As a young man, Tim Kowalczyk made a big choice in his family — to go to art school, rather than continue the blue-collar lifestyle his father and grandfather had followed.
The family trade was working in a cardboard box factory, where they put together thousands of the corrugated, double-sided paper boxes. Kowalczyk worked in a warehouse to pay rent during school and ended up handling those same boxes every day, anyway.
When it came time for his senior project, the ceramicist had an idea.
“It just seemed like a natural progression, to make what I was trying to escape, these cardboard boxes,” Kowalczyk said. Just “in a different medium.”
So he followed the steps his father did in the factory, but with clay. First, the ridged interior, then two flat layers on either side.
“The easiest way to make it is how they make it,” he said.
The clay cardboard turned out pretty well — enough that people did double takes at his realistic recreations.
“I needed a way to support my art habit, so I started making functional mugs,” Kowalczyk said. “Those have kind of taken off and gained some notoriety for me.”
His “cardboard” mugs are screen printed with designs one would expect to see on box flaps, from warning labels to blue painter’s tape.
The cardboard idea grew to include plates — which are dead ringers for flat scraps of cardboard one would expect to see piled up in the garage, complete with torn-off edges and bits of tape stuck to them.
Kowalczyk has done larger sculptures as well, like a banged-up “cardboard” box turned over and spilling out crumpled up pieces of ceramic notebook paper.
These pieces play especially well in galleries, Kowalczyk said, where patrons are used to a hands-off policy with art. He enjoys watching visitors glance over their shoulder before extending a hand to poke at the box.
“If people are trying to test if something is real, then I’m succeeding,” he said.
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Several of Kowalczyk’s pieces will be up in the Radius Gallery as part of its five-artist show “somewhere I have never travelled," which opens January 25.
The Illinois-based artist sent a few mugs, along with plates, vases and "Polaroid" photos, to show at the gallery.
Kowalczyk noticed a few years ago how hard it is to take a good Polaroid picture, and set about mimicking the messed-up ones, that turn out overexposed, underexposed or just blurry.
The “Polaroids” are stamped ceramic squares, with multicolored glaze leaking and swirling to look like the instant photos one usually tosses.
“I like to work with garbage, to recreate garbage,” he explained.
The vases, along with a series of bowls, are inspired by Grecian pottery, but pieced together out of scraps of ceramic cardboard, with “fragile” stickers pasted on them.
He achieves the uniquely realistic cardboard look by using what he calls “paper clay,” a mix of regular potter’s clay, paper pulp and insulation from the hardware store. That mixture has a more fibrous quality, which allows Kowalczyk to “tear” the edges.
The labels and tape are silkscreened onto the clay before firing, a method he used simply because it seemed like the easiest way to transfer an image onto his pieces; more so than hand painting each and every label.
“Everything is ceramic, it’s all been through at least two firings,” Kowalczyk assures viewers.
He’s extended his range from recreating cardboard to other objects like fire extinguishers and spray paint can caps. His Instagram shows off ceramic shipping envelopes, with paper-like folds and tin cans, nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.
A recent Facebook post showed two pictures, one of real plastic spray paint caps sitting on Kowalczyk’s workbench, the other of his just-fired spray paint caps. He had to carefully point out which was which.
“It’s a fun little game I get to play,” he said.