Roque Bluffs porcelain artist draws from coastal nature using a classic technique

Tim Christensen draws a chickadee into the surface of a porcelain piece using a dry point stylus at his Roque Bluffs studio.   (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)
BDN
Tim Christensen draws a chickadee into the surface of a porcelain piece using a dry point stylus at his Roque Bluffs studio. (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)
Posted Sept. 08, 2010, at 6:54 p.m.
Tim Christensen at his Roque Bluffs studio.  He works with porcelain that he coats with a dark layer and draws images into them before firing the pieces. The technique, called sgraffito (CQ), is a very old style of decorating porcelain and it is not known exactly when it was developed. (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)
BDN
Tim Christensen at his Roque Bluffs studio. He works with porcelain that he coats with a dark layer and draws images into them before firing the pieces. The technique, called sgraffito (CQ), is a very old style of decorating porcelain and it is not known exactly when it was developed. (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)
Some of Tim Christensen's work at his Roque Bluffs studio.   (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)
BDN
Some of Tim Christensen's work at his Roque Bluffs studio. (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)

Deep in the coastal woods, the sounds and smells are primal. Birds call, animals growl at night, the air is heavy with the salt perfume of the sea and sunlight sneaks through the wooded canopy.

In a tiny cabin, down a long and winding path, Tim Christensen works. He sits in a rocking chair in the hand-hewn building with the tin roof and mismatched windows, alone with his thoughts — his hands working to bring to life the nature he surrounds himself with.

He sands and paints and carves, taking raw porcelain and transforming it into scenes of the sea: an octopus dancing across the waves; of the land: wolves howling at the moon; and of his heart: a story told on 20 individual plates.

Christensen is a bit eccentric, a whole lot back-to-the-lander, partly a hermit, but mostly an artist with a genius gift when it comes to creating porcelain art objects.

Christensen first moved to the woods of Maine two years ago.

“I spent three months in a tent and it rained all but one day. I guess I am a hermit at heart, but I still must sell my work,” he said.

He lives completely off the utility grid: Solar panels provide him with light and run his computer.

“I am really protective of this area,” he admitted.

“This place has a really strong culture of independence,” he said. “Anywhere else and some people might have thought of my existence here as strange. Not here.”

As he looks out his studio window, Christensen said his work reflects his environment, and the rhythmic, meditative movements of throwing the clay, shaping the vessels, sanding and carving them, give him time to become even closer to the woods, the sea and the night sky.

Christensen has been largely self-employed since childhood (his first job was digging worms for bait as an 8-year-old in Berwick). He attended Colby College and said that by the time he graduated, he was “cured” of his love of poetry and writing.

“I felt that writing was only about 80 percent of how I wanted to communicate,” he said.

Acting against everything his teacher-parents had raised him to believe, he moved to a tent in the Florida Keys. A serendipitous meeting with a potter changed his life.

“I went to New Hampshire and studied with a local potter, working at painting houses during the day,” he said.

Christensen’s early style was simple, heavy and durable, he said. But he was aggressive — he went through 9 tons of clay a year. He came to realize, however, that he was missing out on that communication aspect he was seeking.

“I took two months and worked on just five pieces,” he said. “I started drawing on them and black-and-white snapped in my head.”

The style that resonated with him is called sgraffito, a very old technique of carving the dark slip away from the clay revealing a design.

“I don’t see color very well and so I don’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to blend color well,” he said, explaining why the single-colored artwork appeals to him.

His artwork is detailed — sometimes a vessel, other times an animal sculpture.

He generally spends one day a month throwing on his pottery wheel — which is outside in a shady glen. He then lets the clay air-dry.

“If a piece is going to crack, I’d rather have it do that before I paint,” he said.

Using a small piece of steel, Christensen hand-scrapes each item until it is smooth. “This allows me to fine-tune the form into something graceful,” he said. “I really want the form of the piece to recede into the background. I don’t want to draw attention to the texture.”

Each item is then painted with a dark, chocolate slip, which is liquid clay.

He then begins to carve — which he calls drawing — with a stylus that has a carbide tip.

“When I’m drawing, I portray things I’m really interested in,” he said. “I feel like they are a photograph of my thoughts. Almost like an illustration of my dreams.

“If I can pull my conscious mind out of the process, I find greater insights than I could ever be able to put into words.”

In between creating art, Christensen and his partner, Jenna Rozell, farm and garden, haul lobsters, and fish and hunt. “We provide 60 percent of what we eat,” Christensen said. “Right now we’ve been splitting wood, checking the lobster traps, picking berries and harvesting the garden. It is idyllic. It is pretty nice.”

Christensen said each of Maine’s seasons has its own strengths and weaknesses.

“I find I really need that transition, that closing in of winter. Around the end of February, when the natural world begins to reawaken, I start working again,” he said.

Christensen’s work can be found at the Harbor Square Gallery in Rockland, Center for Maine Craft in Gardiner, Maine Potters Market in Portland, Mainely Pottery in Belfast and the Handworks Gallery in Acton, Mass.

Later this month, he will appear with his work at the Common Ground Fair in Unity and the Laudholm Nature Crafts Festival in Wells. His website is www.timchristensenpottery.net.

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