Meeting Peter Max
This is me with one of my art idols, the legendary, Peter Max. The man, the brand. I've loved his art since his cosmically colorful compositions of the 1960's and 70's. In terms of an art influence, he's so huge that you may not even realize how many times his work has surrounded your life through advertising and illustration.
When you google "Peter Max" you'd marvel at the endless stream of images. You'll quickly realize why the internet calls him "the most successful artist that has ever lived. "
I grew up in a home with parents who loved modern style and we had a set of Peter Max linen napkins we used for fancy occasions. I loved them! We also had a cool Peter Max ash tray. No one smoked in my family so my mom called it the “candy dish.”
I’d always hoped to one day have an original painting one day. While researching his 1960’s cosmic era work and vintage items all over eBay, I discovered that Peter Max was making a personal appearance at a local gallery, I set out to thank him for his influence on my own art. In my purse, I had the linen napkin from my mom’s china closet. I hoped to get an autograph. For this auspicious interaction I was dressed to impress. I wore a sequined top with the enormous ball gown I hand painted. Hand painting wearable art has always been my talent.
I get to the gallery and it was a scene. People everywhere. An excited energy in the air. Peter Max paintings flying off the wall for anywhere from $5,000 up to $60 thousand dollars each.
And there in the center of the crowd was a red velvet rope around a little table where sat Mr. Max himself in the middle of the gallery. Although I couldn't afford one, I knew I'd be very happy with a framed autographed napkin if I could make that happen. I head over to get in line when I'm snubbed by a gallery assistant, “This line is for purchasers,” he said. I waited near the wine table feeling very inadequate, especially since I was the one in the hand-painted ball gown. I worked up the courage to make my move into the roped off line again - no matter what.
Peter was dressed up too. He sat in polka dot socks and maroon suit, taking photos with customers next to the art they were purchasing from the gallery. There was a bottle of Arizona Ice Tea on the table (Peter Max had illustrated the limited edition label on the tea, btw). He was signing and doodling on the back of the purchased art works with Sharpie on the brown framing paper.
Finally, spying a gap in the line, and the assistants distracted ringing up the sales, I walk up to Peter behind the rope and gush how much I love and appreciate his work. I tell him I'm an artist and an art teacher too. I tell him about the napkin, and his influence on me and I pull the napkin magically out of my purse. I SWEAR you could have heard the room gasp when I did that.
Peter Max was very kind. He says "Let me see that,” and pulls the napkin close to sign it with his Sharpie, “Lola, Love Peter Max 2015” I was beyond excited. I ask if we can take a photo together and he says it's fine.
Then I turn around to see that when I got my napkin signed, it sort of sent out the "bat signal"! Out of nowhere, everyone else in the gallery flooded into line, and a myriad of household items start to appear out from inside everyones handbags and coats. Out come Peter Max ties, album covers, scarves and more. Everyone was sharing a story about their item, Everyone was congratulating each other for having the nerve to bring that stuff out of their parent’s closet to the gallery. Each of the owners were giddy, at this impromptu Peter Max Pop-con.
I waited until the crowed thinned out to have more time with Peter. finally he's sitting alone so I step up again and tell him how much I appreciated our meeting and I wonder if he'd mind if I ask him about his life and work. I have a million questions.
“You can ask me anything,” he says. But only 3 questions.” I get the feeling he's about to lay down some advice, so I am pretty excited to learn what he has to say! For example, limiting my questions was Max Lesson 1 = "How to Create Exclusivity”
Lola: “Mr. Max, You have been working for a very long time. You have had different styles during different eras. Which has been your favorite so far?
Max: “I like all my styles.”
Hoping to get a deeper answer, I ask “Do you have a favorite work?"
Max: “Whatever I am working on at the time, is my favorite style.”
I probe further, "Not many people have had a career that has placed them on the cover of Time magazine. Not many people have painted household items, presidents and planes. So what led you to your big break, opening the gates for such amazing opportunities?”
He looks right at me and replies:
"You should paint famous people. You should paint things that people are interested in. Then you should call the press. They'll want pictures of it. You’ll get a lot of attention!” So this is Max Lesson 2 - "How to Get Attention for your Work."
I sneak in a fourth question by introducing him to my daughter and explain that I'm also an art teacher. I ask what advice he’d give to kids.
Max says: “Make silly squiggles.” He says, "Keep making them and eventually they’ll one day turn into something.”
Great advice. I agreed. So that was Max lesson 3- "Keep Going."
Then he stops everything and totally pivots the conversation, “Did you really make that dress? I love it!”
OMG, Peter Max is a fan of my artwork!
Smiling beyond the surface of my own face, I say yes and give him a tour, pointing to the hand painted images on the gown. "Here’s the Capitol and the fireworks behind it on July 4th, and here’s the space shuttle and the Statue of Liberty, and a bird of peace, and here’s the presidential seal changed to Yes We Can..." I go on, and on as I twirl around next to him.
"Peter, do you have a favorite illustration on my gown?” I ask.
“They are all my favorite!” he glows back at me. (Max Lesson 4 - promote it all, all the time.)
And then he asks me the oddest thing…with a quizzical face he asks, “Is this dress a one-of-a-kind?”
“Yes,” I reply. Actually I'm sort of stunned. Peter Max was wondering if I was mass producing. Wow! But I wasn't mass produced and now I felt a little bit stuck and lost. I didn't have the time, the community or the technology to do it even though it was what I'd always hoped to do.
When I got home, I framed the napkin and hung it in my studio. 6 more years passed. Eventually I licensed my teaching company, I worked in another realm designing museum exhibitions. Then I got all caught up in the pandemic like everyone else.
During this time of quiet, the technology to print on demand was more accessible, so I began experimenting with production. I found the surface design community and began taking intensive classes and understanding the deeper design considerations. Now I am finally here making my art available for products and licensing and bringing joy to people through the color and energy they carry. I finally found my way to achieve what Peter Max saw in me 6 years before.
We all need to remember it's never too late to make your dreams real. For me, it just took the time to focus to catch up and make it real. So thank's again, Peter Max! Next time I see him I imagine it going like this:
I greet Peter Max while wearing one of my own design. He says, "Is that one-of-a-kind?" And I reply, "No, I sell my clothing and textiles all over the world.” And then after we take a photo together, then I will pull out a napkin of my own design and I will sign it for him, “Peter, Love, Lola 2021."
Peter if you are out there reading this, I'm out here working hard to make you proud! - Love, Lola