “There is this idea of taking a concept and sort of birthing it into the world. You’re putting something on the planet versus just a visual idea that you see,” he explains. 

Working mainly with quarter-inch-thick steel plate, Deise torch cuts each ribbon of metal, which is then shaped by custom tools that the artist has fabricated over the years. He eschews the use of modern metalwork machinery. “Machines are limiting,” he states. “You’re not going to get these fluid bends on a roller. Your curves will look like everyone else’s curves. I want my work to be unique.” Sharp edges are ground and finished by hand. Small pieces are welded onto larger ones, which are fused together to form oversized masses of twisting, reaching, contorted convolutions. 

“I start with my curves, then the process of combining the pieces is additive and subtractive. I’ll cut, then I’ll add, then I’ll cut again,” Deise says. “It’s not like putting together a puzzle. It changes and flows. It becomes a composition instead of a creation.”

While his medium has remained the same, his work has evolved over the decades. Earlier pieces were more representative of the physical world—seed pods, a cocoon, the wings of a cicada. Rigid and tight, with sharp angles surrounding compressed clusters of apertures, they were, according to the artist, things that were the genesis of a life or a birth. 

Today, the work has become simpler and yet more complex in its fluidity. “Everything I do has some sort of movement to it. It’s not static,” says Deise. “I like to convey the idea of energy unfolding. It flows and undulates like flags, like seaweed, like life itself.

“One of the cool things about sticking with something for 25 years is you now know what you’re doing,” he continues. “When you can simplify and empower your ideas is when the magic really starts to happen.” 

Fellow artist and good friend Randy Slack has seen the transformation of Deise’s work. “It’s subtle but mind-blowing at the same time. He’s gone from raw steel into bright colors, and his pieces have gotten bigger, stronger, more defined and more intricate,” he says. “I love how he can make 2,000 pounds of steel look lightweight, like you can just pick it up. There’s so much tension and energy in his work. It’s almost like it’s fighting itself, but it’s soothing at the same time. It’s a really wild balance that he creates.”

Scottsdale homeowner Robert Falk was first introduced to Deise by architect Andy Byrnes, who owns several of the artist’s works and has even installed them in some of his commercial developments. Falk also owns multiple pieces by Deise, ranging from small powder-coated whorls that he displays on George Nakashima tables to a 4-foot-high white diamond-shaped cluster that sits on an acrylic pedestal in front of a large window. “Pete’s work has a lot of energy,” he says. “He’s able to do things with steel, which is very strong, that are unusual.”

Whether it’s a small curlicue that fits in the palm of your hand—the artist refers to these colorful baubles as “Deise Candy”—or a towering public installation, the work is less about designing an object than it is about capturing a philosophy. “Everything in my life revolves around ebb and flow, around movement,” Deise says. “The ocean moves. Waves come in, and waves go out. Your heart beats. It pumps blood in, and it pumps blood out. We breathe air in, and we breathe air out. I’m trying to convey that feeling of movement—of life—instead of just making a big shiny object that’s pretty.” π

1. In his studio, Deise welds ribbons of steel together to create a massive sculpture. “This piece is loosely based on the idea of energy, of atomic particle accelerators,” he says. “When they bring atoms together, they strip apart the electrons, and you get all these spiraling shapes and forms. It’s all about that unwinding energy.” The raw steel will eventually be powder-coated in a bright hue. 2. Deise transformed a shipping container into a work of art titled “Where Our Worlds Collide.” Located at the corner of First and Garfield streets, the 30-foot-high piece pays homage to the evolving urban landscape of Roosevelt Row. Typically, Deise does not title his designs. He explains, “I just want them to evoke some sort of feeling.”

 

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