Traveling in Europe two decades ago, artist Corinne Peterson became captivated by prehistoric monuments—the stone circles and standing stones of Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England; ancient ruins, rock formations, and road markers in France, Spain, and Italy.
These mysterious sites increasingly influenced her ceramic sculptures created from durable stoneware clay—obelisk-like pillars and “markers” that have been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the Midwest and art fairs like SOFA Chicago as well as outdoor locations such as gardens, parks, schools, hospitals, and conservatories. Some were also shown at South Shore Line’s Beverly Shores station two years ago.
Complementing their surroundings, they looked as if they’d been there for ages.
“My work is inspired by the things [prehistoric works] embody—geology, myth, history, and the landscape,” Peterson says, when we recently visited in her studio at Chicago’s Lillstreet Art Center, the renowned Midwest ceramic hub where she’s been a studio artist for 26 years, and a teacher for 18 of those. As a farm girl growing up in Anoka, MN (hometown of A Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor), the former social worker and psychotherapist says, “I’ve always felt a connection to the land, to the experience of nature.”
But there was one place Peterson, who’s 75, hadn’t yet fully explored—her ancestral homelands in Scandinavia. She’d just begun researching megalithic sites in Sweden and Norway when a ceramic supplies salesman delivered an order to her studio in 2011. She thought she detected a Swedish accent.
“I told him I thought about going to Sweden, and I wondered if he had any idea where any ancient standing stones were,” Peterson recalls. “His answer was, ‘I can see them from my mother’s house!’”
Carl Mankert, who runs the Rolling Meadows-based Chicago Kiln Service, was also a clay artist. He explained to Peterson that his parents had a farm on the southeastern tip of Sweden overlooking the Baltic Sea, and that he returned every summer to make pots in a barn studio he kept there. The Mankerts invited Peterson to teach a workshop there.
And it so happened that it was next to one of Sweden’s most celebrated Bronze Age sites, Ales Stenar, 59 boulders arranged in the shape of a ship, about 200 feet long. It was perhaps 1,400 years old, and is thought to be the burial ground of a king.
“The mystery of it…plays off Corinne’s sculptures,” says Mankert. “I feel that her now doing work over there is like the circle coming around.”
And so began Corinne’s “cultural roots” adventure, a nearly two-month journey to the origins of her family and her craft.
Artworks inspired by Peterson’s Nordic odyssey are on exhibit through June 23 in “Entangled Routes,” at the Swedish American Museum Center, 5211 N Clark St, in Chicago’s Swedish-flavored Andersonville neighborhood. Aptly, the 49-piece show is a family affair. The spacious gallery also features the works of her artist sons—the photo-collages of the Portland-based Tim Klassen (who accompanied her on part of the trip), and the wood sculptures of Minneapolis-based Stephen Klassen.
Each artist mines their heritage while also tapping into universal themes. “I can think of my ancestors as Norwegian and Swedish, or I can think of them as just people who lived closer to the land,” Stephen says.
Peterson’s pillars—"Storyteller", "Explorer", "Fissure", "Tectonic Record"—along with her “places to rest” (seats), and smaller pieces have an elemental nature that take you back to the beginning of art-making, of place-marking. They look as if they’ve been shaped by the forces of nature, evoking organic forms.
Linda Warren, of Linda Warren Projects in Chicago, commissioned Peterson to create a 7-piece garden terrace installation for the new Kirkland & Ellis law firm building. “I feel she has a very Zen-y approach,” says Warren, curator of the firm’s art collection. “It has embedded in it really primal elements—the air, fire, earth…references to the water. You can’t get more basic than that.”
After Peterson led the class near Ales Stenar (a “primal place” that she visited many times, including at summer solstice sunrise), she traveled throughout Sweden and Norway as far north as the Arctic Circle to visit many ancient sites, from stone circles to dolmens to rock carvings. Many of these marked burial grounds, though others were ceremonial centers and astronomical observatories. The sites were between 5,000 and 1,000 years old, including petroglyphs, or rock carvings, made by pre-Viking peoples.
At the same time, Peterson and her son Tim visited cousins who still inhabited the farms of her paternal grandparents on the Swedish island of Tjörn, and of her maternal grandparents, near the Norwegian city of Trondheim. “My grandfather tended sheep there as a boy,” Peterson says. “They still raised sheep. It was like I was back on the farm. It was the roots of my roots. I’d come full circle.” (Each ancestor had immigrated to the Minneapolis area by the 1880s and settled farms.)
After the end of her first marriage, Peterson, then in her mid-40s, was confronted with having to start a new life. But she turned a personal crisis into a mid-life opportunity. She earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Chicago, began a psychotherapy practice, and happily remarried. In the mid-1980s, she went into Jungian analysis. “It was part of my journey to recover the part of my self that seemed to have disappeared—to recover the creative aspect of my self.”
Through Jungian analysis, named for Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, adherents learn to tap into and interpret archetypes—archaic images from the “collective unconscious” that appear in cultures throughout the world, such as in myths, folklore, and art, as a way to activate one’s imagination.
“I had some dreams about clay objects,” Peterson says. “My analyst said, ‘Have you ever thought of working with clay?’”
And that’s what led Peterson to the Lillstreet Art Center, in 1986, where she quickly excelled. “I began to take elements from my dreams and sculpt them,” she says. She evolved from making pots to figural sculptures to more abstract, textured pieces that resembled remnants of crumbling architectural walls. Also, she’s worked with artists and residents to create about 20 clay and mosaic tile murals throughout Chicago.
Peterson started making the pillar-like works around 2000, which also marked personal and world events. More recently she’d begun carving openings into their interiors, revealing their inner lives—“like collaborating with my unconscious.”
Peterson’s personal quest continues. She recalled hiking on a forest trail above the Arctic Circle in Sweden when she came upon a rock engraved with a quote by Swedish Nobel Peace Prize winner Dag Hammarskjöld: “The longest journey is the journey within.”