JOHN ROLOFF became fascinated by ships and the sea while growing up near the Oregon coast. After his family moved to California, his imaginings focused on the American and Sacramento Rivers. He fell into the habit of drawing pictures of ships. During his high school years he had no thought of becoming an artist, however; pursuing a longstanding interest in science, he entered the University of California at Davis intending to study marine geology. After two years of college, he realized that his interest in the sea, the earth, and the vastness of geologic time was not primarily scientific. The routine of field trips and laboratory reports seemed less important than his feelings about the earth and its past.
He began to take courses in art, and found that ceramics allowed him to bring geology together with fantasy. The clay was a kind of earth, and his geology classes had already taught him about such minerals as kaolin, dolomite, and feldspar, which he now used to make colored ceramic glazes.
The ship has become his basic subject. As he understands his ships, they go where he cannot go. The kiln in which he fires clay ships - he calls it ``the world of 2,000 degrees F.'' - is a place where unpredictable events occur.
Even the most skillful ceramist does not have complete control over the outcome of a firing; when the kiln is opened it may reveal happy or unhappy accidents. For Roloff, making a clay ship is a symbolic voyage; like a real voyage, it holds great potential for either triumph or disaster.
Roloff normally experiences firing his sculpture as a private event in his studio. But he has found the heat and flames of the kiln so impressive in themselves that on several occasions he has presented the act of firing as a public performance.
In an outdoor location where fire will not cause damage, Roloff builds an improvised kiln, often in the form of a ship. He fires the kiln at night, before a crowd of spectators, and thinks of himself as presiding over something very primitive. The heat leaves an imprint or an area of fused sand, but that product is secondary. For Roloff and the spectators, the intense experience is a work of art in itself.
This view of the possibilities of ceramics is a long way from making traditional cups or bowls or vases. Roloff's freedom as an artist is at least partly attributable to his having grown up near Sacramento and studied at Davis. Today there are no dominant tendencies in American art. But during the late '60s and early '70s, when Roloff was a student, schools in such metropolitan centers as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles offered a relatively narrow view of what constituted serious art. It wasn't the same view from coast to coast: New York had minimalism and a few other isms; Chicago had its ``monster school,'' inventing grotesque creatures; and Los Angeles had the cool ``L.A. look.''
Davis, on the other hand, was best known for its agriculture school. There were almost no art galleries in the area, and high culture of any kind seemed to be an exotic plant. Several distinguished artists taught at Davis, but neither the school nor the locality had any longstanding art tradition for students to live up to.
For Roloff, this lack of constraint brought a sense of freedom that he has carried with him ever since. Although he continues to make ships, he does not feel bound to any single medium. ``Vanishing Ship (Greenhouse for Lake Lahontan),'' a sculpture created for the University Art Museum, in Berkeley, is a steel-and-glass enclosure 12 feet tall. Standing in a nearly vertical position, it represents a ship about to plunge beneath the waves.
At the bottom of this unusually shaped greenhouse, Roloff has placed earth, rocks, water, feathers, and algae. Water that has previously evaporated condenses on the glass and runs down the sides to the bottom. Like a balanced aquarium, Roloff's sculpture is in principle a self-contained system capable of supporting life indefinitely.
Roloff took the contents of the greenhouse from Pyramid Lake, a shrinking remnant of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan, which once covered more than 8,000 square miles of what is now Nevada. He intends the steel-and-glass shell to suggest a simple boat, such as the first human inhabitants of North America might have used.
``It is a ship from another time,'' he has written, ``when the earth was warmer and more tropical. The greenhouse [is] a sealed and automatically watered environment for primitive and tropical plants. The idea involves this sealed ship of tropical plants, adrift and sinking in a much drier environment, the coastal landscape of central California.''
For John Roloff, the making of art is closely bound up with his sense of unknown and unknowable places. ``Vanishing Ship'' looks back to the prehistoric past. As a working greenhouse, however, it looks to the future as well, and offers us hope for the continuity of life, in spite of what has happened and may yet happen.