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An Interview with an Artist: Jacob Rowan

In my first series of interviews, I’m discussing the work and history of some of my good friends and fellow artists.  My hope is that this will be informative for many, and also show that Christians have a variety of ways of making/thinking about engaging in fine art.  The first interviewee is Jacob Rowan, an art teacher in Jackson, MS.  You can visit his website at Jacob Rowan Studios or check out his art history/personal blog at Art as Illumination.  Thanks, Jacob, for discussing this with me.

Where do you live, and how long have you lived there?

I live in Jackson, MS. I started at Belhaven University in 2008 and have been here ever since.

How long have you been an artist?

I made what I consider to be my first real work of art during my junior year at Belhaven. That was the beginning of a slow process for me of becoming confident enough to introduce myself as an artist (as opposed to an art student). That process had nothing to do with me feeling like I had learned enough or “made it.” It was more about being confident that art was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life and not just something I was trying in college.

What first peaked your interest in art?

Chorus by Jacob Rowan

When I was in 11th grade I purchased the Lord of the Rings Sketchbook, a collection of concept drawings by Alan Lee and decided after one look through that I wanted to be able to draw like that. There’s not an obvious connection between the work I do now and those fantasy drawings, but that book is what inspired me to pursue art. In college it was reading all the history and theory of art and realizing that art was a form of visual philosophy that renewed my interest.

How would you describe or summarize the impact that Belhaven had on you as an artist?

I think if I had gone anywhere other than Belhaven I would have given up on art. The entire art department was so patient and encouraging despite my total lack of experience or natural affinity to drawing. They knew when to give tough love and when to encourage me with hope for the future. I could not have asked for a better foundation in the skill of lifelong learning and what it means to be an artist.

Who are your major influences?

The contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura has been a major influence for me. While his paintings are vastly different from my drawings, I have been inspired by the way his faith is made manifest through his professional life and the subject matter of his paintings. Recently I’ve also become fascinated with the artists Julie Mehretu and Peter Halley, reading everything I can find about or by them. There’s also a lot I admire about the modern artists Rothko, Newman, Mondrian, Bontecou, and Gottlieb. The writings of T.S. Eliot have provided a constant source of inspiration and ideas for my work. I’ve always loved comic books and science-fiction and I think my ideas and aesthetics have been shaped by that in a lot of subliminal ways.

What made you decide to go in this direction with your art?

There wasn’t really ever a conscious decision or vision for the direction my art would take. I try to make each piece to the best of my ability and to learn from mistakes while responding to what works. I view making art almost as a form of research. It’s a process of discovery and response and because I’m constantly adapting the final direction is impossible to foresee.

The Plains of Shinar by Jacob Rowan

Could you pick one piece and describe the process that went into making it?

The Plains of Shinar: Construction, Theophany, and Desolation triptych took over a year to arrive at its final form. I was working on a series of drawings exploring the imagery of the Tower of Babel with a composer friend, Andy Sauerwein, and this was one of the culminations of that project. The third piece, Desolation, was made first as part of a different triptych, which I was ultimately unsatisfied with. I felt that Desolation represented a new direction for my work and since it was much stronger than the other two original pieces I decided to make two new drawings to go with it. The design of all 3 pieces is almost identical and was decided on before I started working. I had a rough idea of the colors and patterns I would use, but a lot of the final decisions were made by working. I drew each design on 40”x10” pieces of watercolor board. Then, I then laid down the black (a mixture of hand-ground sumi ink). The silvery lines are made with a mechanical pencil over the ink. The bottom sections were made with different mixtures of ink, acrylic ink, tea, and coffee to create the varied textures. Some of the effects were a result of happy accidents I have since tried in vain to duplicate. The Plains of Shinar represented a significant turning point in my work as I started juxtaposing more painterly textures and techniques with the mechanical lines of my previous drawings.

Could you pick another piece and explain what you think it means, and why?

Nimrod’s Blueprints was also born out of the Tower of Babel collaboration. Nimrod was the presumed architect of Babel and this drawing represents a collection of symbols, plans, and textures I imagine the designer of that building would see. It is full of tower like symbols, references to the heavens, maps, bricks, technology, and fire. Babel, in part, was a result of new technology.

Nimrod’s Blueprint by Jacob Rowan

The ability to make bricks represented a significant advancement in man’s ability to build. The idea of a common language also appears in the small areas of binary code, a modern day type of universal code. In several areas tower forms reach upward or towards circular shapes. Through it all a gold circle weaves over and under the vignettes. For me that represents the divine presence, sovereign in both allowing the plan and in destroying it before it could be completed. Babel was a blow to a unified humanity, but one positive result was the diversity of cultures the followed. It is a fascinating story and in this piece I wanted to collect in one place many of the symbols and textures inspired by the narrative that had been appearing in my previous drawings.

Last, what direction do you see yourself going as an artist (i.e. do you want to pursue a Masters degree or use different materials or subject matter)?

I am currently working on my MFA in Studio Art at the Maryland Institute College of Art. It’s a low-residency program which means I spend my summers in Baltimore and work from Jackson for the rest of the year. I want the MFA both for the potential teaching jobs it would open up and for my own growth as an artist. I’ve completed one summer and already my work is starting to branch out in some different directions. I’m experimenting with a lot of new materials. Dura-Lar, a type of polyester film, is one I’m particularly excited about. I’ve just started working on a new series exploring the idea of cities and utopian goals connected to geometry and city planning.

Thanks, for the interview, Jacob.  I’m excited to see the direction that you’re heading with this MFA program.  

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