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An Affinity for Art: Professor Peter Charles

In his seminar, Professor Charles helps students understand the aesthetics of art, as well as social issues. (Photo: Roland Dimaya)

By Akoto Ofori-Atta
Born and bred in museum-filled Washington, DC to art-loving parents who were avid antique collectors, Peter Charles, studio artist and professor of sculpture and design at Georgetown University, could not have escaped art--even if he tried. His childhood, he says, was full of weekend visits to museums, where his love for art began.

“Both of my parents had a deep interest in art, and they collected antiques,” Charles recalled. “As a result, I was always surrounded by very interesting things, both in arts and collectibles.”

An affinity for art landed him at Georgetown, where he has been teaching sculpture and design for twenty-nine years. Charles also leads an Ignatius Seminar entitled “An Artist’s Perspective: The Creative Process.” Students enrolled in the seminar need no studio experience, as Charles uses the seminar to introduce students to the basics of visual images and structure.

“I designed the Ignatius course as kind of a lecture and lab,” Charles said as he described what he hopes to accomplish through the seminar. “The Ignatius seminar is really my condensed version of what I think any student should know about visual art.”

In the seminar, students are first charged with taking pictures that represent order, chaos and mystery and share their interpretations and reasons for choosing the images that they chose. The second component of the seminar involves building a three dimensional sculpture of the student’s choice. The final component is a photo diary, shared with the entire class, that represents the trajectory of a student’s growth in art, complete with digital images of objects of his or her choice, and images of her or his three dimensional sculpture, all with annotations that describe the images’ visual composition.  

Another crucial aspect of Charles’ Ignatius Seminar is for students to meet outside of the classroom, as Charles believes building close relationships outside of campus is important to the purpose of the seminar. Students even got the opportunity to visit his home and studio to view a slideshow of his work.

“The Ignatius seminars were designed, by past Dean Jane D. McAuliffe, so that the students would see a professional scholar in whatever field they chose, and have a direct connection to that professional,” Charles said. “It’s about going beyond the grade book and knowing the professor as a professional.”

Sharing his work with others is the cornerstone of Charles’ career as a studio artist. After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at RISD, Rhode Island School of Design, and graduating with a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale University School of Art and Architecture, Charles returned to Washington, DC because of its close proximity to New York, the epicenter of the American art world. Since then, he has been creating and exhibiting his art for over forty years.  

Publishing a book or completing extensive research on a particular topic is often regarded as the apex of a scholarly career, Charles noted. But in the art world, having one’s work exhibited in galleries and museums is equivalent to writing books or articles.  

“Getting into a gallery is a big deal,” Charles said. “It’s difficult to do as there are millions of artists and only hundreds of galleries.”  

According to Charles, an artist spends years developing a theme for his work. Once the work is accepted into a gallery, and receives an “interested response” in a group exhibition, then the gallery may offer the artist a solo gallery where she or he can display all of her or his own original pieces.  Charles has reached that high point of his career many times over, as he has been featured in many solo galleries over the years in Washington, DC, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

His most recent solo exhibition show was displayed in 2005 at Irvine Contemporary in Washington, DC, a gallery incidentally owned and operated by another Georgetown University professor, Martin Irvine. In the exhibition, Charles showcased a series of electronic houses, unique in that these structures contain small flat panel televisions that show TV programming in real time. This concept was new and fresh, as much multimedia art of that time used recorded video as opposed to real-time programming.   

“The concept behind that project was to show how television has dominated our lives, from inside and outside of where we live,” Charles explained.
Charles plans to feature his next exhibition at Anton Gallery in California. In the mean time, he hopes to continue to open students’ eyes to art, no matter what their chosen field of study. Charles is a firm believer in the notion that courses in formal design help students to think deeply about the things to which they are attracted, thus sharpening one’s analytical skills. In addition, he believes that exposure to the visual arts at Georgetown College is essential.

“In Georgetown College’s statement of purpose, so to speak, it says that we aim to educate the whole person, and exposure to visual arts is important to educating your whole person,” Charles said. He continues, “We’re teaching students to become sophisticated visual people.”


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Insight: Professor Peter Charles
Who are your favorite artists? Two artists who are important to me are early modernist sculptors: Constantine Brancusi and Isamu Noguchi. Two painters I admire are Wassily Kandinsky, possibly the “father of abstract/nonobjective art” and the American artist Robert Rauschenberg famous for his combination painting-constructions.
Student Profile: Alexandra Tynion
In the class we learned a gamut of art techniques, beginning with painting and creating a design out of five black shapes then moving into our photography unit where we learned basic shooting techniques. Finally we ended by creating a Joseph Cornell Box.
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