Ceramicist Celebrates Ancient Techniques

By Beacon Staff

John Rawlings dips into age-old processes to create his sculptures. It’s similar to the techniques used by older southwest cultures creating their black shiny pots. But where those are tiny, Rawlings’ works are huge.

When firing his large single-piece two-foot slabs, the failure rate skyrockets. “It’s stressful to them and sometimes to me,” says the Flathead Valley Community College art instructor.

Rawlings shapes and cuts the clay in a leather-hard state, much different than the pliable clay most potters throw on a wheel. “It’s heavy,” he says of his oversize ceramic sculptures. He cuts the slabs into a shape, smoothes them, and then incises the surface.

While the first bisque firing is the same as most pottery, his second firing differs radically from traditional techniques. He fills a 50-gallon galvanized steel garbage can with sawdust and a sculpture, and he doesn’t use cones to measure the heat. In the kiln, the clay slowly chars. “It’s enormously stressful to the sculpture,” he says.

Sometimes when he opens the kiln, only charcoal and pieces remain—a sad loss for 40-60 hours of work per piece. “I have to be okay with failure,” he says. At first, he lost 70 percent of his blackened ceramic sculptures to rubble, but in the past year, he only had three breakages.

The results of this past year’s successes are showing at Jest Gallery on Second Street in Whitefish in a show entitled “Sticks & Stones & Bones,” which includes 13 sculptures on display around the two floors of the gallery. The oversized sculptures combine his trademark black ceramics with natural objects—an ibex horn, an elk antler, red willow branches, and sea grass.

Monica Pastor, owner of Jest Gallery, described his sculptures: “They have a quality of multicultural global elements in a distinct, unexpected form. This newest series building on his older work brings in natural elements that add a rustic character.”

Take a peak at Rawling’s creations at Jest Gallery during August. Jest opens Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. through 5 p.m. and on Thursday, Aug. 7, 6 p.m. through 9 p.m. for Whitefish Gallery Night.