Ceramics: Art and Perception, No.47 2002 by Chris Staley

A Potter Taking a Stand

IT IS DUSK AND THE LIGHT IS FADING ON A COOL OCTOBER evening in the woods of upstate New York. Tim Rowan is taking me on a walk around the land he recently purchased near Stone Ridge, NY. Suddenly he stops and kneels down pointing to a black form which covers the light brown carpet of leaves underfoot. He takes the time to look closer, and discovers that the black form on the leaves is actually thousands of little black bugs - each smaller than the smallest speck of sand. Rowan often notices what others simply don't see when they walk by.

Rowan is a ceramic artist of distinction. His devotion to finding local clays and arduous firing techniques and the way he approaches life give a depth of integrity to his work not often found in ceramics today. As is often the case, one's creative impulses have their origins in the profound influences of one's childhood. Rowan is no exception. Looking back, he remembers that he often turned to the outdoors where nature offered a respite from the turmoils at home. This contemplative and cathartic connection to nature is the creative taproot of his artwork.

Having spent two years in Japan , studying with Ryuichi Kakurezaki, Rowan refined his appreciation of the expressive potential inherent in clay that is hand-dug from the earth. He says: "Commercial clays can be so refined and processed that they become deadened and generic." As a result, Rowan searches for his own clay, sometimes working with a geologist or following hunches about where he may find clay deposits. From this undertaking he finds clays which have a colour and texture, that have a life all their own. Natural clay from the earth has evolved over a million years and this makes for a one-of-a-kind surface.

When we look at art, whether it is a pot or sculpture, it is natural to try to give it a context, and seek relationships to the world. Rowan's ceramic vessels are provocative in that they are not easily understood, yet our intrigue with them is heightened because they seem so recognisable - similar to seeing the face of someone you know, yet can't quite place. The work strikes a compelling balance between the old and the new.

The surfaces express decay and antiquity, and the forms suggest the austerity that comes from turn-of-the-century industrial objects. Like Rowan himself, the work is not prone to elaboration, and is haunting in its spareness.

Rowan's vessels can be used, some more easily than others. Whether drinking from one of his cups or contemplating a vessel, they force the user to reconsider time. His hand slows us down by celebrating the process of making, with scrape-marks, fingerprints, gouges, and the clay spitting out its own temperamental qualities much the way our skin greets us with surprises.

It is rare for someone as young as he is to invest himself with such commitment to a place and his art. He has purchased 50 acres, built an anagama kiln, and fired it twice so far - all in only 10 months. After talking with him one cannot help but be impressed with his conviction and idealism. As he digs the clay and gives shape to it, the forms he creates have a similar feeling to the old machine and tool parts which he has discovered half-buried in the earth on hikes he takes in the woods.

Tim Rowan is taking a stand against the status quo, that which desires the new and is dazzled by technical virtuosity, similar to the idealised supermodel which has been digitally altered to perfection. In quite the opposite way, Rowan's work speaks to the reality of time and our own mortality. It is in Rowan's commitment to knowing a place and his willingness to spend whatever time it takes to create what he wants that makes the work resonate. There is a poignancy to his work. He reminds us of where dirt comes from - green leaves turning brown and falling back to the earth - and that death is essential to life.

Chris Staley is a ceramic artist living in Pennsylvania. He is Professor of Art at Penn State University. In March 2002 he will hold a solo show at Gallery Materia, Scottsdale, Arizona.