A walk into Tim Rowan’s studio at the end of a long, rocky driveway, situated deep in the woods above Stone Ridge, will give you the immediate impression that this guy communicates with the elements. He didn’t say so exactly, but his quiet demeanor when answering questions of the human sort belies a sensibility attuned to his chosen materials: clay and stone – silent, dense materials that require intense handling to bring out their most elemental beauty. Intensity like molding and carving and firing. Beauty worked, yet unrefined.
Rowan creates artifacts: pieces of sculpture large and small, unique unto themselves. Some look like machine parts that got knocked off another structure; some are entirely unidentifiable. Some are irregular vessels, like those unearthed from the societies of antiquity. Some are meant for taking tea, Japanese-style. No two pieces are alike. Nothing matches anything else. I asked, “Can you imagine someone digging this up a thousand years from now and wondering, ‘What is this?
He says, “The confusion?” and laughs at the image. “I’ve always been interested in older things, old pieces of rusted metal. I’ve been experimenting with firing bluestone for the last five years. I’m interested in using native materials. When I learned about the composition of bluestone, I put it into the kiln to see what would happen.”
Visualize a kid who wants to know what will happen if he tries to melt dry ice on his mother’s stove, or buries pennies to find out if they’ll rust under the ground. It takes a curious mind to want to blister chunks of bluestone. Some pieces are fired just as he finds them; others are broken and reassembled, cut or drilled. They look like chunks of glossy petrified wood or rock that has been burned and polished and burned some more.
Rowan’s other creative messing-around is done with native clay, dug out of areas south of us below the glacier belt. “I get this raw clay from New Jersey – straight from the ground with nothing added to it. The clay most people purchase in bags is processed, designed for ease of working. There was an old area with a ceramic industry – gone now, but there’s still a lot of clay there. The clay is free, but the trucking is expensive.”
He says that clay has been a material that he has loved since he first started working with it in college. He wasn’t always “artistic,” but admits, “I think I was always drawing and doing things like that, and always exploring. But I never thought of being an artist. My father was an architect. My mother has a design background.”
Rowan says that he stayed away from making art partly because she encouraged him: typical of adolescent rebellion. But in college, the whole language of art made sense to him. “Mothers know best,” I say, and he laughs once more.
After graduating from SUNY-New Paltz, he went to study in Japan for two years in Bizen, one of the six ancient kiln sites in a country where ceramics have been produced for over a thousand years. I asked if he learned theory there. His laughter pokes at the notion of intellectual learning in that culture. “No. No theory. It was great; it was difficult; it was a powerful experience for me. I appreciate the fact that I studied in both ways. The studio in Japan is learning by watching and doing – taking everything in with your whole self, rather than just your intellect.”
He doesn’t produce much functional pottery these days, except for the teacups. “As a form, I love the fact that it’s something you handle and have intimate contact with. A piece of sculpture is a very different experience.” Gazing at, holding some of Rowan’s pieces, I had fleeting impressions that were wordless. As a word person, it’s hard to say exactly what I experienced. The work is almost primal in nature, and in our primitive past, we had no words to describe things.
“I find it takes people a while to get used to the work, to get familiar with it,” he says. “For me, too, because I only fire the kiln twice a year; so there’s six months’ worth of work in there.” He shoots pictures before and after, and even then it takes him awhile to get refamiliar with each piece and to understand how it changed in the intense heat of firing – a process that takes him a month. It’s a week to load the kiln, a week to fire the work, a week for the kiln to cool down and a week to remove the work and clean the chamber. It’s not as slow as watching the continents shift, but slow enough to contemplate the material, the changes that take place in the process, the longevity of the artifact produced – and the artist who works in mineral time.
Tim Rowan’s solo exhibit is now at the Cavin-Morris Gallery at 210 11th Avenue in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood until May 12. Call (212) 226-3768 for further information. Also, this weekend his work will be included in two galleries’ exhibits at SOFA – the International Exhibits of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art – in the Park Avenue Armory at Park Avenue and 67th Street in New York. Visit Rowan’s website at www.timrowan.com.