Interview By Vrnda Devi
Peter Max Interview
PETER MAX INTERVIEW
Safety Harbor, Florida
Vrnda Devi: You became involved with the Indian master, Swami Satchitnanda in the 1960’s. How did you first meet him and what was your relationship with him like over the years?
Peter Max: I met him in Paris when I was asked to do a movie with a young man by the name of Connrad Rookes, who was the heir to Avon Cosmetics. The film was called Chapaqua. A fellow who was on his production team was a Peter Max fan. Anyway, I flew out to Paris at his request, and finally, I met the Swami. I saw his eyes and it was like “nobodies home” except an ocean of love, you know? It was a quietness he had inside. I fell in love with him and wanted him to come to America. I knew all of my friends would love him. We all did and he taught us yoga. How to breathe, how to be yogis, how to vegetarians, how to be in love with animal protection. So slowly the Integral Yoga Centers started opening up, 39 centers. It was only a handful of us in the beginning. We’d never done anything like this before. Some of us became very successful, some of us became swamis, and it’s still on going. Swamiji just passed away four months ago. On August 19th he died. He was 87.
Vrnda: I have a daughter that took iniation from Puri Maharaja from The Gaudiya Math of Puri, Orrssia, India, who was over one hundred years old and died just a couple of years ago. I also met Srila Prabhupada or A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.
Peter: Bhaktivedanta Swami? From the Hare Krishna Movement? I knew him. Oh yeah, he was wonderful and very good friends with Swami Satchitananda.
Vrnda: When he looked at you you felt he was right inside. It frightened me the first time. I think I ran away. It was so powerful.
Peter: Yeah, because it’s like there’s no opinion. All there was was you.
Vrnda: Peter, are you still a vegetarian?
Peter: I’m a vegan. When I’m at the easel it’s Peter Max the artist but when I walk away it’s Peter the animal protection person. I’ve gotten to really understand the spirit of animals. I have five cats at home and one of them has become so attached to me, she’s my little girl. Wherever I go she follows. All day long, if I’m home, she’s wherever I am. If I’m in bed she curls right up next to me. I’ve gotten to know her so well that now when I’m in the car and I see the electric wires and there’s birds on top I can see my little Gigi in the birds. You know what I mean? I can sense their little spirits. I got to know the spirit of a little bird, that could be a thousand feet away, because it reminds me of my cat. It’s a very nice thing to know the spirit of an animal.
Vrnda: I keep two pet cows to help teach with our vegetarian project. People see them and tell me, “Wow, I had no idea how beautiful and peaceful they are.” I have a lot of different animals.
Peter: Have you heard about the cow I saved awhile back?
Peter: There was a cow in Cincinnati that jumped over a seven foot fence trying to escape slaughter. Poor thing. You heard about her?
Vrnda: I think I did. But I didn’t know you were involved.
Peter: I was in a post production house editing a video and my friend Greg Allen shows up and as he puts down his bag and gives me a guy hug he says to me, “Did you hear about the cow?’ I said, “What cow?” He says, “the cow in Cincinnati.” I thought he was going to tell me a joke maybe, but it turned out to be a real story. There was a cow in Cincinnati that jumped over a seven foot fence as all the cows before her were stunned and cut into pieces. She saw that. It happened so fast it was just a total freak out. She jumped over the lowest thing which was this fence. When she landed on the other side she fell on her face and hurt herself pretty badly but didn’t break any bones. She was all bruised and ran into the forest miles away. There were helicopters looking for her and the whole city of Cincinnati was up in arms trying to find her. I said, “Greggy, do me a favor. Get me somebody on the phone. So he gets on the computer and finds me a man who writes for the Cincinnati Post, his name was Barry Horseman. So Barry asked me, “Are you Peter Max the artist?” I said, “Yeah. I’m calling about the cow. I must, must, must, adopt this cow. You must let me have her. Whatever it takes!” To make a long story short, I spent the next 55 hours on the phone. About seven days, six seven hours a day. I was number seventy four in line for the cow but a lot of weird people wanted her. People wanted her for their backyard. The cow was wanted by zoos and circus’s and finally, on a Sunday night I got a call telling me that we got the cow. I then donated $180,000 in art to the SPCA of which we’ve sold $90,000 already. There is another $90,000 to go. Anybody who wants portrait that money can go to the SPCA. She’s gained 100 pounds. She’s the exact color of the beige on your dress. The whole cow is one beautiful beige. She’s a three and a half year old girl, and when you understand her plight, that she’s only a little girl, it makes you want to cry! If she were a puppy dog, or a little kitty you would hold her in your arms. She’s the sweetest thing. And the fact that we saved one out of the seven billion that are killed every year I think is great.
Vrnda: Exactly, but we have to start somewhere. I just don’t see how people can see cats and dogs are pets and this other “thing” as food. I don’t understand how they distinguish that. Obviously there is a major cultural disconnect in play somewhere.
Peter: Right, right!
Vrnda: So I try and keep a lot of animals, I love it and people enjoy coming to see them. I have a new cookbook out, Compassionate Cuisine. A vegetarian cookbook.
Peter: Oh nice!
Vrnda: It’s so important that we try and reach people. I just can’t figure out how they eat it.
Peter: It’s hard, but people are people. They eat it from birth so they have no idea it’s wrong. But then when they wake up, or perhaps have a change in their life, some people become vegetarian. They may still eat fish and egg whites. It’s a wonderful thing they have come that far. Then some people take the next step and become vegan. I personally find, even from a health point of view, when you become a vegan you get extremely calm and very healthy. I’ve been a vegan now for almost four years. Before that I was a fairly strict vegetarian but I used to eat egg whites and so forth, as well as stuff that was maybe cooked with butter, milk or eggs. Then I realized I wanted to be totally pure for my body. Then also for the animal’s sake, out of loyalty to the animals you know? I just don’t want to have anything in my body that comes from them.
Vrnda: Well, we take dairy products but only if they’re not commercially produced. Only from lifelong protected cows. All animals have to be protected! Do you consider yourself to be a follower of yogic philosophy and culture?
Peter: I’m a yogi. Yoga is not a religion and thank God, this way all religions are able to embrace yoga. When the Swami used to give seminars we’d have nuns attend, priests, rabbis and even Islamic clerics. They all studied yoga. It creates an inner peace in you. Yoga is over 8000 years old I understand. These yoga ashrams in India were used for people who sometimes were a little bit feisty. Or maybe someone had a son, or daughter, who was a bit nervous and couldn’t control their mood or their upsets. Then they’d go to the yoga ashram and through breathing they’d teach them how to be calm human beings. It’s a psychological training. So instead of going to a therapist in this country you do a little yoga. It’s the BEST therapy in the world!
Vrnda: It’s really important today with everything that’s going on.
Peter: Oh it’s very, very important, and it’s the easiest thing to do. It’s very, very healthy. And you naturally become a very useful citizen as far humanity and the animal world is concerned. Once you study yoga and become a yogi you automatically eat right, do right, serve others, and what was the saying, “love all serve all.” I once asked the Swami when I was taking a walk with him in Riverside Park, “Swami, tell me what is yoga really all about?” He said it was all about inner peace. I asked, “What do you mean?” He said, “We have nervous body and inside the nervous body there’s also a peaceful body. When learn how to live in the peaceful body then the nervous body goes away. Once you have achieved that then you can become a real yogi. Then you learn how to love all and serve all.” And that’s become our motto in my studio in Manhattan. We have 105 people at our studio and without me ever asking any of them to be vegetarian, I don’t do that…
Vrnda: Not like Paul McCartney.
Peter: I’m not an emotional pusher of my philosophy. I just do it for myself. The Swami always used to say, “do it by example.” But slowly my people have become vegetarians, maybe a third to half of them. And more than half do nice things for animals.
Vrnda: I really don’t think there is an argument for the other side. With Srila Prabhupada, I remember when people asked how to become a devotee he said that if you eat no meat, fish or eggs, take no intoxication or smoking, that only makes you human. You get to be human and then you can start doing all the rest of it. But unfortunately that’s our world isn’t it?
Peter: Yeah. Were locked in the middle of this big evolution…
Vrnda: Sometimes I get depressed, it looks so hopeless.
Peter: Yeah, it does look hopeless sometimes. These sweet animals live in a holocaust, so to speak, but people are waking up. Especially the young kids. They are telling their parents about separating the garbage, supporting industries that are healthy and don’t pollute. I think it’s all just a matter of time.
Vrnda: I got a surprise yesterday, my parents bought an electric car. They are in their seventies. I was so proud of them.
Peter: Wow an electric car. Isn’t that wonderful that is happening? How many miles to the gallon?
Vrnda: Fifty two. It’s a hybrid, a Toyota.
Peter: Right, so it’s partially gas. As you drive it also charges the battery. That’s great.
Vrnda: I know you knew George Harrison.
Peter: Yeah, I knew George very well. I used to go to a restaurant in Manhattan called Nirvana on Central Park South and Penthouse. It’s an Indian restaurant. One day I walked in and Shyamser Wadude, the owner says, “Peter, Peter, I have George Harrison here.” He introduced me and George and I spoke until two in the morning about swamis, yogis and that whole mess. We met a lot at that restaurant. Sometimes once a week. Sometimes twice a month, sometimes everyday when he was in New York. He was really the one who brought the Maharishi and Bhaktivedanta Swami to the Beatles.
Vrnda: George was great and we all miss him, but I’m really happy for him as I’m sure he’s happy where he is.
Peter: Yeah, he’s in a happy place.
Vrnda: One thing everyone keeps asking is why haven’t you done any full scale animation?
Peter: I have been offered to do animated films off and on from very big film companies but I thought a film would take maybe two years to make and their will be all these thousands of paintings I wont be able to do. So I’ve held off, but now the technology’s come right to my doorstep. Now with all these different software companies; there’s a thing called Discreet Logic, SGI, Sun Micro Systems. Its very, very simple. I may be doing an animated film that’s part animation, part documentary, part special effects. Last week we were talking to a producer about it.
Vrnda: I still have people asking whether or not you involved in the Beatles film, Yellow Submarine. Can you clear that up because obviously, the German artist Heinz Endelman was art director.
Peter: There was this fantastic producer called Al Brodax and John [Lennon] wanted me to do something with the Yellow Submarine itself so I gave it my styling. I gave it the look, but I didn’t actually have the time to do it. Back to animal rights for a sec, I think when people become involved in protecting animals, saving them and caring for them it really develops the compassionate heart. We can go on to endless proportions with that. People think, “well what about all the human beings” but when you protect an animal you are compassionate to human beings a hundred fold. So it’s all for human beings. Its for the world.
Vrnda: I think we can certainly all live and work together. I was wondering, there’s a lot of patriotism in some of your later work, and yet you’ve always seemed like a globalist type person.
Peter: I’m a globalist. I was raised in China. I spent a little time in India and Tibet as a child and came here when I was twelve. I’m very, very fond of America because of the freedoms we all have and how the whole world is interwoven into one county. You can walk out of my studio in Manhattan and stand there for forty five minutes and see eighty races walk by. Everybody from the Philippines, to the Chinese, the Jews, the blacks, the Portuguese, Germans and English, they all walk by in every direction. You’ve got the whole world living in America. Also it’s the most creative country because of that mixture. So we’re not only the most inventive, but also the most generous. Despite what’s going on, we are the most peace loving. American’s are the most fair, giving, and that’s what we are. Because of this creativity this is fertile ground for the ultimate creativity. Rock n’ roll, jazz, all the greatest music comes from here as well as all the best movies, ideas and concepts. We even invented (through Buck Rodgers) the feeling of outer space. Even though space existed far before we ever got there. The whole idea of democracy I like, where one day the whole world will vote for itself to live in peace. That’s why we invented the United Nations.
Vrnda: You have always been very generous with your time, money and talent. I wonder what is your philosophy of personal altruism?
Peter: I think it’s just to do a little something everyday for someone else. When you walk by people who are homeless you can just lean over and say few nice words maybe, or give them a few dollars, it starts like this. Just do a little bit. Help someone cross the street. Help somebody cross the river of their life. Take someone under your wing and help somebody out. People have done that with me to. People have shown me the way, Swami Satchitananada especially. Its an attribute. You make that something you do as part of your life. It’s just like breathing, and you will see that needs will be coming to you and they wont take anything from you. That’s the best part.
Vrnda: I just read a quote from Jack Nicholson and he’s totally the opposite. He sees a homeless person coming and he says to them give him some money. I wanted to ask you were your parents artistic and when did you first start getting into the arts?
Peter: Well, I was always an artist. My mother had this great gift, she was a fashion designer. We lived in Shanghai in a pagoda house with three balconies on all three sides of the house. She always used to set paints out on each balcony for me She would put colored pencils in a jar of one balcony. Paper and paint on another, and she would say to me, “now pick anyone you want or all three. Make a big mess and then we’ll clean up.”
She actually gave me the gift of freedom. I discovered that maybe five to seven years ago, I thought back to how that happened. I’ve never acknowledged her for it because my mom passed away fifteen years ago. Recently, I heard some woman tell a child, “now paint something. What are you going to paint? Make sure you don’t make a big mess. Make sure it’s all cleaned up. We don’t want to see any mess.” And I remember my mother especially telling me just the opposite.
Vrnda: Your work is wholly positive you’ve never created anything remotely dark or depressing. Why is that?
Peter: That’s my spirit. I’m positive and optimistic. It’s all about brightness. We are living in a euphoric world all we need to do is see it. I paint that. I don’t paint any depressing things because I’m never depressed. I’m tired, or I’m vital with energy, but I’m never depressed.
Vrnda: Thank you Peter Max for the many years of love and color you’ve given us.
Peter: Thank you so much Vrnda for the wonderful questions. I don’t often get them!
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PETER MAX is the brilliant graphic artist whose colorful, yogic inspired posters, illustrations and paintings have dazzled the world for the last four decades. He makes his home in New York. His famous studio is on Riverside Drive. He is also a longtime follower of the late Yoga master and founder of Integral Yoga Centers and Yogaville in rural Pennsylvania, Swami Satchitananda.
© Copyright Vrnda Devi, 2006
Used By Permission
VRNDA DEVI was the author of several books on popular culture and music. Her latest work, a full color, oversized, hard bound vegetarian cookbook, Compassionate Cuisine was published in 2004. She is herself a three decade plus vegetarian and ardent follower of Vedic philosophy as taught by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. She makes her home in the United States and Thailand.