Peter Schreyer grew up in Switzerland in the thick of the watch industry. Now in his late 40s, he is precise and steady, with kind manners, twinkly blue eyes and what remains of a Swiss accent. But stereotyping doesn't suit the man, a documentary photographer, and his missions. For the last 25 years in Central Florida, he's been some combination of artist, educator, administrator and community activist. The timing in his life is such that he's readying for his career highlight -- a 20-year solo retrospective titled "Big Stories From a Small Country," opening in November at the Swiss Camera Museum in Vevey, Switzerland -- as he and his wife prepare for the birth of their first child. All this is going on as he marks his ninth year as executive director of Crealdé School of Art in east Winter Park.
It's difficult to separate the complexities of Schreyer the artist and activist, and of Schreyer the educator and administrator -- one informs the other. But you can't ignore Schreyer's influences, inspirations and achievements in this town, especially with regard to social politics. Through his photographic expressions, as well as his organizational philanthropy, he's a champion of the poor, especially in west Winter Park. What started with an idea and a personal grant in 1995 from the Winter Park Public Library is now a project called "Winter Park's Westside: A Living History of Places and People" (which can be accessed online at www.wppl.org/wphistory/PeterSchreyer). The connections he made within the community during this project led to the funding of The Heritage Project, which has now inspired the quest for a permanent cultural heritage center.
Schreyer has a gift of bringing light to the miseries of oppression, poverty and racial injustice by helping people to see the everyday beauty and richness in any culture, downtrodden or otherwise. He does not ignore ugliness and violence in the world, but rather transcends it and teaches other people how it can be done, through the expressions of art.
Still, he insists on distinguishing the roles he plays as executive director of Crealdé and an individual photographer, even as he cannot deny their interconnectedness.
Recently, Crealdé debuted two significant exhibits: Aaron Siskind: The Harlem Document at the Alice and William Jenkins Gallery on its campus (see page 12), and the second phase of The Heritage Project at the west Winter Park Commu-nity Center.
Such a thriving presence from a humble, not-for-profit arts organization is remarkable, especially as the past few financially challenging years have demanded an every-group-for-themselves strategy. Schreyer says that the head of Crealdé's board of directors, Frank Schornagle III, is especially proud that, even with the draconian cuts in state funding for the arts and the dramatic drop of funding from grants, Crealdé has not cut any of its programs targeted to the "underserved." That's Crealdé's catchphrase for the poor, mostly minorities, who cannot afford to take advantage of the school's quality art-education programs. And the underserved are the demographic that's a priority to the organization, thus fueling its commitment to free community outreach programs for children.
The Winter Park school's cozy classrooms and two galleries are housed in a maze of quaint, bungalow-style buildings and breezeways that stretch back to a scenic lake, across the water from the upscale high-rises of the Mayflower Retirement Community. The odd-shaped plot of property off Aloma Avenue, deeded by founder William S. Jenkins (who started the school in 1975 and endowed it with its artsy name), is bordered by a bustling Publix, the waterfront and a complex of business offices and condominiums. It's a sweet legacy, with the property alone assessed at a value of a half-million dollars.
But Schreyer wants to be sure to dispel any lingering myths about Crealdé's bank account.
"Contrary to some beliefs that some people have, we were not left with a big pile of money or a big endowment," says Schreyer. Though the school owns the property in Winter Park, everything else relies on careful fund-raising. About two-thirds of the revenue, reported as almost $700,000 on its 2001 IRS filings, is generated through tuition, and the rest is from memberships, grants, fund-raisers, contracts and donations, including support from United Arts of Central Florida. Essentially, their hands are always out, but there's no sense of desperation. "We certainly stretch the dollar here," he says with a genuine-but-resigned smile.
That's because Schreyer is big on planning, something that makes him quite proud. He's always planting the seeds for tomorrow at the same time he's harvesting the crop of today. Crealdé's year-round and continually updated curriculum -- a welding class is a new addition -- includes more than 70 hands-on, top-shelf courses in painting and drawing, photography, and ceramics and sculpture, both for kids and adults. There are scholarships for those who can't afford the tuition. And Schreyer still teaches classes to keep himself humble. "There's never a day that goes by that I don't learn something from one of the students," he says. The students come from all walks of life and income levels -- some studying to become professionals, some just having fun.
There are two gallery spaces. The main Jenkins Gallery displays local, regional and national works, and in the multipurpose Community Gallery, more of a sunny workroom, there's usually a display of current student works. Schreyer's got exhibitions on the drawing board through 2008, something that's almost unheard of except at major, big-budget art institutions the likes of Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
In his early years as director, he became somewhat of a grant-writing wizard -- and shared his knowledge of the process with others through workshops. But money from grants was harder to come by after the economy crashed in the wake of Sept. 11. "I started writing larger grants to the Bush Foundation and so forth, right about the time that things started to fall apart. ... And I got nothing, we were turned down." But he's still at it, with hopes the economy is turning around.
One of the early grants funded the 1997 dedication of the lakeside Contempo-rary Sculpture Garden in the back of the campus, curated by another 20-year affiliate, teacher and sculptor David Cumbie. Rededicated in 2000, the aesthetic asset is fast becoming a museum of notable artists with ties to Central Florida. It's a free stroll of discovery with a handy map provided to identify the works, including those of the famous Icelandic couple Johann Eyfells, sculptor, and Kristin Eyfells, painter and sculptor, both of whom are specially honored by Crealdé in its new brochure for the garden.
World-renowned Johann Eyfells taught at the University of Central Florida for 29 years until he retired about five years ago. His wife of 53 years died in 2002. Just this month, Johann Eyfells packed up his lifetime collection of massive sculptures -- no easy task for an 80-year-old -- and moved them to Texas, as reported in a Jan. 13 Orlando Sentinel story that featured a quote by Schreyer:
"I don't think the area has paid enough tribute to him," Schreyer said. "I'm not blaming anyone in particular. ... But that's not uncommon. It happens a lot of times to artists, that sort of in their hometown, they're taken for granted."
In Orlando's tight-knit art community, these are relatively outspoken words from a leader. More importantly, they are a true representation of Eyfells' bitter point of view about the underappreciation of his significance. Still, pulling no punches is typical for Schreyer, who's known favorably for his candor.
"The thing that I love about Peter is that he has this artistic soul and the head of a business person," says Margo H. Knight, president and CEO of United Arts of Central Florida. "And what I also like about dealing with him is that I can count on him to tell me exactly what he is thinking. He doesn't mince words and I appreciate that in people."
Crealdé's first acclaimed community outreach was a stunning collection of documentary photographs that captured the now-gone muck-farming industry manned by migrant workers, The Last Harvest: A Tribute to the Life and Work of the Farmworkers on Lake Apopka (1998-2000). The combination of photos and text is still on exhibit in the Maxey Community Center in Winter Garden, much to the pride of the area's migrant population.
"As a society, we are so fast and on the go and always looking forward that we don't seem to be looking at the richness and the wealth of what is here right now," says Schreyer. "And that is something, particularly in our outreach work in the underserved community, that is probably what I think is the greatest service that we can provide."
Though responsibilities are spread among the 100 or so members of the board, faculty, fellows and staff, Schreyer is the passionate force and facilitator driving Crealdé. "They have to have that passion, too," he says of his team, which he never forgets to credit. "We all inspire each other." There's a familial synergy that's obvious in his interactions with the people inside his organization, and there is an obvious pride in the school and their mission as classes kick in for the winter session.
Schreyer's prestigious solo retrospective at the Swiss Camera Museum in November, Big Stories From a Small Country, will feature 80 of Schreyer's photographs taken over the past 20 years, most of them landscape works shot in Florida. This is a big deal and will no doubt raise the level of Schreyer's acclaim, and perhaps cause others to assimilate the accomplishments of Crealdé School of Art, by extension.
As clichéd as it sounds, Schreyer really did take to the camera at the formative age of 7, a happy-go-lucky kid snapping photos at school and on the way home in Switzerland, surrounded by love and support from his parents and family. When his big sister got married, she turned her darkroom over to him. Cold as ice and the size of a closet, the darkroom was where he developed, growing restless with the sameness of people and life in his native country.
"I came to America because I love the variety and diversity," he says. (His family still lives in Switzerland.) "When I came to America [in 1978], I embraced the size of the country, the openness; the openness in the people's minds about things, the acceptance, the variety, the diversity in lifestyles, in topography and the landscape, in the people and where they came from."
The focus of his personal work, he says, is to try and find the beautiful and positive things in life without glossing over the challenges and hardships. He does not always photograph people unless he is commissioned to do so. He does a lot of landscape or environmental work "that shows the traces and tracks of people and symbols of people without showing them. I really love that." But he also really loves working with people as the subject matter in their own environments.
There will be a preview of sorts next month of the work Schreyer will bring to Switzerland, when he and three other Crealdé artists open "Visual Narratives" Feb. 6 at the Gallery at Avalon Island. The exhibit draws together paintings by Rima Jabbur and Dennis Schmalstig, and photograhs by Rick Lang and Schreyer. All of Schreyer's photographs on exhibit will go on to Switzerland.
But his photographic contributions are part of the public record here at home in Orange County, as well.
"One of the things I most admire about Peter Schreyer's work is his commitment to honesty," says Sara Van Arsdel, executive director of the Orange County Regional History Center. Van Arsdel has about 50 or 60 of Schreyer's photographs in the History Center's collections. "We've done a lot of things together, including a wonderful project which was a great thing back when the new Orlando County Courthouse was dedicated, called 'We the People of Orange County.'"
Commissioned by then-Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin, and produced by the History Center, "We the People of Orange County" is a collection of 60 photographs by Schreyer and Lang that capture random shots of people from all walks of life in the community. For instance, there's the owner of Bob's Meats in the eastern part of the county in front of his shop; barbers busy at work at the Deluxe Barbershop in west Winter Park; a volunteer working with babies at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Women. The black-and-white collection documents people and places circa 1998, and exemplifies some of Schreyer's artistic intentions: to capture beauty in the here and now, and history in the making. Each photograph is preserved with a brief narrative that identifies the person and the place, removing the anonymity that plagues so many found-photo historical collections.
"I have always been interested in that really diverse fabric that makes America what it is, and I think, and I've been told this, that as an outsider from another country, I probably have a deeper appreciation for it than people who have grown up here."