In 1946, Voulkos enrolled at Montana State University with the intention of becoming a commercial artist but changed his major to fine art with an interest in painting. During his junior year, he took his first ceramics course with Frances Senska, the professor who eventually convinced him to focus on clay.
Initially a professional potter in the traditional sense, Voulkos had a few chance encounters that profoundly changed the direction of his career. The first was a visit from the English potter Bernard Leach, the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, and Soetsu Yanagi, a philosopher and the director of the National Folk Museum of Japan, at the Archie Bray Foundation in 1952, where Voulkos worked. The other meetings were over the course of the summer in 1953, when Voulkos taught at Black Mountain College and befriended the composer John Cage among others, and then made a trip to New York City, where he met the Abstract Expressionists Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov and Robert Rauschenberg.
Voulkos was open to experimenting with new ways of working and these artists introduced him to Zen-inspired teachings that would loosen up his approach. He eventually adopted their working style which was spontaneous, fast, and in the moment, all the while valuing irregularity, imperfection, and chance effects. Instead of focusing on the perfection of the end result, these artists revealed to him that art was in the process of making.