From the Magazine: Up Close with Jeff Whyman

Jeff Whyman at work, photo by Aaron Bristol

God, Gaia and the universe are all present in this local artist’s eclectic oeuvre

Delray Beach artist Jeff Whyman describes his work as “intergalactic.” His ceramic vessels—abstract mutations of teapots, vases and plates—do indeed resemble amalgamations of space debris hurtling through the cosmos.

Created from wood-fired kilns and festooned with sea glass, Chinese crystals, mineral oxides, metal nails, and wood ash from trees like cedar, oak and walnut, his offbeat creations almost seem to have minds of their own. They sway one way or another, the dried paint on their surfaces in a state of perpetual drip, earthen shards jutting out where you’d least expect to find them.

After 50 years in clay, Whyman still enjoys the surprises in his unpredictable process. “I’ve learned to let the clay tell me what it wants to do,” says the 67-year-old artist, from his capacious studio near Arts Warehouse. “A lot of artists will go away for three hours, and come back the next day, and add shapes, more like a constructivist. I don’t have that patience. I want to see it right now. I call it my explosive creative outburst.”

As a result, he says, “you just don’t know what the thing is going to look like until you open it up. It’s like Christmas every time.”

Though he has enjoyed 23 solo exhibitions, in various mediums, since 1976, Whyman’s ceramics have earned most of the artist’s attention lately, thanks to a solo show this past winter at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. (Whyman also gifted one of his sculptures to the museum’s permanent collection.) His vessels are one aspect of an impressive oeuvre that stretches from painting to steel—like his epic “Innocent Love,” a towering re-telling of the Biblical creation story sans the devil’s temptations; instead, the angular, semi-abstract figure of Eve hands Adam a maple leaf. “It’ll be nice to see that in front of a tax building,” he says, noting that the sculpture was recently purchased by Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon.

Whyman calls art his “calling,” one that has driven him since childhood, in St. Louis, when he would spend his allowance on plaster and clay so he could “make a mess upstairs. When I was 6 or 7, I was painting and drawing and going out into the mud and ditches, making things.” He was 10 years old when construction began on the Gateway Arch, cementing his lifelong love of steel.

He studied art, on full scholarship, at the University of Miami and Kansas City Art Institute, and in the 1970s he formed a mentee relationship with legendary artist Peter Voulkos, in Whyman’s words “the Jackson Pollock of ceramics.” It was Voulkos who instilled in Whyman the possibilities of clay, and it was Voulkos who reaffirmed them from his deathbed.

“I talked to him a couple days before he died [in 2002], and he said, ‘you’ve got to listen to me. You’ve got to start working in clay again,’” Whyman recalls. “Two days later, after he passed away, I ordered 1,000 pounds of clay, and got my own wheel.”

Over the next six years, Whyman developed his signature style, spending his workdays in a quarter-acre of rented woods in Hood Canal, Washington, next to a rushing creek. He let nature “feed into the work. I built a big kiln, and I worked with clay, and starting incorporating things from nature into the wet clay, and it just built from there. It was a slow, long journey.” The journey continued when he moved to Delray Beach, in 2008, to take care of his 80-year-old mother, and became a fixture at the city’s monthly Art Walks.

God, as much as Mother Earth, remains a central influence in Whyman’s life and art. Many of his works—like his feverish series of paintings of 2,000-year-old olive trees, potentially to be shown in an Israeli museum this year—are imbued with Biblical themes and titles. He chooses to focus only on the positive aspects faith can bring.

“It’s all about my love for the way God gave us a life to live, which is supposed to be a beautiful, innocent, peaceful, joyful adventure of inspiration and love and beauty and fulfillment,” he says. “It’s everything dark that’s attacking us day and night that you just have to keep at bay.”

This story is from the March-April 2021 of Delray Beach magazine. For more content like this, click here or look for the latest issue on your local newsstand.