Fragment, vessel, box, cup: These are the categories assigned to pages on Tim Rowan’s website where examples of his work are photographed and displayed. Such assignations fall short in telling the story of clay and stone that have been formed and fired to produce objects of perhaps the most elemental sort. And simply to call him a “ceramicist” would likewise be misleading. Alchemy might be more indicative of his artistic process – one described by Randall Morris, co-owner of Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York City, as “not referring to the history of traditional Western ceramics.”
A native New Yorker educated at SUNY-New Paltz (BFA) and Penn State (MFA), Rowan apprenticed with Japanese ceramic artist Ryuichi Kakurezaki for two years: an extended education that may account for his Minimalist sensibilities. Indeed, a visit to Rowan’s studio hidden in the deep woods above Stone Ridge could make you think that you’ve been dropped into Okayama Prefecture. Two wooden structures house the artist’s family, his workspace and his massive kiln. And while function clearly follows form throughout, you’ll also find curious artifacts strewn here and there in the rough landscape: sculptural pieces that appear to have once had a function – but you might not be able to guess what.
Shaped like a whale, the kiln fills an open-ended barn. A tall chimney situated at one end pierces the roof. Split wood lines both sidewalls, and smaller samples of already-fired work fill makeshift shelves. A rocking chair sits by the sliding metal door next to a table where a digital pyrometer indicates the interior temperature of the hand-built chamber. When a firing is in process, wood is fed into a small door continuously. This requires a team of dedicated artisans who work the kiln in eight-hour shifts. Thus, the rocking chair: the only comfortable amenity in sight.
Rowan built this kiln in 2010, replacing a smaller, more traditional one that he had been using since 2000. He created the amorphous shape, modeled on ones in use for at least 1,200 years, by building an arched wood frame and covering it in brick and clay. “I rebuilt because I wanted to be able to walk into the chamber to load larger pieces. I reused all the bricks from the old kiln: high-aluminum firebrick that’s made for the steel industry. I’ve been a good scrounger,” he adds, opening the door to toss in more wood. The bright orange blaze is so extreme that special eye protection is needed when gazing into the chamber to watch the progress of the firing. The pyrometer reads “1,800,” but he says that it’s probably more like 2,000 degrees inside the structure.
Rowan fires his kiln twice a year. After the chamber is loaded, the entire front is sealed up except for the door, an intake gap at the floor and a removable brick through which the work can be viewed. The firing takes up to six days, using as many cords of firewood. He collects firewood right off his property: a source augmented with scrap wood from landscaping or logging operations. A week of cooling down follows before pieces are removed.
Six artists have work in the kiln during this firing, including some shaped by Rowan’s 6-year-old son. “He says he wants to sell his pieces so he can buy Legos,” the artist laughs. More seriously, he explains that firing a variety of different clays at once complicates the process some. “The ideal temperature changes depending on the type of clay in use, and in this firing there are various different clays included. And sometimes I fire bluestone. What’s more, the interior temperature is uneven throughout the kiln, so pieces shelved up high get hotter than ones on the floor, which produces different effects.”
Splinters from the cordwood instantly ignite and burn out on the lip of the door when logs are inserted. The process requires constant focus, so no reading, no listening to music. The fire is stoked every eight to 12 minutes, according to how quickly the wood burns down. Air intake can be regulated as the heat rises, all to maintain a somewhat-constant temperature. “We use the pyrometer as a guide, but it’s not a very accurate reading. So we look at the pieces to see how the ash is melting on the pieces, and we use pyrometric cones inside that also measure temperature.” He pulls out the loose rectangle of brick to show how much of the interior can actually be seen.
In this method, the surface, color, texture and sometimes the shape of pieces are affected by the firing. Even the weeklong cooling-down procedure creates irregular results. “You use your best judgment on when to stop. Basically, it’s when the ash is melted on the pieces, when it’s hot enough to flux and form the natural glaze. We use a stainless steel shovel to spread coals around and onto the pieces. During the cooldown, the end product continues to change, and you can even fire it down slowly to keep the atmosphere smoky.”
Heat waves come off the top of the kiln. Rowan says that it expands every time it’s fired, so when it cools, it ideally falls back into the same shape. Cracks in its surface are resealed even during the firing. When asked if the weather makes for significant differences in the process, he says that outside temperature doesn’t matter. “Not for the outcome of the work – but for the people doing the work, it does. We had a great week for loading, but it’s hard to work the kiln with wet fingers in the cold, for instance. I try not to fire in the middle of winter or summer.”
In terms of Rowan’s finished products, he says that the current batch is not radically different from the primitive, industrial-looking sculptures and functional pieces that he has done before. “I work in series, so there’s a natural progression in how they evolve. In the process of making, I learn a lot, see new things; there is serendipity in the making process.”
Scheduled to teach two high-temp firing workshops in India, where the tradition is completely different, Rowan is also lining up a workshop in Florida in March. He remarks on the challenges of working in different environments using different kilns. “In firing, you don’t have complete control; you leave it up to chance, which makes it exciting.”
Recently awarded the 2013 Janet Mansfield Ceramic Award from the International Ceramic Magazine Editors’ Association, Rowan has been an artist-in-residence in studios from Montana to Maine to the Fuping Ceramic Art Village in Shaanxi Provence, China. His works are seen internationally in solo and group exhibitions and in museum collections, including the Currier Art Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire and the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts. In 2015, he will be included in the Metro Show NYC, at the Metropolitan Pavilion, from January 22 through 25. This weekend, an open-studio reception in Stone Ridge will feature works from the artist’s August and November firings. Refreshments will be served, and visitors will get an intimate glimpse into the creative process in situ.
Tim Rowan Open Studio, Saturday/Sunday, December 6/7, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., 149 Vly Atwood Road, Stone Ridge; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.timrowan.com.