Joe Kowalczyk (Ko-väl-chick) is a local artist whose works we discovered while browsing galleries recently in Oakland. Co-founder/director of FM Gallery, he runs his own kiln repair business (Kiln Specialist), restoring kilns throughout Northern California and also works as a ceramics instructor at the Creative Growth Art Center. A man of many hats – it’s a wonder he has any time to spend in his own studio!
Joe’s work comprises beautiful clay sculptures – deities, animals and skulls; as well as detailed and poetic pen and ink tree-based drawings. His ceramic work has a spiritual side to it, reminding us of totems or animal gods from days long past. There is a primitive and emotional feel to many of them and at the same time a concerned sadness for modern day disregard of wildlife. Some are so full of love that it makes our heart ache and others stand strongly protective of what is within.
Can you share a little background with us? It was just north of Chicago in Niles, Illinois where I spent my adolescence following my passion for drawing. In high school my heart raced when I discovered ceramics and I remember taking to it naturally. Nothing was more exciting than ceramic sculpture week, but ceramics seemed impossible to practice outside of school, so I turned my attention back towards drawing and music. After high school I was advised to pursue a more lucrative career, which I did. After a year or so my heart confessed; I could not pursue a path in life as a computer technician after realizing my true love for sculpting. I quit my nice job and dropped out of tech school; I never looked back. In Spring of 2006, after three years of formative training under John DeFazio, Arthur Gonzalez, Craig Petey, and John Toki, I received my BFA from the California College of the Arts (formerly The California College of Arts and Crafts).
What are you currently working on? I’ve been working on a series of “guardians” for the last year or so. They’re usually very empowered and dominating, but sometimes they’re just children in disguise. In my sculptures I’ll use wood, fiber, or metal, but mainly work with clay. Everything is hand built using coil or slab method, often using live models, photos, or my own drawings as references. I start out with a concept drawing to get an idea for direction, then dive into the sculpting process. Sometimes I plan out all the details in drawing, other times I rely on spontaneity and let the sculpture guide me. Within the “guardian” series I’ve been trying to step away from my own comforts and push myself into the unfamiliar, that is, adding new imagery and trying different glaze techniques. I’ve been happy with this series, and I’m excited to see where it takes me.
My favorite art memory from my childhood is … When I was a young boy I used to build little dwellings in order to lure cicadas and collect their shells. The dwellings were actually more like little shrines, and there was no real reason for me to think these dwellings would lure cicadas. I tried to build them as alluring as possible anyway (for the cicadas), and I enjoyed making them. One day I was building a dwelling along side the base of a tree and some girl on a bike began asking questions about what I was doing. She just stood there yammering and asking questions as I worked. I was kinda annoyed and just wanted her to go away. The next day I came back to check on the days catch and found the same girl standing there! She brought her friend, and they were talking about how cool they thought the little dwelling was. I heard one say she wished she was small enough to go inside. I was too shy to approach them (because they were girls) and instead, ran away, and hid until they left. I was really happy they liked the dwellings though.
My interest in art/painting/sculpture started … I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon. Drawing, sculpting, fixing/making stuff has always been a huge part of my life. But my interest in the history of art didn’t begin until I was 14 or 15, sometime in early high school (thanks to Mr. Kim and Mr. Mastrolonardo). The pursuit of art as a life path didn’t happen until my late teens/early twenties, when I learned how important it is to pursue the things you love.
I am often inspired and motivated by … Life situations and dilemmas. People and their strange personality quirks often inspire a lot of these masked works with hidden personalities. that I’ve been making the last few years.
If I could spend the day with any artist (dead or alive) it would be … Bill Watterson And we would … We would go sledding. Then we’d go for some hot chocolate and discuss politics, art, and the difficulties of being a parent while simultaneously keeping a regular studio practice. Maybe he can shed some light on that.
The tip or art technique (a specific tidbit of craft, advice or mechanical expertise) that has helped me the most is …. Don’t think too much as you’re making… don’t think too much beforehand either. Just go for it! I f you fuck up, it’s ok, just start again. But if you over-think, the work can become stale. There’s a freshness or rawness in work that’s executed without too much thought. The energy you put into a piece is often what comes out.
If I could own one piece of art, out of the world’s collections, it would be … Any Rube Goldberg or Jean Tinguely. Then I would need a big enough house to put it in and then I might feel guilty about keeping it for myself…
My current favorite piece of my own art is … A landscape drawing of Gillson Beach I made in 2001. (below) Because … I used to seek refuge there back in 2000/2001. That was when I quit my job as a computer tech to pursue art. I used to just sit there by myself all day drawing landscapes and brainstorming cartoons. That landscape I own was one of the first significant ones I did at that time. I learned a lot from that drawing, and it’s still one of my favorites.
My ultimate project or fantasy is … To work with a team of artists on something. I don’t know what, but I’ve always had this desire to create something amazing utilizing different skills of others. I know that’s vague, yet it’s been a lingering desire for quite some time.
Can you give us a little insight about your current works, the guardians? The guardians are symbols of protection (strong and weak). This subject is what prompted me to question my own fears, which in turn, brought me to recollect my earliest memories of fear. When creating this series I kept asking myself why I’ve become so fascinated with this idea of protection and guardianship, seeing as how my work used to be so happy and lighthearted. I’ve come to realize it’s because I identify with being someone who protects. I see it in my daily life. Working at Creative Growth and looking after every ones well being. Fixing artists’ kilns, replacing damaged components and preventing further damage. Managing a studio/gallery. The possibility of becoming a father. I feel this inherent need to protect and look over the well being of the people around me. That’s why these figures have manifested into my work. What are these guardians protecting? I would say most of them are protecting themselves. But from what? I don’t know.
The last song I choose to listen to was … Granada by Carlos Montoya… so beautiful.
The last book I couldn’t put down was … I’ve recently reread Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
One of my favorite words is … broccolini.
One of my favorite smells is … Liquid Wrench (that garage smell…)
I can’t live without … my studio time.
It’s not hip, but I really love …. Howl’s Moving Castle
My favorite motto (or quote) is … “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” –Hillel
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be? Japan, I guess. But I honestly have to say I love living in the Bay Area, and I have a hard time seeing myself living anywhere else.
If you had to name a hero or heroine, an iconic person in your lifetime, who would that be and why? George Carlin. He often presents a perspective changing view that’s right on point, plus his delivery is hilarious. Sometimes I wish I was like that.
Link - to Joe’s Website
3rd Annual Totems & Plates, Blue Line Gallery
April 18th -May 11th, 2013; Opening reception: Saturday, April 20th, 6 – 9pm
405 Vernon St. #100 Roseville, CA. 95678
Imaginarium, group show, Arc Gallery
June 1st – 29th, 2013; Opening reception: Saturday, June 1st, 7 – 10pm
1246 Folsom Street. San Francisco, CA. 94103
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