Hi Peter! Tell us a bit about yourself. How do you spend your time nowadays?

Hello! I’m in Minneapolis right now and I divide my time between writing and recording music as my band Tender Ness, making mobiles, and doing healing bodywork in the form of massage.

Cobalt blue and peach colored mobile titled, "Blue Moon" hangs from the ceiling.
Gold and yellow mobile entitled "Gold Bars" hangs from ceiling.

How did your interest in mobiles begin? Furthermore, when was the first time you realized you could actually make a mobile?

In my twenties, I once saw this dollar-store ceiling decoration made up of plastic pink cherry blossoms. It was gaudy and cute and had a charm about it. For whatever reason, I had the urge to recreate it out of pink paper and some wire. One thing led to another. Then when I’d move to a new city or a new space, I’d make a mobile. They tended towards plants and flowers, like white ginkgo leaves, or black maple leaves.

Mobiles are a somewhat surprising, unique medium. Even though they have existed for thousands of years as wind chimes, they only recently translated to mobiles as we now know them (thanks to artist Alexander Calder in the late 1920s). What do you love about this unexpected medium and its both long and recent history?

I’m still exploring the medium as well as admiring the work of other artists who primarily work in hanging sculpture, like Ernesto Neto, whose work is so poetic, wild, and intimate. As far as the mobiles themselves, I love their ethereal nature, their curious charm, and I think their main purpose is to brighten the energy of a space.

Artist Peter Witrack installs a large blue mobile from his perch on a ladder.

When did Mobiles Mobiles shift from personal craft to a business?

After a couple of exhibitions in 2018, one at Hemlocks Leatherworks (Candace Lacosse’s studio/shop in Duluth) and the other, a chance to sell my work at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, thanks to designer and artist Siri Knutson.

Conceptually, what are your mobiles born out of? Are there certain influences that consistently shape your work?

I am most inspired by plant life. Oftentimes a finished mobile feels like a tree or a plant floating in mid-air. There’s a beautiful poise that all plants and trees have, in how they’re totally at peace with gravity, unlike us humans. They’re not complaining about their back, they’re not trying to board a SpaceX rocket to the moon; they’re okay with just hanging out. But I don’t really have a concept behind the mobiles other than wanting to bring a little wonder into a space, the feeling of peacefulness, and a little joy.

Wind chimes are known for warding off evil spirits or bringing good luck historically. Do your mobiles signify something similar?

Not so much in a sense of good luck or warding off spirits, but I do see them as sort of ‘charms’, for living spaces. They are curious indeed, seeming to take on an energy of their own, responding to the slightest of air movement, and subtly changing color before your eyes.

Other mobiles, like “Louise, Roberta, Sarah, Joni” are tributes to people or spirits (especially singers) I admire or love. For commissions, I will play with a motif and color that is meaningful to someone in particular, often for a specific space of theirs.

Mobile hangs from ceiling with the profiles of music icons Louise, Roberta, Sarah, and Joni.

Who, or what, has provided creative inspiration for you lately?

Water, rivers, and lakes, especially here in Minnesota, where there’s a freshwater lake everywhere you walk, and where currently, entire communities and our waterbeds are still being threatened by the corporation Enbridge and their “Line 3” tar sands pipeline project.

Color is heavily explored throughout your work, both in Mobiles Mobiles and in your music composition. Do you find that color influences your mood greatly? Could you, say, go through the day wearing a color you dislike and feel okay about it?

It might be an interesting exercise to force yourself to wear a color you dislike; you might end up liking it! Yes, color and light are huge mood-agents. I also have always seen colors in music and in numerals. Give me your phone number and I’ll tell you its colors. I won’t call it, but I will interpret its special rainbow.

What is your process of creating a color palette for your mobiles? What goes into the colors you choose to represent certain things, or complement others?

Usually whatever feels or looks good and isn’t too literal. I think pleasure is the ultimate deciding factor. But for commissions, I definitely work with someone’s desired color palette, as well as any sort of motif that they might have in mind. I often will go to someone’s home or workspace to help them dream up a mobile. If you have a space in mind that needs some love, let me know! I can now ship mobiles long-distance too.

I am sure it is hard to pick a favorite mobile as all your creations might be likened to children--yet rumor has it, even parents’ have a favorite child, if only temporarily. (Perhaps a brief moment of preference.) Which piece do you feel particularly fond of right now?

Probably the current series where I’m playing more with abstractions, reiterating a form or shape until it becomes something new — less literal and more open to interpretation and feeling.

Two mobiles, one blue and the other cream, hang from the ceiling. They are illuminated by light.

One of your mobiles is named "Bara no Tameiki" after a song by Saeri Yuki (loosely translated as ‘Whispering Rose’). Could you tell us more about the link between your mobiles and musical influence?

That was a play on two things I was doing at the time, singing and recording the above song with my band, and learning the hiragana for Japanese class.

The art and music-making definitely go hand in hand, but there’s definitely a distinction; I feel that music, particularly live performance, demands much more immediate heart and soul labor, whereas art-making feels more “backstage”, more meditative, with a lot less adrenaline at stake. I guess the main difference is that music usually gets whisked off into the entertainment industry, and art prefers the peace and quiet of the gallery space. It’s refreshing to take a break from being an entertainer, and the mobiles afford that.

Joni Mitchell, who is also a painter, once mused about the difference between the performing arts and painting, after a fan was yelling out song requests at a show: “You know, nobody ever went up to Van Gogh and said “Paint ‘A Starry Night’ again, man!

Images of Peter's mobile, "Bara no tameiki" are pictured in various colors. Green, left. Pink, middle. Right, yellow.

You have two bodies of music released: Blues and Oranges and Like Icarus. How would you describe your experience with producing music as Tender Ness?

There are days when it feels like you’re trying to catch fish with your bare hands, naked, in the ocean... But when you do manage to catch the fish (the songs), they are magical and beautiful and scrumptious. But then, after about two years of work, when you’ve designed and built your fancy seaside fish restaurant (your album), you find that instead of going out to eat, most people will prefer to stay in and order takeout from Spotify. I’m being facetious, but there’s truth in that!

At the end of the day, music is my calling and my medicine. If I’m not creating it or absorbing it, I’m soul-heavy and not happy. As a bodyworker, it’s also essential for healing on many levels. But it’s also a business, and I’m learning how to stay on top of it, even if it means feigning it like Romy and Michelle asking for their “businesswoman special” at a roadside diner. The imposter syndrome is real, and it becomes a daily practice to disavow it. Overall I’m learning to how to be as honest as possible with it, to follow the soulful connections and to use pleasure as a sort of musical compass.

As an artist, what is one of the best pieces of advice that you have been given?

Anne Lamott: “You must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability.”

Also, this may sound superficial or distrustful, but another real advice is to get paid up front. So many artists start out with zero business savvy. A good advice is to make sure you’re adequately valuing your work from the start and get into the practice of being paid properly. You can’t get egotistical and expect a lot of money at first, but it’s a good habit. Aretha Franklin used to perform with her purse sitting on top of the piano, within reach, after having insisted on being paid before the show, wary of the long-standing exploitation of Black performers in the entertainment industry. That has not been my case, but it’s striking, and it gives complexity to all the musicians who make their living not only from their talent, but from their soulfulness as well. There’s also a great podcast series by one of my favorite artist/choreographers Miguel Gutierrez called “Are You For Sale?” in which he takes a critical look at arts funding in America, especially in the dance world. Very few American artists I know don’t have a side hustle or two.

Giant mobile hangs from the ceiling in the living room of a cabin.
Blue mobile hangs from the ceiling of a home.

What are your hopes for the future, in terms of your work? What would Mobiles Mobiles or Tender Ness look like fully realized?

Overall, to achieve a balance between artistic fabulousness and economic sustainability. More playful, cross-pollinating collaborations. More joy. In spite of the times.

It’s a rainy, slow Duluth day and you are at work in your studio. What music are you playing as you piece together a mobile?

Usually fun and groovy house / soul / funk / disco mixes. That, or a tennis match. All the international ball-smacking and prim and proper chit chat from British commentators—I love it. It's like a reset button for the brain.

Peter created a special mobile design just for us! Choose from 4 colorways and he will ship it straight to your door. Receive 10% off your order for the next week (3/2-3/9) by using code "Noihsaf" at checkout.