The Oregon Coast Council for the Arts presents “The Sanctity of Earthen Materials,” an exhibition of ceramic works by Clatsop County artist Richard Rowland from June 3 to July 30 in the Coastal Oregon Visual Artist Showcase at the Newport Visual Arts Center. The exhibition will feature recent works by Rowland created through the ceramic process called “anagama.” A First Friday public reception for “The Sanctity of Earthen Materials” is scheduled for June 3, 5-7pm, at the VAC, and the artist will speak about his work at 6:30pm during the reception.
The “anagama” is an ancient type of pottery kiln brought to Japan from China and Korea during the 5th century. Meaning “cave kiln” in Japanese, anagama kilns consist of a firing chamber at one end and a flue at the other. They are single-chamber kilns built in a long, sloping tunnel shape, with ancient kilns sometimes built by digging tunnels into banks of clay. Unlike contemporary kilns which are powered by gas or electricity, anagama kilns burn firewood, producing heat up to 2,500F. This in turn creates “fly ash” and volatile salts. Wood ash settles on the clay pieces during multi-day firings and the complex interaction of flame, ash and clay minerals forms a natural ash glaze, varying greatly in color, texture and thickness. The physical placement of numerous clay pieces within the kiln itself distinctly affects the pottery’s appearance and is part of the creative process.
Astoria and the northern Oregon coast are home to one of the few anagama kilns in the northwest region—a kiln affectionately known as the “Dragon Kiln” for the way it belches fire—with ceramic artist Richard Rowland serving as one of its primary custodians. Indeed, Rowland has been focused on the “anagama” process and the Astoria arts community for over 30 years.
“We are firing the few anagama kiln two to three times per year. For the past two to three years, we have been building the second-generation Dragon Kiln using brick the community has helped to purchase,” says Roland. Participating potters are asked to help with woodcutting, firing and loading—no small endeavor. According to Rowland, each firing is the culmination of up to 18 months work in wood prep, curing and cutting of wood (four to seven chords per firing), clay making (four months) and the firing process itself (100 to 160 hours). Given the temperatures inside the anagama kiln, wood must be continuously fed into the kiln during the firing.
From his artist statement, it is clear that Richard Rowland continues to draw from his heritage as a native Hawaiian. He was born under the “archetypal wings” of his grandmother and great grandmother in Hawaii, “near the fires of Madam Pele.” His artistic concerns have developed from this continuum and the idea of “custodial aesthetics—accepting respecting responsibility as a guardian of one’s culture and to help protect the land.”
Rowland’s connection to the land is reflected in materials and process. Earthen/raw materials are physically involved in all aspects of his work. Rowland uses local materials in the clay bodies and in the glazes. “I like long firings that include many different species of woods, including recycled wood and symbolic woods like driftwood, beaver-chewed wood, lightening-struck wood and woods that have histories with animals and people.”
Firing clay works through the anagama kiln is as much about process and community as the final results. “It is important for me to experiment and not get too hung up on expectations,” Rowland says. “Each firing is a discovery and learning process that supports uncertainty but is connected to the coastal rhythms of rain, wind and tides.”
Each firing of the Dragon Kiln benefits Rowland’s students (only one firing per year is dedicated to working with students), potters and local community groups. Every year since 2002, for example, he fires bowls as part of the “Community Bowls Benefit,” which are then auctioned as a fundraiser for The Harbor in Astoria, where each bowl is carefully selected dependent on its utilitarian and collaborative consistency of quality.
Richard Rowland can be seen as a community and artistic treasure for Astoria and Clatsop County. In 2005, he was the recipient of the Governor’s Art Award from Ted Kulingoski for contributions to art and community. He has been featured on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Art Beat” and has been covered in Orion magazine and Harpers Magazine (in a piece researched and written by Oregon author Barry Lopez). From 2001 to 2013, Rowland was the full-time 3-D art instructor and gallery exhibition coordinator at Clatsop Community College, a role that has continued on a part-time basis since 2013. His work has been widely exhibited along the Oregon coast and throughout the Pacific Northwest, including Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, the Cannon Beach Art Gallery, RiverSea Gallery in Astoria, Pacific University in Forest Grove and the Walters Cultural Center in Hillsboro. He has exhibited nationally at Texas Tech University (with author Barry Lopez) and internationally at the Academy of Arts at the University of Tasmania.
Richard Rowland earned his MFA with honors from the University of Tasmania and a BA with honors from Pacific University. He has studied anagama kiln design and ceramics in Australia and Japan.
The COVAS Showcase is open Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 4pm.