Born as Panagiotis Harry Voulkos, the third of five children to Greek immigrant parents Aristovoulos I. Voulkopoulos, anglicized and shortened to Harry (Aris) John Voulkos and Effrosyni (Efrosine) Peter Voulalas, in Bozeman, Montana. He first studied painting and ceramics at Montana State University (then Montana State College) in Bozeman, then earned a MFA degree from the California College of the Arts. He began his career producing functional dinnerware in Bozeman, Montana. In 1953, Voulkos was invited to teach a summer session ceramics course at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. After the summer at Black Mountain, Voulkous changed his approach to creating ceramics. The artist eschewed his traditional training and instead of creating smooth, well-thrown glazed vessels he started to work gesturally with raw clay, frequently marring his work with gashes and punctures. In 1954, after founding the art ceramics department at the Otis College of Art and Design, called the Los Angeles County Art Institute, his work rapidly became abstract and sculptural. He moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he also founded the art ceramics department, and where he taught from 1959 until 1985. Among his students were many ceramic artists who became well known in their own right.
In 1951 Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio became the Archie Bray Foundation's first resident artists. Frances Senska taught both of them. It was during his time there (Resident Director 1951-54) that the lineage of the work that was later in full bloom while working at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, California (USA) could be easily traced.