Before Peter Schifrin began building larger-than-life sculptures throughout America, he was competing for the U.S. Olympic fencing team at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
The team placed 12th that year. It was an indicator that Schifrin’s time with fencing—after spending nearly a decade competing for world and national cups—was over. Soon after, he turned his attention to building a fine arts career in sculpture.
Then, almost 40 years later as an instructor at the School of Fine Art in Academy of Art University, Schifrin received another shot at Olympic honor.
Early in the summer of 2020, Schifrin packed and shipped a bigger-than-life sculpture to the new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs. Schifrin’s creation, a six-foot-tall, 400-pound bronze behemoth titled “Olympus Within,” will greet guests at the newly opened 60,000-square-foot interactive museum, where they can learn about the athletes who competed for Team USA throughout history.
Schifrin hopes that, as visitors view the sculpture in the museum, it will inspire all guests—athletes and non-athletes alike.
“The role of this monument is…to remind people you can do better, you can be better, follow that dream, and be the powerful person you are inside,” Schifrin says. “Not everyone is an Olympian, but everyone has within them that desire to be excellent in something.”
Emboldened by a Champion
The museum was designed by award-winning architect Liz Diller, whose concept alludes to the grace and movement of a discus thrower. Schifrin decided to model “Olympus Within” after his idol, the great Al Oerter, who wasn’t just a four-time discus gold medalist from 1956 to 1968 (a first at the time), but an athlete turned artist, too. In fact, it was Oerter’s wife Cathy who reached out to Schifrin with the opportunity.
“[Oerter] really believed [in] the principles guiding being an Olympian—that idea of discipline, focus and passion,” Schifrin says. “So many of those things that an athlete who performs well needs, [such as] having goals and sticking with them, are similar to the same principles that an artist needs.”
Portrait of Power
Instead of modeling the form after a physical likeness, Schifrin wanted to emulate Oerter’s performance—to capture Oerter’s essence and sheer might. “They do this kind of spin, [it’s a] dance and throw that Olympic discus throwers do, and I made these energetic , three-dimensional sketches that look very spontaneous,” Schifrin says.
He put together three different 12-inch clay models for the museum to choose from, and they selected the mid-throw pose.
“It’s not meant to be a portrait of Al Oerter, it’s meant to be inspired by his movement, his power,” Schifrin continues. “I was trying to create a heroic scale, this idea of human energy contained and your potential, like what you could be.”
Art and Athletics, Informing Each Other
Schifrin discovered sculpture in high school. One of his teachers encouraged him to keep trying even when, like most beginners, he struggled. Schifrin liked working with his hands, and when he wasn’t competing as a four-time NCAA All-American for San Jose State University, he was sculpting.
Compared to the rigors of the sport, sculpting gives him a different kind of joy. To Schifrin, art is fun—it allows him to be expressive; it’s play as opposed to competition.
Once Schifrin was finally able to give art his full attention, making the transition from athletics wasn’t always easy. After completing his bachelor’s degree, Schifrin enrolled at Boston University for a master’s program in sculpture. Just as he’d experienced in sports, there were doubters and naysayers as he chipped away at school.
But he kept at it, eventually getting commissions for public and private collections from the Bay Area to New York. In 2017, Schifrin and David Duskin, his fellow sculptor and an Academy School of Fine Art MFA alumnus, were hired to create a life-size bronze likeness of TV producer and political activist Norman Lear, which stands in downtown Boston at Emerson College.
Passing the Torch
Now, as a teacher, Schifrin hopes to impart his experiences as an athlete and artist to his students. The biggest lesson from his two careers? Master the rules so you can break them.
“We’re given rules, some structure and these principles,” he says. “But guess what? You’re going to have to make your own [because] that’s what artists do.”
For student-athletes and others at the Academy, Schifrin relays that the lessons he learned from physical discipline gave him the confidence to trust his path and vision. “When you make that painting, no one has ever made that painting. When you jump that new height or hurdle record or the high jump record, no one has ever done that before. You’re taking risks and you have to trust yourself.”
“Athletes are performers and you get to watch them perform,” Schifrin observes. “But the famous painter Chuck Close said, ‘Every painting is a performance, too. You just don’t get to see the performance.”
Photos courtesy of Peter Schifrin unless otherwise indicated
Original article by Nina Tabios of Academy Art U News, https://artunews.com/