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Santa Rosa sculptor Peter Schifrin creates piece for US Olympic & Paralympic Museum

They are the smallest of his monumental works, but the tiny bronze coins that sculptor Peter Schifrin often presses into the palms of people he meets sum up his philosophy.

Each side of the coin says “gift.” No matter where it lands on a toss, it’s a game rigged to win. The coins are a reminder, he said, that “however things appear, there’s always a gift in it,” something “positive within.”

This is a guiding principle in the life and work of the 62-year-old Schifrin, who creates art that, as he puts it, “celebrates joy within our brief gift of life.”

There are plenty of examples in his life where the coin appeared not to fall in his favor.

Back in 1984, as a young national fencing champion, he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team. At the Los Angeles games he had his Olympic moment, proudly entering the stadium five people behind track and field great Carl Lewis, who would over time take nine Olympic gold medals. But the U.S. fencing team placed only 12th. Schifrin said after years of training, both physically and mentally, he knew he had done his best and gone as far as he could in the sport.

There was a gift in his defeat. It created an opportunity for Schifrin to return to the art career he had put on hold to focus on competitive fencing. After eight years on the U.S. team, which kept him constantly in motion with 10 national and world cups a year, he got to the point where he felt sick walking into an airport.

“It was the pressure. You had to perform every time. Sculpture is not about winning for me. But it’s about an opportunity to express myself as fully as I can. And that,” he said, “is why this is so fun.”

’Olympus Within’

Some 36 years later, Schifrin got a different sort of Olympic honor. He was selected to create a monumental art piece to stand inside the entrance to the new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He delivered and oversaw the placement of the finished piece, “Olympus Within,” several weeks ago. Slated to open at the end of July, the 60,000-square-foot interactive museum at the base of the Rocky Mountains is dedicated to telling the stories of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and is touted as one of the world’s most accessible museums for people with disabilities. Schifrin is included in the museum’s database of nearly 13,000 athletes who have competed for Team USA in the Olympics or Paralympics since 1896.

This time Schifrin didn’t have to compete. He was invited by Cathy Oerter, who co-founded the nonprofit Art of the Olympians with her late husband, Al Oerter, in 2006, a year before Al’s death. Both an Olympic discus thrower and a painter, Al Oerter was the first athlete to win four gold medals at four successive Olympiads between 1956 and 1968, setting new Olympic records each time.

“He wanted to teach our kids it’s not all about winning. But be the best you can be,” Cathy Oerter said in a phone interview from her home in Florida. “In the ancient games they gave medals for art and architecture. The Greeks wanted the perfect citizen in all ways.” Art of the Olympians is comprised of 50 artists working in different media, all of them former Olympians.

Schifrin was one of two sculptors considered for the commission.

“Peter just has this energy that is contagious, and I thrive on that energy. He’s positive and forward-thinking and we clicked right away,” Cathy Oerter said. “The sculpture he did represents strength and fortitude, not only by Olympians, but people in general — what we have the power to create and carry through no matter what adversity is there.”

When he was initially approached about the project, Schifrin was not keen about sculpting a discus thrower. He was more drawn to something closer to the winged goddess Nike, symbol of victory, and has created a series of uplifting winged forms.

“My interest is spiritual flight, the opportunity for us all to pursue our dreams,” he said.

But renowned architect Liz Diller, who designed the museum, was animated by the power and grace of discus throwing, an ancient sport still practiced today, and incorporated that into a building that, viewed from above, appears to be spinning in space.

For the piece he would call “Olympus Within,” Schifrin sculpted an abstract, human-like form with no distinct features but with sinewy muscles and tendons, head bowed in concentration. He studied photos of Al Oerter to capture his movements in a slightly larger-than-lifesize sculpture that projected “human energy and raw power” in motion.

“For me the definition of Olympian is ’pursuit of excellence over time.’ That’s why I titled the piece ’Olympus Within.’ I feel that within everybody is an Olympian. Inside everybody there is that dream to be excellent at something. The only thing about an Olympian is they stick with it.”

Schifrin said in a sense he has been training for this moment for most of his life, bringing everything he has learned and experienced to bear in the creation of a piece.

To represent Paralympians in the piece, he invited discus thrower Nathan Perkins, paralyzed since birth with spina bifida, to press his handprint into the base. When Perkins drove up to the foundry in Berkeley where Schifrin fabricates his work and saw the piece, he was overjoyed and grateful. In Schifrin’s creation, he saw in the form a man who appeared to be seated while throwing, just like himself.

While it was not consciously intentional, Schifrin believes there is purpose behind everything he does. People bring their own vision when viewing a work.

“Of course we (artists) are trying to create these symbols that convey some kind of meaning, some kind of specificity,” he said. “But a good piece of art should ask more questions than it answers.”

Schifrin is animated as he speaks and moves about his studio pointing out pieces — a maquette of “Olympian Within,” facial sculptures of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi made early in his career, his small but power winged forms — with the force and grace of a dancer.

Chris Leidel, the former president of Smithsonian enterprises who is CEO of the new $75 million museum, said Schifrin captured the essence of the museum’s spirit, which is not just to honor athletes but to be a museum of the arts, culture, music, history and social progress.

“Peter did a wonderful job of pulling it together,” Leidel said. “It’s a very beautiful piece and and we’re very proud that it’s the first thing you see when you walk in.”

Early influences

For 27 years Schifrin has taught sculpture at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. As a teacher he strives to be encouraging, knowing that it can have a profound impact on a student. He might never have found a life’s passion in art if it weren’t for the kind words of a high school ceramics teacher who didn’t write him off.

“I immediately struggled. I was not a good ceramic artist,” said Schifrin, who grew up in Topanga Canyon as the son of an artist. Instead of steering him away from art, the teacher gently pointed him in another direction, suggesting he try sculpting a nose and then an eye.

“Something clicked. It was just this epiphany. He was so kind. He was generous and open as a teacher needs to be. That’s what I try to do with my students. What are your goals? How can I help you get there? That’s my mission as a teacher,” he said.

As a young man Schifrin also took up the serious study of fencing, which had captivated him as a very young child watching the dashing “Zorro” on TV.

“He had the mustache and jumped from buildings and had the mask,” Schifrin recalled. “We would go down to Olvera Street, a little Mexican area near (Los Angeles) City Hall, where you could get for 35 cents a plastic Zorro sword. Each time we would go down there I’d get one and I was in dreamland.”

He was already a junior national champion when he headed to San Jose State, which had a highly respected fencing coach. By 1979 Schifrin was ranked first in the country. A weak performance at a tournament kept him off the 1980 Olympic team, but he resolved to stay with it and earned a spot on the 1984 team.

“I have no regrets,” he said of walking away from fencing after failing to medal. “I fantasized about winning a medal. I visualized winning a medal. I did meditations about winning a medal. I did all this training to win a medal and I wasn’t even close to winning a medal. But I could say, ’You did everything you could to be as good as you could be. You got here. Now go do art.’ ”

He won a full scholarship to graduate school at Boston University, dismissing the discouragement of a teacher who told him right off the bat he wasn’t good enough. Schifrin has proved her wrong. He went on to achieve success as an artist with pieces in both private and public collections. Two years ago he collaborated with his “artner,” Petaluma sculptor David Duskin, to create a monument of legendary TV writer and producer Norman Lear. The lifelike piece captures the whimsy of the nonagenarian when he was about 50; it’s now placed at Emerson College, ironically just across Boston Common from a sculpture by the same art teacher who tried to quash him so many years ago.

It was Schifrin who mentored a team of eight young art students from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco to design and create a monument to 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy in 2013. The monument of 975 handmade tiles and 15 bronze elements resides in Andy’s Unity Park in Santa Rosa. Schifrin supervised but the students did all the work.

“I was thrilled for them,” he said. “It changed their life and that was worth everything.”

Family man on the mountain

For the last 16 years Schifrin has lived and worked atop Sonoma Mountain, where he and his wife, Nicky, have converted an old dairy farm into a family compound with a home for Nicky’s parents, an art studio, gardens, olive trees and a chicken coop.

The couple have twin sons, Kaz and Gabe, almost 18, and daughter Belle, 15. Gabe was born with developmental disabilities that initially left them reeling. But like a toss of one of those double-sided gift coins, Gabe would prove to be a blessing.

“He has become this delight, this joy,” Schifrin said. “He’s a true soul. It’s also been a gift for my children.They had to learn empathy, compassion and patience. It forces you to be loving to this gentle soul. And then you start to realize we all have a disability, an inability.”

Schifrin and Duskin are now working with with Kevin Bright, one of the creators of the popular ’90s sitcom “Friends,” who had been a benefactor for the Norman Lear monument, to create for him a series of pieces for his private homes. Models of pieces that right now are only ideas are arranged on a table in Schifrin’s studio like a tiny playground. For him, this is fun, like work should be.

Training for and competing in the Olympics can bring so much pressure “you want to throw up,” Schifrin said.

“It is exhilarating when you do well. But it’s not play,” he said, beaming. “With art, I still get to play.”

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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