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Olympian Peter Schifrin Combines Passions for Sport and Art with New Sculpture at U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

07/01/2020, 2:00pm CDT
By Kristen Henneman

Olympian Peter Schifrin with his sculpture Olympus Within after it was installed at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum Photo Credit: Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

When Peter Schifrin was asked by the new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs to create a sculpture for the entry vestibule, it brought his two careers together.

A 1984 Olympian in épée, Schifrin is a five-time Senior World Team member and twice fenced at the Pan American Games. Collegiately, he was a four-time NCAA All-American while fencing for San Jose State and won the NCAA title in 1982. After his career ended, he coached two Olympians at the 1992 Games in M.J. O’Neil and Molly Sullivan.

But Schifrin knew his calling was in art and sculpting. Although sculpting was something he found by accident, he found a love in moving the clay with his hands to make it come alive and enjoyed working with big, life-size pieces.

“I was one of those lucky people – I had this great high school teacher that I was taking a ceramics class with and I sucked. I was not good,” Schifrin said. “Instead of him saying, ‘You’re no good. You get a D,’ or ‘You should do something else,’ he redirected me and he said, ‘Hey, you want to learn how to sculpt an eye and a nose and an ear?’ For whatever reason, he saw something in me and that just started to turn on lights. So I really discovered sculpture through being a failure as a ceramic artist and I’ve never looked back.”

Since then, Schifrin has been sculpting his entire adult life. He majored in sculpture at San Jose State, earned his MFA in sculpture at Boston University and was the director of the School of Fine Art Sculpture at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco for 12 years before becoming faculty.

Schifrin has created numerous large-scale bronze sculptures in cities across the United States with his most recent project coming to Colorado Springs as the fencer was asked to create a sculpture to live in Olympic City USA.

A project he says he’s still pinching himself over, Schifrin created a bronze monumental sculpture of a discus thrower for the new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, and it will be one of the first things visitors see upon entering.

“It was like this lifetime achievement goal where I started off to pursue a dream of being an Olympian and then I stopped [fencing] after ’84 and pursued this dream of becoming a master sculptor,” Schifrin said. “And now this moment of bringing this sculptural symbol back to honor the Olympics, the Olympian and the Paralympian stories felt like completing a circle in my life because I got to marry and unify these two passions and these two skillsets that I have to create a symbol of inspiration for others.”

Titled Olympus Within, the sculpture is inspired by the movements of Al Oerter, a four-time Olympic Champion in discus from 1956-68. Also an artist, Oerter wasn’t always the favorite to win gold, but set multiple Olympic and world records during his career.

Oerter once said that he estimated taking 450,000 throws in his life and that not one of those was perfect. In a similar stance, Schifrin was not looking to create a piece that looked perfect. With a style that is loose and expressive, the sculpture has no face and isn’t from any one moment in time. Rather, it’s meant to be raw, unfinished and non-specific.

While not a portrait of Oerter, the sculpture contains his spirit and dynamism, showcasing the energy and power of a discus thrower.

“It’s not all smoothed over because it’s an image that’s meant to mimic life force as it moves, as it grows, as it changes,” Schifrin said. “Maybe this idea that we can all keep growing and moving toward our dreams or the vision that we want of ourselves. So it’s very intentionally not refined. It’s not final. It’s this weird contradiction that it will be in bronze, so it will be eternal and static, but at the same time, the forms are meant to keep moving.”

Just like a discus thrower has contained energy before the throw, in the movement, Schifrin could relate as he saw similarities to the preparation required in fencing.

“Probably the most important thing about fencing is the preparation – everything you do before the touch,” Schifrin said. “And with discus, it’s the same thing. Everything you do before the throw is what makes a great throw. So this sculpture has preparation before it has contained energy.”

Working with head, heart and hand – just like he did in fencing – Schifrin noted that many of the principles he learned in fencing applied to art and life, including staying present in the moment, focus, practice, perseverance, risk-taking and trusting yourself.

“One of the most important similarities – and I think this is true in the sculpture I’m making [for the museum] – is action. Not only do you have to listen to your life wisdom and trust in it, but you have to act,” Schifrin said. “It’s not enough to know what you need to do. You have to do it. Even if you fail, you have to do it. That’s true with fencing. If you say, ‘I know how to hit this person,’ but you never thrust your weapon, you’re not going to get a hit. And even if you don’t hit them, you’ll learn so much when they parry and hit you back or you miss.”

The sculpture took approximately six months to execute, from the design process that began in December to being installed on June 17. What originally began as models less than a foot tall eventually became an over life-size form standing nearly six and a half feet tall and weighing approximately 400 pounds.

“For me, I try not to overwork it. Like with competing, you can’t overthink it,” Schifrin said of the process. “You just have to go out and fence. You can’t be analyzing everything all the time while you’re fencing. You just have to fence. The same thing happens [with sculpting]. I’ve done all my planning, all my research, and then I sculpt.”

Of the three designs Schifrin submitted, this one was selected because it best complimented the architecture. As discus is one of the original sports of the ancient Olympic Games, the building design was inspired by the power and grace of an Olympic discus thrower.

When the museum opens, visitors will then be greeted by an individual discus thrower before being inspired by U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes and their stories.

“It’s humbling,” said Schifrin of having a sculpture at the museum. “I feel like my job was at the service of these great legends. I tried to make a sculpture, and I think I did, that honors that heroic endeavor.”

While Schifrin and museum honor the country’s top athletes, Schifrin hopes the sculpture is inspirational to everyone. Oerter himself was an artist who used his abstract paintings to inspire youth through art, and now, Schifrin hopes his sculpture will inspire all who see it. He noted that the contained energy in the sculpture is something that lives in all humans, and that everyone can pursue excellence and work toward their goals and dreams, no matter what those may be.

“I named the sculpture Olympus Within with the idea that the reason that museum exists and even the reason I create sculpture is to remind viewers of our vitality, of our life force, of what we can be as human beings,” Schifrin said. “Not everyone is an Olympian, but everyone can pursue that dream of becoming the best.”

Schifrin during his fencing career and at the 1984 Olympic Games. Photo Credit: Peter Schifrin

Olympus Within as a small clay model Photo Credit: Peter Schifrin

Schifrin working on Olympic Within Photo Credit: Peter Schifrin

After Schifrin created the large clay sculpture, the ford was cast in bronze and fabricated by Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, Calif. Photo Credit: Peter Schifrin

Olympus Within arrives as the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum Photo Credit: Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

Peter Schifrin during installation Photo Credit: Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

Peter Schifrin modeling the sculpture's position during installation. Photo Credit: Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

Schifrin after Olympus Within was successfully installed. Photo Credit: Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

Olymus Within Photo Credit: Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

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