Generosity in Practice
June 15, 2019
by Eric Sutphin
When I asked SVA faculty member Peter Hristoff if he considered himself to be an activist as well as an artist, he replied, “ I think all good teachers are activists.” During our conversation, Hristoff noted the numerous mentors who have shaped his career, and recognizes the importance of dedicated, socially conscious educators. For Peter, it was Shelby Schmidt, a teacher at the High School of Art and Design , who first propelled him into a way of thinking about social concerns in relation to his own art practice.
Hristoff has a long history with SVA; his roles have included student, administrator, faculty member and mentor. He was awarded a full scholarship to SVA as an undergraduate, and while at SVA, he approached the administration about using the Fine Arts studios as summer workspace. The college agreed, and Peter, along with a group of other artists, formed what has since grown into the Summer Residency Program. During his graduate studies at Hunter College, he landed an internship at the Sculpture Center. At this time, the art world (and world at-large) was being shaken by the growing AIDS crisis. Hristoff approached the head curator, Marian Griffiths, for a space within the gallery that could be a dedicated place to exhibit art made by people living with AIDS. He proceeded to launch numerous projects, including the Postcard Project, in the designated space.
Throughout the 1990s, Peter worked with geometric motifs in his paintings that recalled Turkish textile design, and eventually, he began to incorporate silhouettes of figures. On reflection, Peter realized that these these shadow-like figures were his way of paying a tribute to the many lives lost to AIDS. In 2001 Hristoff, who is ethnically Bulgarian but grew up in Turkey, began to explore the rich history of Turkish carpet motifs as a source for his own work. Using traditional methods, he began to create carpets adorned with his own designs that, while abstract, suggest elements of his own biography. He exhibited his first series of rugs at the Hagia Sophia Museum in 2005. Following the success of that exhibition, he was invited to be an artist in residence at Priene Hali, then a small workshop that had trained 20 female weavers in western Turkey. Correspondence and collaboration were instilled in Peter early in his career, and these aspects became central to this decade-long collaboration. Recently, Peter has been working with both the South Norwalk Housing Authority and a children’s bereavement project launched by Scholastic to use the techniques of traditional carpet weaving and designing as a way to engage youth. As Hristoff noted, carpet designs can be “read” as biographical or allegorical representations of their maker. On these various rug projects Peter said: “ You’re making these objects about what you want your future to look like.”
Nearly 40 years after its inception, Hristoff remains connected to the Summer Residency Program as faculty and visiting artist. In 2010 (TK), he helped to inaugurate the American Turkish Society grant program. The initiative funds one emerging Turkish artist to attend the Summer Residency Program. In summer 2018, ATS sponsored Merve Denizci to attend the program. Through the lens of this program, one can see first-hand the scope of influence that Hristoff has had on our community. His career was fostered by a series of mentors and today, Peter carries on that spirit of generosity that is central to his life and work.