Visual Vernacular: Artist Rowen Foster
Some are able to read faces at a rapid rate, piecing together the slightest movement or expression into a thought, mood, or statement. Artist Rowen Foster has taken the study of faces one step further and incorporated the contemplations of the human face and made it the primary outlet for her art. Using natural and figurative clay, concrete, wood, and metal cast work along with additional materials, Foster’s art deconstructs the dualities and contradictions between nature and man, the old and new, past and present. The beautiful elusiveness of what is real or unreal, what is concrete and what is ephemeral, spiritual, and perhaps harbors the potential for the presence of an ethereal realm.
In her upcoming exhibition, Herdra: Regenerated, Foster gracefully grapples with her dedication to unwrapping the human condition through the emotions flowing through life, death, and the grief/loss process. Greatly encouraged by her parents Jeff Key and Ruth Foster along with a team of friends and instructors, this young artist is wise beyond her years in both word, spirit, and craft. She has gathered together a collection of what at first glance seems stoic sculptures that upon closer examination revel the sensational subtleties of expression and emotion. The rawness in color and form is elevated by the distinct hand Foster places in her pieces that range from fervent faces to organic shapes that seem to spill out and come alive from the pieces. Her much anticipated one night show is ramping up for this weekend and thankfully Foster took the time to answer some questions about herself and her art.
FPH: You have an aptitude for multiple genres in the arts. How did this evolve for you as a child and now a young adult?
Rowen Foster: Like most kids, I would always draw and I have some vivid memories of writing my first poems and reading them to my grandmother. I also did a lot of music and theatre related stuff, like playing the violin a few years, recorders, band, choir, voice lessons, musicals and plays; I loved everything. I went to the Waldorf School for four years in Honolulu and a year at a Waldorf-inspired school called Singing Winds in Riverside, Illinois. Waldorf schools originated in Germany and were created by Rudolf Steiner who had a very alternative view on education. During my time at the Waldorf School is when my art really started growing, as creative art forms — visual, musical, etc. — were directly integrated into the curriculum. I started getting familiar with clay and watercolor especially during that time.
Urn by Rowen Foster
FPH: How have your college studies been so far? Has it changed your art?
Foster: The Kansas City Art Institute has been absolutely wonderful, not only within school hours or during out of class studio time, but in the connections it has given me and allowed for me to grow entirely outside of the institution. I just finished my sophomore year, so I’m exactly at the halfway point. KCAI has a great Foundations department, which is what everyone goes through their first year. In Foundations, students work in developing a well-rounded understanding of visual art forms, moving from traditional to digital, classical to experimental, 2D to 3D, a lot of collaboration, and learning from a diverse variety of highly-skilled practicing artists that make up the Foundations faculty. After the Foundation year is when students declare their major. I chose Sculpture, and I also decided to double major in Creative Writing as we have an amazing liberal arts department and really incredible professors that have nourished my love for writing. In addition to double majoring, I have four work-study jobs, so school has kind of been my entire life for the past two years. But the fact that I can have four paid jobs through the school is just great, my two favorites are working in the Writing Lab to help students write essays and study for exams and being a tour guide for the school. Through the school, students also have endless internship opportunities, which I was lucky to experience just after my first year, working with Misty Gamble, a California based ceramic artist. My favorite things about the school are its size and the faculty. It’s extremely personal which I feel most education institutions are missing. The Sculpture department is just over thirty students with four faculty members. Some professors go so beyond their job requirements, like Michael Wickerson, the head of the Sculpture department, who essentially became my friend and mentor even though he was not officially my teacher. I worked very closely with him throughout the year, going out to his 14-acre land and studios almost every weekend to learn the subtleties of metal casting in his foundry, and helping him create an enormous, old fashioned, adobe and brick, atmospheric salt/soda/wood ash monster of a kiln that we call Herdra.
FPH: Your upcoming show explores a variety of topics including man’s connection to nature, human psychology, stages of life, death, loss and healing. How do you convey some of those concepts through your work?
Foster: I have always paid a lot of attention to the little details about people and I analyze everything, I think I’ve always done this. Besides visual art, I was also considering going to school for Literature or Psychology. Then I found that visual art can and totally does include both of those fields. Human psychology, emotions, anatomy, and the human face and its endless expressions have always perplexed me. There is nothing more incredible than the human face and all its variations, differences, and similarities. Death is the most important thing about life, one cannot exist without the other, it is what makes life painful, horrible, hellish, but therefore, also, so beautiful. I’ve had a lot of personal experiences of death around my life for the past few years and it has become the driving force in my artwork, I really wonder how it would be otherwise. In my upcoming show, Herdra: Regenerated, I have a lot of vessels, something I usually don’t do. These vessels are actually urns, which I made for my grandmother, my greatest inspiration and supporting force, who passed away this past October. I wanted to make an urn for myself and for my mom to keep her in, and I wanted to make one to take to Ecuador, her homeland, to be interred with her family. I didn’t know how to make urns that I deemed worthy of this task, so I basically mass-produced them until I found the right ones. Now the rest can simply be vessels, or symbolic urns for the great numbers of the deceased or the concept of death itself. They are all entirely different from one another. Besides this, most of my work is figurative and demonstrates different expressions, some being hyper-realistic and some grossly distorted and exaggerated. Capturing and freezing a moment of expression that is beyond words is my goal when working figuratively, and it is my favorite thing to do. Humanity’s relationship to the natural world around them and how they interact with it is also a main focus for me and I show this by planting succulents and sticking dying and dead plants of different types in hollow orifices that I have created in my figurative ceramic works. This imagery of plants growing from human orifices was originally inspired by a quote from a story in William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch, describing plant life bursting from disintegrating human statues. To me, it was the most beautiful image. I have also found references to similar imagery in some of Werner Herzog’s work (Heart of Glass, specifically) and in a song called Transdermal Celebration by Ween, my all time favorite band.
Sculpture by Rowen Foster
FPH: The exhibition title contains a certain mythical and powerful quality to it. Tell me about how you selected it and what it means to the pieces in this show:
Herdra, Herdra, Herdra:
Herdra is many things.
Herdra: a Hermaphrodidic entity, the hard rock maker
Herdra is a time machine
Herdra is a kiln
Let me tell you a little about Herdra. I mentioned Herdra briefly before. Herdra has been a great accomplishment, helper, and inspiration to me. I have written poems and stories about her and over half of the work in the show was created inside of her! Herdra is the massive atmospheric kiln that I helped my friend and mentor and fellow sculptor, Michael Wickerson, create out of an adobe/cement concoction and old bricks that we saved from wasting away in a pile in the sculpture yard. It just so happens that my mom was visiting during the first few days of her creation and helped to lay the first bricks! I’ve seen a lot of Michael’s incredible work, but I have to say that nothing tops Herdra and what comes out of her. So we started heating her with just wood — one whole 40-year-old tree from Michael’s land that he personally fells every time — and coke (coal), which is how this traditional type of kiln originally functioned, then we added some propane to speed things up. Hedra fires to cone 10, which is 2500 degrees and takes 3 days, sometimes more, to complete a firing! I have held vigil and slept on the ground in front of this kiln after tending her until 3 am! As far as treatment of the pieces we put in her, there is no glaze, but an atmospheric, natural coloring that happens from blowing salt, baking soda, and wood ash into her peepholes. This is what I mean by atmospheric firing, as soon as the salt/soda blows in when it’s hot enough at 2500, it instantly vitrifies (turns to glass). We mastered surface treatment within the last few months, being able to create a smooth, glass finish in blues, greens, and natural, earthy, matt browns, yellows, maroons. We also make our own clay from scratch, sometimes we buy nicer colored clay and combine multiple clay bodies in one piece. There is nothing that compares to standing beside Herdra and feeling and hearing the scorching, searing, roaring heat that she emits and contains. It is awesome and incredible and seems to be beyond this world and beyond all time. That is why we also refer to Herdra as a time machine, among many other things: dragon, deity, kiln god, Baba Yaga and Her Hut, an old, drunken, temperamental, chain smoking, obese, Russian, hermaphrodite who throws tantrums and has an unending appetite — this is the personification of Herdra. We have created a community and mythology around this kiln and my greatest wish is to share and spread her name to as many places as possible to give her the fame she deserves. This is what I mean by Herdra: Regenerated, the show is an attempt to regenerate, as best as possible, some of the experience of working with Herdra and with Michael on his wonderful land that has inspired me so much. I want to share it with as many people as I can.
“Herdra: Regenerated” is set for a one-night exhibition on Saturday, July 23 from 5 to 10 pm at the house of Ken and Kim Scott in the Heights (347 W 22nd St). Food and refreshments are to be provided form Anna Marie Rasmussen Rockstar Munchies, Topo Chico USA, Shade Heights, Brash Brewing, and Saint Arnold Brewing Co.