Peter Warburton wrote to introduce himself as “the most famous duct tape fine artist in the USA and Western Europe.” Hype? When I do a Google search for “famous duct tape artists,” other names fill the first page (though he does show up on the second).
No matter. I met Warburton at the downtown Sweetwaters, where his works were hung in a show last month, and I thought they looked pretty good.
Sixty-nine, a retired counselor at Chelsea’s Beach Middle School, Warburton is a big guy with keen blue eyes, jauntily dressed in black jeans and jacket. He mildly makes the case for his fame by pointing out that his duct tape pictures have been accepted or displayed at the Vatican and the Museum of Naive Art in Nice, France, and one finished in the top twenty-five in the 2-D category in the 2016 Grand Rapids ArtPrize.
Warburton’s subjects are diverse: the works at Sweetwaters included a solemn ballet dancer rendered in bits of black and white tape, a boxy red shut-down crab shack in Maine, and the ArtPrize entry, a glowing orange windmill titled “Sunset Montmartre 1896.” Though not a copy, “Sunset” shares the title of a painting by Vincent van Gogh, a Warburton favorite.
I immediately recognized his rendition of Detroit’s Belle Isle Conservatory–as did a college-age man at a nearby table. Overhearing our conversation, he asked Warburton, “You’re the artist? Duct tape?”
Warburton is accustomed to raised eyebrows. Though use of duct tape for craft projects (wallets, cups) has shot up in popularity in the last decade, it’s in its infancy as a serious art form. Warburton was inspired by a student who showed up at school wearing a black duct tape tie. Warburton loved it and paid the boy to make one for him. Soon he and some students were making the ties in his counseling office. Warburton then moved into duct tape “painting,” which is really more like a layered mosaic. (He keeps ninety rolls on hand, though many of the colors are duplicates.)
With no training in art–his Chicago parochial schools barely taught it, he says–he learned by trial and error, moving from crude duct-taped animals to more sophisticated projects. He’s made about 125 pictures, he estimates, spending an average of sixty hours on each.
Warburton usually works out of his garage, but the day I visit him at his northwest-side home, he’s glumly stationed in the living room. The previous day, he’d taken a fall on ice and is hobbling on crutches. He brightens when he shows me his current project: a half-completed rendition of an 1785 Dutch windmill that he and his wife, Diane, spotted on one of their frequent trips to Europe.
He gives me a brief demonstration. Using a box-cutter-like tool, he snips off tiny pieces of tape, presses them onto a glass “canvas,” and smooths them down with a roller. Here and there, he dabs on paint to fill in gaps.
Warburton, who projects earnestness, isn’t being coy when he says he can’t explain how he works. “I don’t draw,” he says vaguely. “I just kind of gauge it.” Inspired by the nineteenth-century French pointillists, he’s rendered this piece entirely in tiny dots of tape. Working on the sky, he says, “I can’t tell you how many layers it will be.”
Partly because he can’t break down his technique, he declined a request from the Ann Arbor District Library to teach kids how to “paint” with duct tape. (Another reason: the cutting tools are sharp. He’s nicked himself dozens of times.)
Asked how many pictures he’s sold, he’s also vague: “I couldn’t tell you.” Prices vary depending on size and the time he’s put into a work. At Sweetwaters, “Belle Isle” was priced at $400, “Sunset Montmartre” at $2,000.
Warburton seems less motivated by money than by a desire to get his work out there: he mails pictures (with return postage) to museums, galleries, and occasionally to prominent individuals like artist Jamie Wyeth. Wyeth kept Warburton’s duct-tape raven and sent him a handwritten thank-you note, which Warburton proudly brandishes. He also shares a reply from archbishop Giovanni Lajolo thanking him for an image of “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” which, the archbishop writes, “will be conserved in the Vatican and most likely destined to an office of the Roman Curia.” But he’s not shy about admitting his rejections. He chortles as he recalls a curator at the Louvre in Paris who returned a piece with a curt message: “I have no comment.”
He also sometimes practices what he calls “renegade art,” just dropping off a picture at a site to which it is connected. He left a black-and-white picture of Anne Frank, in a concentration camp uniform, under her statue in Amsterdam.
Closer to home, if you’ve passed the rain garden on Miller near Maple lately, you may have seen his unasked-for image of a sunflower. He’s now hoping a city building might accept his larger “Sunflower for Hank,” named for his much-loved late mother-in-law, Henrietta. It’s eight feet by eight feet, and he spent a whole summer working on it “so she could see it from heaven.”
Warburton grew up on Chicago’s north side, the son of a millwright and a homemaker, and majored in history at Western Michigan. That’s where he met his wife, a graphic artist who specializes in presentations for corporate clients. After earning a master’s in guidance counseling from DePauw University, he took the job in Chelsea, retiring seven years ago.
“I do miss the kids,” he says, but reflects somberly that their problems seemed to deepen during his final years teaching–something he attributes to a “fast-paced society” where youngsters “feel lost.”
Warburton defends the artistic validity of his work. The purpose of art, he says, is to create an emotional response in the viewer. “Even those people who stick up their noses” at his medium, he points out, are “likely to smile. A smile is an emotion. Laughter is an emotion.”