Thinking big in a small town

By Juliette Laaka | Apr 23, 2014
Photo by: Juliette Laaka Jonathan Clowes of Cushing stands with "Ondine," a piece he recently created for the University of Connecticut.

Cushing — When asked how long he has been creating sculptures, artist Jon Clowes flattens his palm perpendicular to his hip, indicating he was just a child when he started, whittling shapes with a pocket knife.

Clowes, now an internationally recognized artist, lives and works in Cushing. He spent the latter half of the winter surrounded by pieces of his newest project. Bright blue and green pod-shaped pieces were positioned throughout his studio, carefully marked for future assembly. They were destined to be come “Ondine,” which means "I come from the water" in Gaelic.

The sculpture was commissioned by the University of Connecticut in Storrs and will hang in an atrium near the entrance of the school's Pharmacy and Environmental Ecology departments. Some of Clowes' other work hangs in Tokyo, international cruise ships and in other colleges and private collections across the United States.

He describes his work as having a flavor of fluidity, more about the gesture than the subject matter.

"I consider myself a maker of things," he said, as opposed to the definition of a sculptor. His most recognizable work, he said, may be the swirling, murmuration-like metal bird sculptures.

Clowes said he likes his work to have a dialogue with the viewer and shies away from being directive. The artist wants to leave space for people's imaginations to determine what they see in his work.

As a young man, Clowes left college, where he was studying architecture, and began apprenticing as a cabinetmaker in South Dartmouth, Mass. He said it is a constant debate he has with himself, about whether or not he should have left school, but acknowledges learning on the job rather than in a classroom suits him.

"But maybe I'll go back," he said.

Bob McClean, owner of Custom Coatings in Thomaston, said Clowes actually teaches everybody who works with him. McClean and Clowes have worked together for nearly 20 years. They were introduced by a local marina that partnered their talents when Clowes needed intricate paint work done for a project.

"I am a firm believer in collaborating with good people," Clowes said, complimenting  McClean's ability to make colors and paints perform. The acrylic urethane finish on “Ondine” is special in that it repels dust.

McClean, who works with boats and yachts a majority of the time, said working on art is the more fun aspect of his job. McClean also works with wood, but said it is mostly for himself, or making refittings for boats.

Clowes said he and his wife, Evelyn, who is also an artist, always considered the Midcoast home in their adult life, even if they lived elsewhere. Growing up around boats and with a close relationship to the sea, he said he worked with wood most of his life and felt Cushing was a natural fit. The couple formerly lived in Waldoboro and New Hampshire. Working in an East Boothbay boatyard under Paul Luke first brought Clowes to coastal Maine from Cape Cod, Mass.

Clowes sketches his initial ideas by hand, then uses a computer to draft his designs on a 3-D model. He called himself an intuitive engineer. He said once a concept emerges, he shifts to 3-D modeling. The conceptual aspect is a meditative process, he said

The aluminum comes in 4-by-10 foot sheets, and is cut with shears or a band saw. Once the shapes are cut out, they go through a stretching and doming process by an English wheel, a tool used in medieval times to construct armor. Once the pieces are formed into the desired shapes, they are painted and assembled in sections as designated by the floor plan.

"I generally work big. I just think big," Clowes said.

Clowes began fabrication of “Ondine” last August. He said it is not difficult, letting go of his work.

"I'm eager to get them where they need to go, and eager to see how people respond to them and eager to make space for the next one," he said.

To see more of the artist’s work, visit

Bob McClean, left, and Jon Clowes stand before "Ondine," the sculpture created by Clowes and painted by McClean. The pair have worked together for nearly 20 years. (Photo by: Juliette Laaka)
A portion of Clowes' "Ondine" sculpture sits in his Cushing studio before its transport to the University of Connecticut. (Photo by: Juliette Laaka)
A piece of "Ondine" hangs in Jon Clowes' studio before its assembly in Connecticut. (Photo by: Juliette Laaka)
The assembled "Ondine" will hang in an atrium. (Courtesy of: Jonathan Clowes)
Comments (1)
Posted by: VALERIE ANN ORR | Apr 25, 2014 11:46




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