Clay Culture: Kiln and Community

The ideas, production, and implementation of each of Richard Rowland’s projects are intertwined with his varied community connections.

Like the beating of a heart, one theme consistently drums throughout ceramic artist Richard Rowland’s work: community. Without community support, his work would be difficult. But beyond that, and aside from his own enjoyment, what purpose would it serve?

Rowland lives in a rural area outside of the small coastal town of Astoria, Oregon, high in the state’s northwest corner. Visitors to his home get a sense of his work almost immediately. Stacks of ceramic creations fill up counter space and various corners inside. Outside, near his kilns, dishes rest on tables, awaiting their destinies—they could be sold, go to a gallery, or be given away. They’re extras that need more thought, evaluation, and examination, Rowland says.

1 The Planetree mural installed outside of the radiation therapy chamber in the CMH-OHSU Knight Cancer Collaborative in Astoria, Oregon. Planetree mural, 10 ft. 8 in. (3.3 m) in height, anagama-fired stoneware, sculpted slab tiles, 5-day firing to cone 12, 2017. Photo: Justin Grafton.

Since he was first introduced to ceramics as a 21-year-old student at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, Rowland’s focus hasn’t wavered from the craft. After his initial introduction to the art and earning his bachelor’s degree in ceramics, Rowland traveled the world to learn more. Yearning to be away from an overly consumerist culture in the US, he went to Tasmania to earn his MFA, spending time studying in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.

Rowland’s Hawaiian ancestral connections and the natural world influence his creations, but he is quick to point out that he can’t make anything without the backing of his community, both local and global. He says that doing so puts the art in the essential context of a more complex system.

Community Connections

For nearly 20 years, Rowland has been the mainstay in a bowl-making project for women’s resource centers in Astoria and Tillamook, Oregon. The centers hold soup benefits annually, and Rowland and a group of volunteers donate hundreds of handmade ceramic bowls every year to help raise funds.

2 Local potters Richard Rowland and Randy McClelland create mugs that are given to cancer patients when they finish a round of treatment at the CMH-OHSU Knight Cancer Collaborative in Astoria, Oregon. Mugs sit awaiting their owners in the cancer center, 2017. Photo: Justin Grafton.

When the project began, Rowland insisted that members of the resource centers be involved in the process, rather than blindly giving or accepting donations. They helped fire the kiln by stoking wood, collaborated on the soup-bowl events, and brought food to other volunteers at the kiln. “I made a 20-year commitment to the center in Astoria. I wanted to put in a long enough time to know what the organization was about,” Rowland explains. “I wanted to have a relationship, to learn from them.”

“Even the smallest thing can be important to another person,” Rowland says, adding, “A pot, for instance, can express both open-mindedness and a very intentional idea.” In that same spirit, Rowland also expressed that “the space inside the bowl is perhaps the greatest metaphor for community.” It has the utilitarian aspect to it, to use and put food inside, and it has a common shape, but he says it also “brings alive common everyday experiences.” Rowland also works with other organizations, such as Columbia Memorial Hospital (CMH) in Astoria. For about a decade, he has created work for the hospital. “Art in the hospital is important because it helps people connect,” he says, “and it creates empathy, intimacy, and hope.”

A large focus of his work with CMH and the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) is the CMH-OHSU Knight Cancer Collaborative mug project. Rowland and Randy McClelland, who is a potter and CMH’s director of strategic initiatives, provide handmade coffee mugs that are given as gifts to cancer patients when they finish treatment. Anywhere from 350–500 mugs are made for the mug project each year. They are displayed in the cancer center before patients choose their own. Ken Ulappa, a patient who received his mug in February 2019, says it helps remind him that life is short and it’s important to savor the moments that you have. Despite his stage-four colon cancer, he is still around to enjoy his morning coffee.

3 Richard Rowland meeting with Randy McClelland in early 2017 to discuss the work to be done on the Planetree mural for CMH. The scale drawing for the mural hangs in the background. Photo: Chris Laman.

Rowland’s art is also featured elsewhere within the hospital. His ceramic tile mural decorates the side of the cancer center, where it hangs outside the radiation therapy chamber. Pots that he made are displayed in the clinics, and his newest sculpture was unveiled in spring 2019 in the outdoor labyrinth.

The projects are initiated by the hospital, which proposes the installation based on patient-centered guidelines. Rowland ultimately has artistic freedom to come up with a design he thinks will fit best in a health-care setting.

Although his name alone is on the placards next to the pieces, his wood-fired anagama kilns that are used to create the artwork demand a community of caretakers. He calls this caring process custodial aesthetics.

Kilns for Community

On Rowland’s wooded property, two anagama kilns are nestled into the hillside. One, the Astoria Dragon Kiln, was built in 1981 and sits unused these days, since chunks of its ceiling often fall onto pieces during firings. The new kiln, Ahikaaroa, was finished in 2018 after four years of work and the help of dedicated friends.

The new kiln’s name has deep meaning, especially with Rowland’s indigenous roots. In fall 2018, a group of Maori artists and friends visited the kiln and chose its moniker. The term comes from the Maori culture in New Zealand and translates as “fire, burning long ago.” Without matches, ancient people needed to maintain a continuously burning fire. To keep the fire burning was a sign of life, health, and strength—a community effort.

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4, 5 Rowland working with one of the molds for his Planetree mural for Columbia Memorial Hospital in 2017. Photos: Justin Grafton.

Rowland’s kilns require a lot of that same effort. Many volunteers, about a dozen, with financial contributions from other community members, helped build the new kiln with their own hands. They split the countless cords of wood into exact dimensions to fit the kiln’s openings. They stoke the 2300°F-plus fire in round-the-clock shifts for days. They spend even more time loading and unloading the kiln.

Rowland explained that historically village potters in Korea and Japan worked together to fire kilns out of necessity. While artists today are encouraged to be independent and individualism is valued, returning to the idea of communal wood firings can recreate community, leading to increased learning and creativity. Throughout Rowland’s projects, people share and grow. From the initial physical labor to the later enjoyment of the handmade bowls, cups, and other objects, the central theme of community is evident. Rowland is not alone in his work, nor could he be—collaboration is necessary.

The CMH Mural

In 2017, CMH commissioned Rowland to create a clay mural of a planetree to adorn the outside of its new cancer center. The hospital is Planetree Gold-Certified for person-centered care, and the tree is a symbolic representation of that philosophy. Rowland was honored to be asked, albeit a little unsure because he had not made a large, flat mural, and firing it in an anagama was a second variable.

To make the mural, Rowland started by having Joe Adams help him draw it to a scale of 1:1. He then created around 20 hand-sculpted molds, which were used to make 80 tiles (1 square foot each). The most daunting challenge was formulating a clay body so that the tiles wouldn’t crack or warp badly when fired in the anagama.

6 Rowland’s Planetree mural tiles await firing in 2017. Photo: Randy McClelland.

Collaborating with professional clay makers, he devised a recipe with some local materials, 30% refractory matter (such as sand or grog), clay, alumina, and silica. “If there’s more silica in the clay, the surface will become glassier at high temperatures,” he explains. “I wanted more of an earthy feeling. I didn’t know what the hospital preferred, but I personally depended more on my ancestral voice and environmental influence.” Using local clay and materials was important to Rowland, because for him, it’s a responsibility as a community member who participates in life with local people. “I believe that the natural material expresses that,” he says.

To complement his clay body, Rowland developed a system to allow the tiles to roll while being fired. With everything moving and shrinking, this was an important step. The tiles were placed onto straight coils (think pipes or rollers) made out of alumina, kaolin, and sawdust that were arranged on the kiln shelves. They allowed the tiles a little bit of movement and prevented them from sticking to the shelves, warping, or cracking.

During the first test firing, 10 or 20 tiles were placed into Rowland’s older kiln. Afterward, it was clear the clay body wasn’t right, as there was too much cracking and warping from the long firing process, and it had to be corrected before firing again. Acting on faith and empirical testing, Rowland changed the recipe and tried again. Some volunteers helped make the final tiles, but it was primarily Rowland. He and a dozen or so volunteers from the hospital and the community persisted with two more firings before the mural tiles were complete.

7 Rowland feeding wood into his glowing anagama kiln during a firing held at the end of 2019. Photo: Nancee Long.

Rowland says that with the risks involved, most artists probably wouldn’t use a wood-fired kiln to create an art piece of this magnitude. There is uncertainty in firing, because every location in an anagama is different—slight changes in the amount of ash, shrinkage, and temperature could all affect the tiles in various ways. “It’s not like a controlled atmosphere,” Rowland says. There is also risk in how much effort went into the process beforehand—organizing volunteers, cutting and stacking wood, making the tiles, etc. If it had to be done all over again, that would be a lot of effort to repeat. But for him, it was all about the vision of a community. In all, the project took more than a year. Crews used a crane to move the two-ton mural into place in late September 2017. “It was more about the relationships and the process,” he says. “Looking at the cancer center and the completed project, the work required that extended time and collaboration in order to realize the meaning and value of what we were doing.”

the author Sarah Bello is a writer and communicator from Cannon Beach, Oregon. To learn more, visit linkedin.com/in/skbello.

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