by Sandra Marshall
At a young age, Rocky Bivens’ interest in art was first piqued by museum shows such as a Van Gogh exhibition at the Detroit institute of Art, but he did not engage in the art world at that time. Although he has been a clay artist for over 40 years, Rocky started his adult life in mathematics and philosophy at Oakland University in Michigan. He immigrated to Canada and moved to Toronto working at a warehouse. Then about two years later, he joined a commune in Wabaushene Ontario where he and associates designed and built a geodesic dome, one of the first privately built in Ontario.
It was there that a friend introduced Rocky to pottery. Enthused by the possibilities of three-dimensional creation, he attended art school at Cambrian College in Sudbury. In his second year, he began to teach classes at night. Once he graduated, the school asked him to teach full time. He was drawn to the sculpture-making process in a visceral way, interested in abstract work and insisting on being spontaneous in his methods.
He taught in the art department at the College and also in math and computer science. It was at Cambrian that he met his wife Liz, a fellow student. Liz is a fibre and tapestry artist and former president of the Ontario Handweavers and Spinners Association. Although separate in their own creative fields, they help each other to evolve by discussing and critiquing the other’s work. When their two adult children moved to the Ottawa area, the Bivens followed them, allowing them to be closer to their children and grandchildren. They have never lost their enthusiasm for art.
Rocky favours three-dimensional work. Functional and decorative pottery was his initial interest, but he welcomed the challenge and possibilities of clay sculpture, as he became less enamoured in making traditional pottery. He glazed his early sculpture but found that he wanted more control of colour. Now he chooses to glaze some sculptures and for others he employs acrylic paint, playing with colour and texture. Bivens’ sculptures are primarily abstract, anthropomorphic forms. He is strongly moved by form -“from the human abstractions of Henry Moore and essential forms of Constantin Brancusi to the soft, flowing beauty of Auguste Rodin’s La Danaïde and his emotive Burghers of Calais”.
Rocky plans his work to a degree, but finds that over planning can dampen his creativity. He loves the freedom and the emotive responses that sculpture can evoke. Spontaneity is extremely important to him – if he fully captures an idea on paper or even in his mind, he can lose interest in actually making the object. He leans toward Romantic traditions which are more aligned with emotion and feelings rather than the more intellectually based Classical traditions.
He builds his structures using coils of clay, leaving a hollow centre, important in the drying and kiln firing technicalities. Interestingly, it takes as much time for him to finish the work by smoothing or texturing, as does the construction. Once complete and fully dry, the kiln is fired to about 1,000 degrees Celsius. If he decides to glaze it, he then re-fires the piece to around 1,250 degrees. He may decide instead to use an unfired glaze, such as acrylic paint. Once completed, the painted work is coated with an outdoor rated varnish-like finish.
When the intended work is too large to fit in his kiln, he works in concrete. For that process he makes a small rough maquette in clay, then blocks out a piece of rigid foam to the desired size and shape. This light-weight form is then covered in wire mesh and finally a thin layer of concrete. Rocky is proud of a concrete mural he made for his daughter’s house in Ottawa.
Sculptors love problem solving – their creations need balance, strength and to be seen from any direction. Rocky challenges himself to make his forms come alive by accentuating a slight curve or sharp edge. Working instinctively and infusing the work with emotion while keeping the composition stable and poised is important to him. Rocky believes that working in an improvised way allows him to accomplish this.
Rocky encourages everyone interested in making art to visit museums and galleries, as he does. Discover what touches you. As a former teacher, he recommends an art school that will help you develop the basic skills, technique, composition and to discover your personal subject matter. However, an artist’s education does not end there, rather it is only the beginning.