Learning curve

During the recession years, Peter Hazel's tile business was struggling. Now he's one of Reno's most visible artists.

Peter Hazel demonstrates the translucent glass effect that he expects to see in his four-story glass jellyfish sculpture, now in progress.

Peter Hazel demonstrates the translucent glass effect that he expects to see in his four-story glass jellyfish sculpture, now in progress.

To stay up to date on Peter Hazel’s artwork and events, follow “Artwoks by Peter Hazel” on Facebook.

When Peter Hazel’s “Octavius,” a giant, tiled-concrete octopus sculpture, debuted on a downtown Reno sidewalk at Sculpturefest 2016, it almost seemed like the artist had appeared fully formed out of nowhere. It turns out that’s not too far from what actually happened.

Hazel sat down with the RN&R at his studio inside Artech, where he works with a small team of assistants, to tell us about becoming an artist and his plans for installations later this year at Burning Man and Virginia Lake.

How did you end up in Reno?

Tile and granite contractor in Lake Tahoe, North Shore, raised my kids up there for 30 years. Recession comes along, and I have to move my granite shop to Verdi ’cause it’s cheaper. The recession hit hard, and it was tough on me. … I went on a trip to Barcelona. I saw what Gaudi did. I was blown away. I didn’t even know who he was. Antonio Gaudi, he [was] a mosaic artist in Barcelona. … Super amazing. So I came back and I went, “Oh, I want to do that.”

Had you done mosaic work as a contractor?

No. … Both my parents were artists. I was intimidated by it. I didn’t think I was good at it, so I stayed away from it. But I’ve been in the trades. And I kind of came full-circle back to my roots, my heritage. My dad was a very successful artist in Half Moon Bay.

Back to the Reno story …

I made an apartment in my studio in Verdi. I moved there because it would be cheap, and I just dedicated my whole life to making art. I’m very tenacious and very driven. And that’s why I’ve done so much in just five years. Because—I’m 59. The clock’s ticking. I don’t have 20 years to go to art school. I have to make this stuff now. There’s been failures, and you learn and just keep going and going.

Let’s talk about the octopus. I think a lot of people in Reno will recognize that one. Did you make the tiles for that?

Yeah, 250,000 handmade tiles.

How did the idea for a giant octopus come about?

I thought it would be neat to make an octopus. And I had a kind of a vision in my head, what I wanted it to be doing. I had this crazy idea that he’s this Don Juan octopus guy, and he’s got a woman under each arm. … And his eyes are kind of sinister looking.

That kind of launched me. I got in USA Today and all kinds of stuff.

“Octavius,” a 25,000-pound concrete octopus, made an appearance at Burning Man in 2016.

How was it constructed?

The whole thing was made out of rebar, and the legs are solid concrete, and the head’s hollow, and it weigh 25,000 pounds. I’m, like, super-competitive. So I wanted mine to be the biggest and the best last year.

The city commissioned a piece from you to be installed in Virginia Lake this fall. What’s that piece like?

My stuff really relates to everyday people. Not a big, square thing or whatever, you know, my work’s happy. Everyone gets it. Maybe the big art critics might snub their nose at me, but whatever. I make what I want to make.

There’s going to be this 12-foot-wide pad, a concrete pad to keep it level. … The concrete pad is hidden under water. You will never see that. It’s 12 inches thick, just for stability. Then there’s metal coming out of the concrete. It’s 20 feet tall, but with the water level it’s going to look 17 foot tall. And then [a] dragonfly. His body’s all mosaic. His wings are going to be stainless steel and glass, so it’s going to be three colors of blue and black.

You’ve got a style that works well for public sculpture, works well as Burning Man art, and makes sense for private commission work. What was your process like of developing that kind of style so that your work could fit smoothly into all those different contexts?

I’m a new artist, and I don’t even know I have a style yet. … I just make things I like. For Burning Man, the first piece were those daffodils I made [a 12-foot-high sprig of mosaic-tiled daffodils, currently placed on Victorian Avenue in Sparks], and I took them out there. People liked it and stuff, but there weren’t big crowds by mine like there were other places. … It impacted me. I want to be a major player at Burning Man. And I’m like, “What do I have to do to be a major player at Burning Man?” And so, first of all, it has to be interactive. We made that glass manta ray too, but it wasn’t interactive. So the octopus was colorful, fun … and everyone could climb on it. … So, it’s a learning process. I didn’t know. The daffodils—people would come by at Burning Man and say, “What’s it do?!”

But you learn, you know? Art’s all about learning. You just learn and learn and learn.

What do have planned for Burning Man this year?

I just got an honorarium! I’m so stoked. … We went for a four-story-tall jellyfish that you climb inside, and the whole head is made out of 1300 jellyfish, and they’re all glass. … The whole head is going to be 30-foot-wide, 10-foot-tall, encapsulated-by-glass jellyfish, and it’s called “Bloom” because a school of jellyfish is called a bloom.

We’re going to do 1,400 linear feet of LEDs. Right now it’s getting engineered by K2 Engineering. Once they give us the green light, it’s like, game on. It’s going to be a really huge piece. Like I said, I’m super-competitive. I want it to be the best, and if it’s not, I’ll come back and figure it out. I’m just really driven.

How are you funding it, in addition to the honorarium?

We need more money. I’m worried about it. Materials alone are going to be about 50 grand. We’re going to do a GoFundMe and probably two big [fundraising] parties.

Do you have a favorite piece of advice for aspiring sculptors?

Number one, throw away your TV. I’m not kidding. … Sacrifice stuff, and just be really tenacious about what you’re doing. I think art’s all about failing. You fail. You learn. You keep going and going. Just be tenacious.