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Fighting words make art: Artist transforms Ali’s lines into ceramics

Tim Kowalczyk's "Handcuffed" illustrates the Muhammd Ali line, "I done handcuffed lightnin'" using clay. Special to The Forum1 / 2
Tim Kowalczyk makes ceramic mugs look like old cardboard, playing off the disposable nature of cardboard and the permanence of fired clay. Special to The Forum2 / 2

FARGO—Muhammad Ali was not modest, but when he called himself "The Greatest," he lived up to his nickname.

As artful as he was in interviews as he was in the ring, one of his best known verbal smackdowns was leading up to "The Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman, in which Ali details, "How great I am."

Greatness begets greatness and the boxer's words inspired a show at the Plains Art Museum.

"I'm not a sports guy, but Ali is amazing," says Tim Kowalczyk.

The artist from Minonk, Ill., is standing in a gallery at the Plains' Center for Creativity, where his ceramic sculptural exhibit, "How Great I Am," is on display. The artist will talk about his show and his identifiable style at a talk tonight at the Plains, where he has been artist in residence all week.

Kowalczyk had heard the "How great I am" speech a number of times before it pulled him into doing research on the late athlete and his eloquent rhetoric. In 2014 he conceived an idea to render the boxer's poetry into clay sculptures.

For more than a decade the artist had been creating tromp l'œil—French for "fool the eye"—work out of clay, making the earthy material look like other products.

Ali was so colorful in his language, Kowalczyk thought the project would be easy, estimating it would take eight months. Eighteen months later he had created more than 50 pieces, ultimately whittling it down to fewer than 10 for the show.

"It's silly to assume I could take down Ali in eight months. That guy is challenging," the artist says.

Some of his ideas came easy. For the interpretation of "Last night I cut the light off in my bedroom, hit the switch, was in the bed before the room was dark!," he created a white pillow and laid a black light switch on top of it, all made of clay.

He had to get more creative with The Louisville Lip's line, "I done handcuffed lightnin', throwed thunder in jail!" Kowalczyk crafted handcuffs around an illuminated sign in the shape of a lightning bolt, complete with light bulbs. "Thunder in jail" is rendered with faux wood cage holding an old speaker.

Again, all of the objects made with clay.

He didn't only come up with different shapes and items, he explored and utilized different techniques to fully realize his goal.

"I was geeking out on clay," he says with a smile.

His creative ways of exploring duplicitous themes is nothing new to those who follow him. Kowalczyk is best known for the ceramic mugs he's made to resemble tattered cardboard remnants. So much so that he's known in ceramics circles as "the Cardboard Guy".

He doesn't mind the nickname, even if the venture is a means to support what really gets him excited — his sculptures. But he realized early on it was easier to make a living making functional vessels rather than non-functional forms.

"No one wants to buy a $1,000 sculpture, but they'll buy an $80 mug," he says. "The mugs pay for my sculpture habit. They help me realize what objects I like."

What he likes is garbage. He's intrigued by what people use up, leave behind and throw away.

He was invited to show at a Denver, Colo., gallery that specialized in graffiti art and submitted works that looked like the tools left behind by taggers, paint cans, rollers and brushes.

His work caught the eye of another artist in the gallery, Paul Ide, who works as a ceramic studio technician and community outreach coordinator at the Plains Art Museum.

The two have been online friends and mutual admirers for a year, talking technique and even trading their handmade mugs.

"He's a really funny dude with a lot of energy. This place could use that," Ide says, adding that Kowalczyk's residency at the Plains has sparked lots of curiosity.

"People are interested to see what he does. The only way to hear that is right from the artist's mouth," Ide says.

The two created a minor stir in the ceramics community by smashing each other's pieces and posting video of it online. They explain the works were not up to their standards and couldn't have been sold, but Kowalczyk's collectors were still outraged and told a gallerist to make him stop.

For Kowalczyk, the documented destruction was a way to help get a footing in social media, but says he sometimes has to explain that he doesn't have a beef with Ide.

It's not the only time people have read into his actions.

"People have tried to put some sophisticated spin on on my cardboard work, that I'm trying to say this or that. I'm not. Sometimes I make funny work," he says.

Tim Kowalczyk's "Threw Thunder" ilustrates Muhammad Ali's line about how he, "throwed thunder in jail!” using clay.

If You Go

What: Tim Kowalczyk artist talk

When: 6 - 7, tonight

Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave. N., Fargo

Info: This event is free and open to the public. plainsart.org/ (701) 551-6100.

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