Richard Rowland '74

In the lair of the dragon master

By Steve Dodge

Photo: Richard Rowland '74It spits fire from its sides and gaping mouth, this dragon of brick. Over the course of days its tenders feed it offerings of driftwood, slash and abandoned boards, which it devours hungrily.

Finally, after the inferno has cooled, the tenders can enter and see what fire and wind and wood have wrought – precious pieces of clay, now wondrously transformed into pottery.

Richard Rowland ’74 and two other potters built the Anagama Dragon Kiln from bricks, remnants of old fishery boilers salvaged at low tide from the Columbia River. Anagama, “hole in the ground kiln” in Japanese, is a type of wood fired tunnel kiln used in China, Korea and Japan for thousands of years. It has only been used in the U.S. for about 30 years.

When it’s time to feed the dragon, Rowland wanders the beaches, woods and old construction sites of Astoria looking for wood. Often people are curious about the slender man in the stocking cap and ask him what the wood is for. And when the fires begin, the three to seven day process becomes a community gathering of fire tending, food and stories for the artists who wait for their creations to emerge.

Rowland, an art and philosophy major while at Pacific, wouldn’t have it any other way. Ever since his days at the University, he’s seen his work as inextricably connected to people, the earth, and the mysterious web of life itself. Just touching the clay in a Pacific ceramics class taught by Judy Teufel was an epiphany. “I was deeply inspired by the clay itself,” said Rowland, “and I had a resonance with the immediacy, plasticity and life of the clay.”

Rowland continued to explore his fascination with ceramics and philosophy, finding inspiration among the quiet campus oaks and encouragement from Pacific faculty members, in particular art professor Jan Shield. The two formed a bond that has lasted well beyond college days. “It is not only a teacher/student relationship but also more of an apprenticeship with an amazing teacher and artist,” said Rowland, “We have developed a life long friendship that I appreciate and respect.” Said Shield: “He says that I told him he could make art and become an artist around 1975. It helped to initiate the focus on the dream’s potential, yet he was the one who pursued it.” Shield joined Rowland in Tasmania and Northern Australia last summer as the focus of a faculty development grant for study and artistic inspiration.

Rowland is widely known in the region for his ceramics work, teaches at Clatsop Community College in Astoria, and is a senior instructor in the art department. In the meantime, he and the “dragon” have drawn artists from as far away as Australia and inspired Oregon author Barry Lopez to write a short story called “Before the Temple of Fire.”

Rowland was recently honored with an Oregon Governor’s Arts Award for his work and his community involvement. The latter has included firing up the kiln to make ceramics for sale in support of the county women’s center and replicas of Lady Liberty for the restoration of Astoria’s Liberty Theatre.

One of the marvelous things about the kiln is its unpredictability, said Rowland. Outcomes are dependant on wood, wind, ash and humidity, even how the fire is stoked.

“Random accidents (are) frequent in the firing which are considered fortunate and spontaneous blessings on some work. Of course, the best work leaves room for these accidents and one’s faith in the natural process creates the sympathy and synergy for it all to happen. You never know what you will get, and if you are lucky the unknowable, beautiful mystery shows up.”

Rowland and Shield will have a joint show of their work inspired by the Australia and Tasmania experience in Pacific’s Cawein Gallery in December.

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