Briefly describe the work you do.
My work begins with the observation of an absurdity relating to the intersection of humans and the natural world. I am extraordinarily interested in the disconnect between people and the origins of the things they consume, and how that consumption alters the environment in which we live. In addition, my current work is an exploration of my personal upbringing – where and how I was raised, and how that affects my worldview.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I grew up in a conservative, rural mid-western area that had been ravaged by mining in the early part of the twentieth century. My playgrounds were giant mounds of mining tailings, flooded mine shafts, and decaying concrete structures whose original function had long been forgotten. In essence, my favorite childhood haunts were horrible blights on nature, but to me they were full of magic and beauty. Much of my current works are multi-layered explorations of these themes. Another key influence would be that one of the ways I paid for my undergraduate degree was working as a carpenter building houses. It felt natural for me to merge the techniques I was using on the job-sites to comment on the entire process of the built environment.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I work whenever I can manage to get time to work. As a professor, I haul pieces/parts of sculptures back and forth from my home studio to the school studio. A huge part of my teaching philosophy is wrapped around the idea that I’m an artist first and a teacher second. It’s my goal to model the art of making as much as profess it. It has taken me a long time to figure this out, but many of my in class demonstrations are performed on actual pieces that I’m working on. It’s not unusual to find me before, between, and after classes working on my works right along side my students. It can be a difficult practice to manage, but my schedule has forced me to become more creative with time management and has made me much more efficient with my time.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I never set out to become a teacher. Teaching was an opportunity given to me during graduate school, and I found it to be far more inspiring than I ever expected it to be. I view my role as a sculpture professor as not only helping to create strong artists, but to help become active participants in arts communities.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
As a father, a husband, and a full-time teacher, dedicated studio time is hard to come by. My studio is in my backyard, and I make it a general rule to be in the studio everyday. Some days I may only get into the studio for a few minutes, but I think those brief bits can be incredibly productive. I’ve often been warned of the dangers associated with having a studio at home, and sometimes it is quite difficult to separate the two. But for me the perks far outweigh the negatives. I feel like I am able to very effectively use my time. I can help get the kids to bed, and still have time to walk out to the studio and accomplish goals.
I don’t have a set schedule. Some days I will get up obnoxiously early, and put in a few hours of work before anyone in my house is out of bed. Other times I’m in the studio until the wee hours of the morning. More than anything else, I make sure that I’m flexible and that when I hit the studio I use my time as effectively and as efficiently as possible.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
Maybe this is due to the fact that I’m a father or the fact that I’m over 40, but I feel that my work has become much more introspective. I’m still inspired by the same topics of human interaction with the natural world, but I’m putting myself more at the center of that connection.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
There are many influences I could cite here, but I’m only going to mention a couple. I think I was very fortunate to have had two incredibly engaged & inspiring art teachers in high school that convinced me early on that art is a legitimate and important field to pursue. Thanks Al and Marv!
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
Crate builder. I find the practice of building crates for the shipping and hauling of artwork to be an incredibly meditative and relaxing process.
Mark Cowardin is a father, a husband, an artist, and an educator. His studio practice consists of an essential and delicate balance of these four jobs. Mark’s sculptural work observes the complicated, sometimes troubling, and always compelling intersection between humans and the natural world. His graceful sculptures juxtapose materials and conflicting ideas, and as a native U.S. Midwesterner, Cowardin examines the complex relationship to natural resources that the Midwest sometimes embodies. The implications of Cowardin’s narratives are sometimes alarming, complex and layered, and often ultimately tinged with yearning for a connection to the past and a hope for the future.
Mark Cowardin received an MFA in sculpture from the University of Arizona and a BFA from the University of Kansas. An Associate Professor of Art at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Mark currently resides with his family in Lawrence, Kansas. His work is included in numerous private and public collections including the John Michael Kohler Art Center, Kohler Corporation, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, and Rockhurst University.