Briefly describe the work you do.
I make drawings in response to what I read. They are not illustrations of events or characters, but rather an externalization of the mental imagery invoked by the experience of literature. I want to pick up where words leave off by creating images to accompany the literature I love. By combing both art and words, I hope that I can enrich the experience of both.
It’s easiest to say that my main medium is ink, but really that has come to mean all kinds of liquid materials including coffee, tea, traditional sumi, and watercolor. Conceptually, I appreciate the connection of ink and graphite to the writing process and literature. Because my work is based on ideas and structure, I also appreciate the straightforward ease of applying ink and graphite to untreated surfaces.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
Growing up there were two things my mom could never get me to do—draw and write. In spite of that I somehow ended up majoring in art and minoring in creative writing. On the surface, following a last minute whim to study art (sparked by an encounter with drawings of Alan Lee) was not the wisest way to make a major life decision. Fortunately, despite my lateness to the scene, I discovered a deep love for art. I was always a voracious reader and through that developed a way of thinking that prepared me to be an artist. However, as a result I approach art very much like a writer. My drawings are structured like a poem, and I seek to imbue my work with images that evoke narrative and metaphor.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
One great paradox of art is that through the solitude of hiding away in a studio, artists are able to reach out and connect to innumerable others. It can be lonely, but the rewards are great, and I am a big fan of the traditional studio model. In the past my studio has been a corner of the bedroom or half of the living room. Fortunately, I am now blessed to have a small room—which was actually meant to be a storage closet—where I’ve set up my studio. Having a space solely dedicated to making art is hugely important, especially when life is a juggling act in which art-making can’t always come first. I need a space without distractions where the creative “muscle memory” can take over and renew my energy to create.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
My vision of the future seems to constantly shift into things better than I could have planned. When I first decided to study art, I envisioned myself as some kind of illustrator or conceptual artist for film. However, in my junior year I had a “conversion” experience and realized that I loved the “fine arts” (for lack of a better term) and wanted to be part of that world. I’ve ended up leading a local organization called the Jackson Art Movement which seeks to connect and build community among artists of all disciplines and mediums. I knew as I neared graduation that I wanted to eventually teach at the college level (and I still do), but a door opened for me to teach middle and high school art at a private school. The challenge of exposing seventh through ninth graders to the world of art and drawing is more rewarding than I imagined, and I am so fortunate to be paid to study and talk about art all day.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
I have found that my best works seems to happen when I’m able to set aside daily time in my studio. Because I teach in secondary education, I start my day early and finish early which means that, if I’m disciplined, I can manage to fit almost two hours of studio time in before dinner. My goal is to draw at least ten hours a week—an hour or two on every weekday that I can manage it and two to four hours on the weekend. I always carry a sketchbook and use that to fit the thinking/thumbnail part of my process into every spare moment.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
I’ve only been making art for about seven years, but I’ve still seen a lot of change in the last five. Five years ago I wasn’t very confident in the expressive quality of my work and so I relied on obsessive detail, hoping that my commitment in hours would cover my fear and dazzle the viewer. I’ve grown a lot more confident over time and feel less pressure to overwhelm the viewer and a greater desire to achieve my ends with more subtlety. Obsessive detail and repetitive mark making still intrigue me, and many of my pieces are full of the same detail that was present five years ago. However, I’m allowing that detail to become more subtle and uniform so that pattern becomes texture and the number of hours isn’t as immediately obvious.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
My wife is a musician, and I have learned an enormous amount about discipline and the importance of daily practice from her. We also have similar views about art, but she comes at it from the perspective of the performing arts which has helped expand the way I approach and think about my own creative process. She has been a constant muse for me and seems to have an uncanny knack for critiquing with the perfect balance of encouragement and insightful comments.
The poetry of T.S Eliot has proved to be an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration and insight.
The contemporary painter Makoto Fujimura has profoundly influenced how I think about art. Aesthetically his paintings are vastly different from my religiously structural drawings, but the way he talks about the role of art in culture and the relationship between beauty and truth speaks deeply to me.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
Because I’ve loved reading for so long, I have often felt that I understand literature more easily than visual art, and about every week or two I wonder if I should have gone into writing. However, I’ve realized that such thoughts usually come when I’m working on something difficult or when none of my experiments have come together. Writing seems easier because it’s an ideal in my head that I assume wouldn’t be difficult for me, but I know that if I were to abandon art and move to writing I would find just as many challenges. I’m learning to embrace the value of the struggle that is being a visual artist. Making art is hard, but it’s a satisfying endeavor to fashion all of my interests and beliefs into visual expression.
Jacob Rowan is an art teacher at Jackson Academy with a B.A. in Art from Belhaven University. His work explores the idea of illumination—art that creates a visual aesthetic experience parallel to the mental imagery invoked by words. In 2013, he spent six months in Japan as an artist-in-residence for Community Arts Tokyo before starting at Jackson Academy. His work has been included in multiple group shows both in the U.S. and Japan. Most recently, he had a solo show at Pearl River Glass Studio Gallery and had work featured in the Belhaven Alumni Invitational.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.
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Check out my interview on 365 artists/365 days