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Peter Hutchinson: The Artist’s Life

by Rebecca M. Alvin

Top Image: Peter Hutchinson, Philadelphia (2018)

When Peter Hutchinson was in his early 20s studying agriculture at the University of Illinois, he found his vocation. Bored with the program of study he’d chosen based on a lifetime passion for gardening and nature, he hitchhiked to New Orleans and happened to come across a young man who was homeless. After he bought the man some food, the man gave Hutchinson a painting of his. “I fell in love with it. And I thought, ‘this is what I want to do,’ with no qualifications,” says the British-born artist.

It’s unusual for an artist to come to his/her calling that late in life, but Hutchinson says he was not one of those kids for whom drawing and painting were favorite activities. Rather, he was enchanted by the natural environment, something that he was able to merge with his newfound passion for making art as one of the early artists of what was then called the Earth Art movement (now Land Art).

Peter Hutchinson, The King’s Forest (2017)

Flash forward to the 1960s in New York City where Hutchinson moved after college and some time spent in Rome, Italy. Being in New York, Hutchinson knew he would be where he needed to be for an art career. And sure enough, it was while “doing a line dance with some complete strangers” at an artists’ party that John Gibson, whose John Gibson Gallery was well known, agreed to give him a show. “And I thought, ‘this is it, this is it!’ and it was, it changed my life completely,” recalls Hutchinson.

It was the show that launched his career. As it turned out, TIME magazine happened to send some younger correspondents to do an art story and they came into the gallery. “And John said, ‘Oh, Peter’s going to do this piece on a volcano,’ which, I had no idea that I would be able to do it,” Hutchinson recalls. “So I went back to my Harlem apartment at the time and TIME magazine called me, and they said, ‘We hear you’re going to do a piece on the volcano,’ and then they said, ‘We’d like to send a photographer,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m the photographer,’ and I hung up!”

Undeterred, TIME called back and asked him to photograph his own work for the story, which they then published. The work was the ephemeral Paricutin Volcano Project. It involved Hutchinson putting moistened breadcrumbs around the outer edge of a volcano in Mexico, wrapping it in plastic, and then allowing mold to grow from the heat of the volcano. “Then I took the plastic off and photographed it. It was a temporary piece,” he explains.

Peter Hutchinson, Melting Snow (2006)

Since then Hutchinson has become a noted artist, living an artist’s life in a house here in Provincetown with attached studio, all nearly completely overwhelmed by his rambling garden. But if you’re thinking about a rambling estate with prize roses, manicured lawn, and perfectly curated flowers mixed with rows of vegetables growing, you’re not understanding the Hutchinson aesthetic. His garden is rambling in a truer sense, with wild fruit trees dropping fruit here and there, sculptures such as his Rock Monument (just as it sounds, a monument to rocks), and a tree precariously hanging overhead where it landed during Hurricane Bob in 1991 and has since been left alone as it appears secured by another tree’s thick limb. Squash and cucumbers grow as they would in the wild, and steps for a walkway are constructed from bricks, cinder blocks, and whatever else will do the job.

Hutchinson, who will have a solo show at Gaa Gallery here in Provincetown opening this weekend, has his work in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Basel, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and has exhibited widely around the world, including a recent show at Gaa’s gallery in Cologne.

He shows off a brand new work in his studio, Mount Olympus on Mars, which features an imagined gallery on Mars with text on the bottom requesting consideration of his artwork. It begins “Dear Madam or Sir, I submit this art work for consideration in your Olympus Mars Gallery…”

Peter Hutchinson, Reef (1991)

Asked if he would like to go to Mars, Hutchinson says with an ironic laugh, “Probably not.” It’s the amount of time you’d have to spend traveling there that dampens the 89-year-old’s enthusiasm. And yet he’s clearly interested in Mars and in travel, something he did quite a bit of in his younger days and about which he has written, as well.

But it truly is the natural world on Earth that has been his muse from the beginning. He agrees to the statement that nature has been his canvas. And certainly looking at many of the works for which he is best known from the 1970s and 1980s, he has often been engaged in the creative treatment of the natural environment, organizing its wild elements into shapes and constructions at times. Other times, he is introducing elements into nature, such as the tubes he has used for sculptures like Landscapes (1969) and Tubes at Coast near St. Tropez (1969 – 74).

A collagist, a photographer, a writer, an installation artist, sculptor, Hutchinson’s work defies labels. He is simply an artist working in the mediums that call to him. The installations made during his land art phase included the aforementioned Volcano, as well as Underwater Onions, a piece he created by placing onions in Provincetown Harbor. But the installation itself is only one part of the work. After all, we can no longer see any of them because they’ve been left to be ravaged by weather, time, tides, etc. It seems like an exercise in the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment, but Hutchinson plays it both ways because he lets the installation go, but always documents it in photography so that there is a balance of the temporary and the permanent, letting go of attachments, while still documenting them as photographs in their own right.

Peter Hutchinson in his garden. Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

Working in narrative art now, his work often features writing that both documents the circumstances of the creation and comments upon it. In his upcoming show at Gaa Gallery, the works are vivid with color and feature two aspects that are common to Hutchinson’s work overall: nature and words. For example, in the 2006 piece Melting Snow, we see a mountain backdrop and several images of flowers and plants overlaid, with the following text at the bottom: “We just had one foot of snow on Cape Cod. But I wish it had fallen instead in the Swiss Alps where I hear the glaciers are melting.”

He’s written several books, as well, such as the 1994 collection of writings Dissolving Clouds, which offers insights into Hutchinson’s life, work, and thought processes. In one piece, “A Review from the Year 2066,” Hutchinson takes on a future voice, reflecting back on the 20th century and speculating on a future where art is no longer made: “But in the Golden Age, as the 20th century is sometimes called, literally thousands of artists were turning out all the time. Imagine. Most of it was good art, too. I suppose in those primitive times, living in their soot-filled cities, worried by overpopulation, wars, and so on, the artists of that age were innocent and unselfconscious enough not to worry about whether their work was art or not.” It goes on to paint a picture of a future in which no one has to work, the population is under control, and no one goes hungry. “But nobody produces art, either.”

Peter Hutchinson will have a solo show at Gaa Gallery, 494 Commercial St., Provincetown, August 30 – September 29. There will be an opening reception on Friday, August 30, 6 – 9 p.m. For more information call 508.413.9621 or visit

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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