Artist Interviews 2022

Cybele Rowe  
By Johnny Otto

You’ve been an exhibiting artist for 40 years now. How did you start off? You’re from Australia. Did you start exhibiting there or only after you moved to NYC?

In 1986 the Director of one of Australia’s most prestigious and oldest Galleries visited me in my Sydney artist loft located at center of alternative culture happenings at the time. I was building but not firing my clay works and she said ; “If you can fire them I can sell them.” At that time I was waitressing and going to art school full time, having fun and saving money but also really wanting to travel the world. I had about ten shows in two years, selling very well. Drawings, painting, big vessels and big figures. Then I received a traveling art scholarship from the Australian Arts Council. I had my money to go and see some of what I only knew from text book images.

Like most young Australians I finished my degree and left to travel the world. I didn’t know if I wasn’t going to ever come back to live, I was just off on an adventure. At 22, I arrived in NYC after having a good global trot and I knew it was my new home. I felt relaxed, happy and excited by all the energy.

Which came first, painting or sculpture? Who were your earliest influences?

Hmmm. Mum's homemade play dough or paper, crayons and paint? Tough one. I grew up in a Science, Music and Visual Arts supportive household and I was never intending to be a sculptor. I still have a one legged ceramic pig I made when I was seven. Why did I keep the pig? Maybe it was the first fetish I made?

My real passion when I was growing up was gymnastics. In retrospect, sculpture being very much about balance making this a good transition for all that energy I had. I went to art school not having any idea what that was all about, but a four year degree was expected of me. At 17 years of age I had an extreme punk fashion sense topped with a midnight blue mowhawk. I was interested in music and all the most avant-guard slice of my culture I could expose myself to had to offer. I remember my entry interview with Head of Ceramics at City Art Institute with Peter Travis. He was brilliant ceramicist, classical concert piano player, designer of massive kites of color and men's Speedo swimwear. Peter asked me “Why art school?” As, I didn’t really have a portfolio and pretty much failed art in high school. It was a reasonable question.

I responded with my usual quipped sense of humor; "I have big hands and I guess I should do something with them.” He laughed out loud said "Great answer, your in, and make sure you are in my introduction to ceramic class day one." And I was. Peter Travis had what I wanted, he was living an interesting life and possibly saved mine by offering his freindship.

Those years showed me I could be good at something again, like I was as a child gymnast. The sentence I heard most in art school was "The best way to teach you Cybele, is to not teach you at all”. I was fiercely independent and really didn’t care if anyone liked my work, still holds true. During my Post Graduate final I was asked by an adjudicating Professor "What I was trying to make?" I said I was trying to make beauty. He told me he didn’t think I was making beauty. I pointed out that we both liked to have sex with beautiful people and what he though was beautiful and what I thought was beautiful were very different. That rule still holds true.

Heads of Ceramic department Peter Travis and Marea Gazzard showed me that if I wanted to be an artist I should learn about form and how to make every color in the world. For 5 years learning with quadraxial glaze experiments how to make hundreds of colors with thousands of small color squares. I was becoming a form maker, by building forms then reconstituting the clay only to build them again all without the pressure of wasting materials. I was becoming a form maker and a color maker and I was stuck in the mud, I was truly obsessed. It actually meant something, struggling with a 50lb bag of basically mud and powders from the earth that changed color under intense heat was thrilling and it still is always a surprise when I open the kiln door at the end of a firing.

How has desert life changed the progression of your art over the years?

When I decided to leave NYC after a decade I did so because R.Buckminster Fuller stated; ’The greatest gift you can give a child is the gift of nature." In 1998, I had just delivered my son and California looked good. I found a one hundred year old dance halI, on a creek, in the forest and near the ocean. I built a sculpture space based on Henry Moores studio and bootlegged my old electric kiln together with a new propane kiln making it a 7 ft by 3 ft firing chamber. This was my first big kiln without having to create my work in two sections due to kiln restriction. Human-scale to Giant-scale became an obsession. The trees of my forest like the buildings in NYC always dwarfed my works. It was the move to the desert that allowed me to finally “see” my works untoggled and uninterrupted.

I purchased my desert studio home in 2019 so Im still rather new here. Noah Purifoy had it right, as far as space and location for his outdoor studio and he definitely influenced me. There is an honesty and breathing room between the desert floor and the sky that allows my work to evolve without the ceiling of a building or the canopy of trees. Its just a hot floor under my bare feet and the stars overhead. The fact that I unknowingly landed in the “alien” town called Landers makes working here even more magical. The desert allows me to explore many mediums above human scale. I built a portable pack flat kiln movable in a pick up truck. The kiln assembles around a clay built "in place" work up to 9 ft tall by 4 ft wide. I am creating my sculpture garden with big ceramic works in place one at a time.

Can you describe your process for creating a new piece and give us some techniques that you have acquired over the years?

Technique, courage and a good blast of inquisitiveness are at the core of why I have continued to teach myself so many mediums or seek out masters to ask questions. This, along with making many mistakes and a lot of happy accidents has allowed me to acquire the knowledge needed to become a craftsman with many materials.

I went as a guest lecturer at a local community college in 2010. There I met two old school master craftsmen Professors who were running the bronze foundry. I always wanted to do bronze and they told me to sign up and take a class. So I did, and ended up teaching there, bronze casting and a course I created. "How to make a living as an Artist”. I taught what I lived, the mental health and lack of confidence at times, the financial insecurities at times and how to grow in mediums to keep up with up with your growth in your art exploration. I made many bronzes as a Professor unencumbered by expensive foundry costs. I made mistakes and I made some good ones.

I do work in many materials and in summer, it is just too hot in the desert to work outside alot on the desert floor. Because of this problem I work at a huge industrial ceramic pipe factory. I build big clay artworks at their factory and then literally hitch a ride with my work on a forklift holding the work steady and placing it inside the massive firing chamber as the kiln doors close.

Right now I am working on my big ceramics as well as light weight concrete. I am also making ten huge appliqué curtains for a new Jazz Club in San Francisco. I work early in the morning and late afternoon on my concrete works upon the desert floor. When its too hot I work in my indoor space on the curtains. And a few days a week I work at the industrial factory on ceramics. I recently finished a large concrete commission for a client in Palm Desert, which when placed in their desert landscape shared a common outdoor environment in its creation and final resting place. The clients and myself certainly shared a special desert happening.

I worked for many years in a fast growing Indonesian soft wood called Jelutong which is especially good for carving. I was making ten foot long two feet wide woodblock prints. Eventually, I was not impressed by my prints but the ink stained wood was gorgeous as an artwork, so I flipped it over carved and colored the other side. They became freestanding sculptures which sold very well.

I constantly paint, draw, take photos along with walks, I write prose and poetry. It is this immediate action that keeps my hand and mind loose for the big works. I never know what I'm going to unleash once I blast through many thoughts and many drawings. I work at these skills like I am my own library and I have to fill up in order to hold the knowledge for the big works. Sometimes its a scribble, sometimes its a big canvas smashed up with with oil stick. Sometimes I paint with enamels on 8 ft x 4 ft aluminum panels . These works are my “flowers” and are freestanding around my sculpture garden as I am a terrible gardener.

Are you currently showing anywhere or any shows coming up?

I mainly stopped pursuing galleries in the financial crash of 2008. I needed a break from their constant show schedules. I realized there are only so many years with my body being strong enough to physically build my big work. I was wanting to grow as much as I could as an artist. I knew I had to make the time to make a lot of ugly works and mistakes in order to grow. I just couldn’t do that when my time was committed to a galleries schedule. I made the choice to grow.

During the last decade I have done the LA Art Shows, Palm Spings Art Shows and a few others that have interested me. Recently, I showed two times with two different galleries with 4 different women sculptors in each show. One gallery here in the desert (GOAT) and the other in LA (Wonzimer). Both directors came to my property and said lets do something. I do not go into these shows expecting to make sales, although sales are good. I show because it helps me understand my work. From curators, to writers, to parties on opening nights, I always learn something about my culture through the viewer. This keeps me engaged. Mind you, I rarely speak about my work, less words said more mystery experienced by the viewer.

During October 8th &,9th and the two weekends following my desert studio will be open to the public during the day time hours as part of the HWY 62 Art Tours. There are hundreds of works dotted across my land and hundreds of people visit. It is a wonderful event where I am relaxed and can spend time with other artist, with my collectors, my old friends and make new friends.

You say that your work is not perfect. Do you purposely allow room for mistakes and imperfections in your work? Is that what makes them more organic?

Organic is not a word I use, though I can see why as clay workeras a medium before it becomes subjected to thermals is a living material making the word organic a good choice. "Eudiamonic Abiogenisis” is how I describe most of what I do in my life. In a couple of sentences this is what I do: I spend a lot of time bringing the chthonic into the ethereal. Vitality creates a confidence and excitement to move onto future works. Occasionally I achieve what Aristotle referred to as "Sublime Betautadio in his 4 Principles of Happiness.”. This is my raison d’ê-tre. Pretty simple, pretty lovely, pretty achievable. I could never imagine 40 years of art making upon attatching my growth as an artist to a commercial scene. Those variables were and are just too great for my happiness. Its would seem like riding someone else's roller coaster instead of my own.

Growing up in Canada I was exposed to a great deal of art from the Original People, or Native People’s which included sculptures. Your work reminds me a bit of some of those forms. Are you at all influenced by Native artwork?

I have always been fascinated by early peoples and their cultural rituals. My post graduate studies thesis was “Did God make man from clay or clay create man and make God?" The artworks that are used in creating common understanding rather than isolation. This is what draws me into finding a common language of form making and art markings. I also am obsessed with cephalapods, I love to scuba dive deep down in what I call the opposite land. Mountains under not above me and fish along side of me. I am also fascinated by all thing science, outer space, inner space (biology) and the future of our species not just within our past. I am living my interesting life and letting the works evolve from this interesting life whilst I make these thoughts into my meta-messaging forms.

What other interests do you have besides art that you’d like to share with us? Do you make a mean apple pie? What other hobbies or passions?

My children are my main fascination and interest. I also have been teaching ceramic sculpture just a few hours a week at many Elementary schools for the last twelve years. It's my cultural duty to make sure these kids get clay in their hands. You gotta give it away if you wanna keep it . The children never fail to create an exhilarative environment with which to grow and this energy creates boundless joy in them and me.

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