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.”
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.”