Social Fabric: Cara Ober Interviews Sculptor Kevin Rohde

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Social Fabric is the culminating exhibition of Kevin Rohde‘s first year in Baltimore. Rohde was selected from over 20 national and international applicants to be the recipient of Baltimore Clayworks‘ Lormina Salter Fellowship, a year-long residency that provides the selected artist with a studio and materials stipend. The exhibition runs June 27- August 9, 2014, with an opening reception on Friday, June 27, from 6 to 8 pm.


Cara Ober: What made you apply for the Lormina Salter Fellowship at Clayworks?

Kevin Rohde: The reason I applied for the Lormina Salter Fellowship was primarily because of the opportunity to have a studio space and material stipend so that I could continue my work. What stood out about Clayworks was that there seemed to be a strong and diverse community of resident artist who were making work at a high level of quality. It is of great importance to me to surround myself with creative driven people in my studio practice as well as my social life. I was also attracted to the idea of living in a place (Baltimore) with such rich history and proximity to other metropolitan centers.

CO: Where were you living before you were chosen for this program? Did you relocate to Baltimore? 

KR: I relocated to Baltimore from Minneapolis, MN. Where I was Living and working in residence as a Fogelberg Fellow at Northern Clay Center.

CO: How has this residency changed your life?

KR: How has this residency changed my life?… I laugh… Well, it has dominated every aspect of it! which has proven to be quite a challenge. The work that I make takes a very long time to complete and requires a very high level of focus though almost all of the process. Coming into this residency knowing that I would have roughly nine months to fill Clayworks awkwardly spacious main gallery, I knew that this was the greatest challenge I have faced thus far in my artistic career. I must say here that one of the most challenging aspects of relocating for a residency like this is the re-building of your life. i.e. finding a decent place to live ( a few times!) finding work that can pay your bills but not suffocate your studio practice (studio always suffers) and trying to make friends when you spend 12 hours 7 days at work or in the studio. You catch me at the end of a 9 month sprint, and if you have ever seen the film ‘The Triplets of Bellville’ I feel very much like one of the animated cyclists who fall from their bikes to be thrust into the back of an unmarked van. Striking a balance has proven to be an elusive purple fox.

One thing I take away from this experience is a much stronger confidence in my concepts and decision making. I think the group of diverse talented artists that initially drew me here have challenged me in some ways more than ever (also perhaps without consciously doing so), and have caused me to question my practice, artistic validity, and work ethics. This fellowship has also strengthened my time management skills and has helped teach me to say no to things, which is tough for someone who generally accepts any new opportunity or challenge.


CO: Your narrative sculpture is almost Renaissance-perfect in its depiction of the human figure, but you contemporize it with abstract painted patterns and graphic elements that connect the figures to their environments. Can you explain how you work in both of these aesthetic worlds at once and what their purpose is? How do you negotiate a balance?

KR: The sculpting process that I use when building my figures obviously ties me to century old traditions throughout history. I think the past is a pool of knowledge which exists to teach us, and when looking back for guidance the human form has always been that anchor or concrete form that time has permitted to survive. I think this is due in part to our constant need to understand ourselves. Since we are ever changing, there is always a need for the figure in art to engage this discussion. For this reason, and I think this gets to the initial question, I try to make work that nods to the sound skills sets and humility of the past while engaging in concepts and narratives that address contemporary issues and elicit some of the vibrancy of the ‘now’.

There is also something exciting to me in the act of working with a material in a process that is very slow especially in contrast to the immediacy of our culture and other art making for that matter. I’ve heard writers in interviews talk about the need to detach themselves from culture, to isolate themselves so that they can grasp a clear picture of what is actually going on so as to write about it. It’s like if you are a fish going down stream you don’t perceive the current until you step out of it, or oppose it. I feel like there is some of that intention in my process. Isolation for observation.

CO: Many of your figures look like they have been made of marble or bronze, but they are made of clay. In your opinion, how is a clay figure different than one of more traditional figurative materials and how does this impact the meaning of your work?

KR: I do have a very strong material connection to clay. I would say my concept is first only because if there was no more clay I would simply use the next best material, and I like to mix medias but I walk the artist/craftsman line flirtatiously! The thing about clay is that it changes states as it dries. Clay is super plastic, soft, and malleable when it is really wet but becomes stiffer, firmer, and will hold detail better as it looses moisture. in this way it lends itself perfectly to sculpting almost as if it wants to be sculpted. Clay (especially terra cotta)  along with stone have generally been used interchangeable by the sculptors of the past. Since bronze and iron casting came to prominence clay took somewhat of a back seat due to its use as process material to get to the metallic end result.

Since the American Craft Movement clay is now re-surging as a valid ‘finished product’ material. One of the big 21st century question to validate three-dimensional art objects is why that material? You get that all through Grad school and I think clay as a sculptural material has a tougher time because of its connection to the craft arts, but I kind of embrace that. I am drawn to clay because of the versatility of surfaces that you can achieve through the firing process and through the use of clay/glaze applications (which I employ in my work) but… I still think that’s kind of bullshit. I think my real grounding chord to the material is it’s historical connection the common people, to humble creative practices, and with all of that to an artery of the culture of the common people which are the subject of my work. in this way it holds value as a reinforcing element of my concepts.

CO: Robert Arneson seems like a possible influence to me – in terms of an artist who worked figuratively in clay, and managed to bridge the gap between ‘craft’ and ‘art.’ Who are the contemporary clay artists whose work has been important for you?

KR: No one. and I guess everyone. I am grateful for all the work that has been done in figurative clay sculpture but I never really had a clay hero, or felt like I had this handful of clay sculptors that made me want to do this. I never really had a mentor or a some one who showed me the ropes or taught me how to build these things either. I just started doing it, and that might be a big part of the reason for my lack of such influences. I always fumbled when people would ask “who do you look at” as if it was a requirement to have a pocket full of artists that you built a shrine for on a pedestal in the corner of your room. I look at lots of art and artists and often times my favorite stuff is nothing like what I make. Although, the work of European wood sculptors such as Willy Verginer and Gehard Demetz do strike a strong chord. There are tons of clay people whose work I drool over, I just don’t think it fits the archetype of come-up influence. Maybe it’s a weakness?


KR: In addition to the figures, the element of fabric is used as a visual element and a metaphor for relationships in your current exhibit. Can you talk about you this element came into your work and what it means to you? 

KR: agh Fabric. So, you go through art school and most of us (myself perhaps slightly more than others) spend hours in big rooms drawing nude models. The elegance and beauty of the nude figure is almost driven into your head. It was during grad school when I was developing the body of work that has taken me to the present, that I was trying to identify some truth of a person in my sculptures. One aspect of this was to identify them through their dress. I found myself enamored with the emulation of the gravity that pulled the fabric around the underlying structure and hinted at its hidden form. As my work evolved I began to question the role of the fabric as simple clothing ‘prop’. I wanted fabric to become more than that, since fabric is such a charged material: as clothing with all its cultural implications, and its use as a status symbol etc. I drove to take advantage of all of its powerful allegorical possibilities when addressing the subject of the modern individual and his or her relationship to culture and life.

This show and this residency are the beginnings of these ideas coming to fruition.

 The exhibition runs June 27- August 9, 2014 with an opening reception on Friday, June 27, from 6 to 8 pm. 

** This interview was conducted by Cara Ober, Editor at BmoreArt.

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