Cybele Rowe Is the Clay Lady

Now THAT'S a sculpture!
Now THAT'S a sculpture!
Photo by John Gilhooley

When some of us were in elementary school, there were art classes. Once a week or so, your class would be lead by an art teacher in creating something with popsicle sticks, clay, paint or the holy grail of childhood art that is papier-mâché. And then budget cuts happened, and those classes were axed entirely or replaced with a monthly Art Masters program, in which kids ape the classics.

"The thing that separates us is cultural creative artistry," believes Cybele Rowe. "And we're skipping a generation."

The world-renowned sculptor aims to change that.

To read all of our OC People 2015 profiles, click here!

"I started Clay Club because there was zero art in schools," she recalls. To remedy that, Rowe travels to elementary schools throughout the Orange, Tustin and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School Districts, getting little hands around clay and creating pinch pots, animal-shaped cups, lidded vessels and more.

She fires the results in a kiln located in her Silverado Canyon studio. The structure sits just off her well-lit home, a 100-year-old, window-framed dance hall built by the Army Corps of Engineers. The artist shares the space with her husband, their two children, a dog, a cat, two guinea pigs and some fish. And her art, many of which are enormous.

Australian-born Rowe is actually well-known for doing things big. Her ceramic works are larger than life--even big enough to stand in--and can be found in the private collections of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Halle Berry, as well as in such public places as the Australian Consulate in New York.

Though she's been invited around the world to create and teach, Rowe traverses Southern California regularly, inviting inspiration. Along with Clay Club, there are art boot camps and art classes; during a regular week, the youngest of her students is 5, and the oldest "somewhere around 90." Last year, she started an Art Survival course to help Saddleback College students see they can make a living out of what they love to do. "If I can produce inspiration and confidence in these students . . . then they're going to go back into their communities with that," she says.

Maybe even something as imposing as the extremely tall, surprisingly lightweight sculptures on her back patio. Filled with movement, with expression, with the joy of their creator, they are unlike anything you've ever seen--or felt. It takes just a nudge to move one. A man wanted to commission a piece for his boat, Rowe explains. But ceramics at that size are too heavy--"His boat would sink!" she exclaims with a laugh.

So she went about finding a new medium. She studied buoys, surfboards, things that float. "I worked on a technique to make sculptures with my hands using ancient technology--what's found in France, in China--but contemporized," she says. "I said, 'I'm going to make a lot of ugly art and come out the other side with beauty.'" And then she laughs melodically because she did just that.

These giant creations seem to showcase the rhythms, the ups and downs of her feelings.

"[If] the viewer can just unhook their preconceptions of what art means in their life," she says, "they'll get that same state of flow as an artist, and that's hugely powerful."

Just as powerful are the "skins" painted onto these newer forms. When her longtime friend and fine-art painter Kaye Freeman visits, she attacks Rowe's creations. "She's a better painter," Rowe says, laughing. (If you look closely, though, you can see Rowe's scribblings under the paint.) "It's a really cool way to live," says Rowe, "making huge abstract works of art, then having your best friend come over and color all over it." The results are part of what they're calling "The Love Armada."

"If I didn't have balls the size of Texas to build these big things," Rowe says, "then the kids wouldn't have that confidence."

To read all of our OC People 2015 profiles, click here!

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