This summer I had the opportunity and privilege to travel to Tuscany to co-lead a woodfiring workshop at the La Meridiana International School of Ceramics. Elena Wendelyn and I took 15 folks on a journey through the woodfire process, from beginning to end, with all of its ups and downs. Little did we know that over these two weeks our class would transform from a handful of strangers into a beautiful new famiglia of its own.
So what is La Meridiana?
La Meridiana was founded in 1981 by Mr. Pietro Madelena (above); Potter, Engineer, Gardener-extrodinaire. It began with an abandoned building in the cypress-spotted, vineyard-striped hills above the small Tuscan town of Certaldo. Over its 40+ years of operation, LM has grown from vacant building, to humble summer school, to one of the leading independent teaching studios in the world advancing the art and culture of ceramics. The campus is beautiful, well-equipped, and full of inspiring objects, spaces, and people.
Each year, March through October are filled with one- and two-week ceramics courses overlapping one another across LM's two studio spaces. The course catalogue is designed each year to offer a broad range of voices and techniques to represent the wide-ranging potential of our beloved material. Head over to their website if you'd like to read/see some more.
On to the course!
Week 1: Arrive & Make
Sunday June 18th marked the date of arrival of our students and the beginning in earnest of our first Feast & Flame workshop. LM took us out for a lovely dinner at a local restaurant for us to settle in and get to know one another a bit out side of the studio. Good food was an important thread that ran through the whole experience.
When Monday morning arrived, we got settled into our making spaces and got right down to work.
Over the next few days, Elena and I alternated teaching demonstrations and assisting everyone with their making processes. Elena taught several surface decoration techniques including sgraffito, image transfers, and inlay. My demonstrations centered around the wheel, with discussion about what I think about when making, and how I make decisions when shaping, altering, and finishing pots. I also demonstrated some of my brushwork process and technique for decorating with slips.
Each day, LM provided the class with a 10:30am coffee and cookie break, a 12:30pm lunch, and a 4:30pm coffee and cookie break. The kitchen staff are wonderful and create their own works of art for us every single day in their kitchen studio. Shout out to Suzie, Lorenzo, and Julia, you all are the best!
After 4 intense days of making in the studio, our class produced more than enough work to fill the Bagnano Express, LM's larger of two train kilns. Many pots had to be culled in order to make enough room for everything to be fired. Part of the ethos of LM is that it is a process-oriented learning environment, meaning core learning is believed to occur with deep engagement in the making process, and this takes precedence over the finished products. Many, or even most, workshoppers do not leave with any finished works, but with the ideas, skills, and confidence to bring back home and execute them in their respective studios. However, since an important aspect of our workshop was about firing, by definition we would be taking our work through the whole process. So our goal came to be to make sure with everything we did fire, we strove to make it representative of the best of our ideas and abilities, and I think we achieved that with some really well-done and exciting experimentation.
This reminds me of a story. In 2015 I attended a workshop of Ben Carter's at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, CA. I remember Ben saying that one day while in grad school he made the decision within himself to not make bad pots anymore. Really what he meant was that he wasn't going to keep any bad pots anymore. Making bad pots is an important part of the process. We learn from them. But we can always decide to recycle them and do it again, but better. That statement hit me so profoundly and has stuck with me ever since. He realized at that point in his journey he had the skills to make objects that were up to his technical and aesthetic standards, so there was no point in finishing things anymore that weren't. This is graduate-level thinking, so if you're new to clay don't feel discouraged; it could be something to strive toward!
On Friday I fired up our gas bisque kilns while the class took a sweet field trip break to Certaldo Alto the nearby, walled medieval town. Week 1 was not without its challenges. As an instructor, I felt my growth edges being stretched to hold the space and keep everything running smoothly. I could feel my frustration with myself at places where I believed I could have prepared or communicated more effectively. It would be very easy to gloss over this and only report the shiny bits, but I think it is important to share this side of the experience as well. I'm so grateful for the lessons that came with week 1!
Week 2: Load & Fire
With the bisque kilns cooled, we unloaded, shuttled pots down to the wood kiln yard, and begun our glazing, wadding, and loading marathon! We worked in shifts glazing, wadding, and loading so that everyone who wanted to could have quality time working on the skills around the kiln that they wanted to grow.
As dusk fell we finished the load and were all set for the lighting ceremony. Mr. George, the person with the closest birthday, received the honor of lighting the kiln. With a beautiful flower arrangement, and the aroma of a burning bouquet of incense, we offered our presence to that moment and the 36 hours of firing ahead of us.
The class broke into 4 groups of 4 who worked in 6 hour shifts around the clock to keep our train kiln a-chuggin'. We chatted about thermodynamics and combustion. The path of the flame along the draft of the kiln. Types of wood, stoking rhythms and patterns. Soaking temps, and side-stoking technique. How to read cones and the atmosphere inside the kiln. There are so many moving parts to firing a wood kiln, not to mention the intense physical demands particularly in the middle of the Tuscan summer. This crew did a fabulous job learning from the kiln, staying hydrated, problem solving, and working as a team.
After 36 hours of firing, we mudded up the kiln, threw in our final stoke, and took our final cone readings. Meghan showed up with the most beautiful kiln snacks to feed her weary crew. What a gorgeous blessing.
After some proper rest, and while the kiln slowly cooled, the crew ventured out for a field trip to Siena! After the hard work of the firing, a day off like this was needed. We visited a few historical sites; the Piazza del Campo, the Catedral di Siena, and the house of St. Catherine. We perused the public market, and enjoyed pizze, apertivi, and gelati. We returned in the evening pooped again, but full of the richness of the day.
The following day was the big reveal! The moment we'd all been waiting for! The unload. With fresh flower arrangements abound, we opened up the kiln to see the fruits of our labors.
And a success it was. The porcelains boasted bright orange and yellow flashing with glassy accumulations of ash. The stoneware was well-reduced with dark reds and carbon trapped grays. We chatted about the results. Expectations vs. reality. Making sure to withhold judgement until there is distance from expectation. We talked about how to clean up woodfired pots and do the "cold work", and did a bit of studio/kiln clean up as well.
The thrust of the Feast & Flame workshop was to create woodfired works that would be able to be used in a final potluck feast with the whole crew. We found that logistically it was difficult to include our own pots in the feast since we had to pack them up for shipping the previous day! Luckily LM is well-equipped with plenty of beautiful pots to accommodate the occasion, and we were able to use a few of the new pots. Everyone prepared a delicious item and came dressed up to celebrate what we had all achieved together in the past feverish fortnight.
I realized while the kiln was cooling that our class had at some point meshed into a beautiful and supportive family. We all easily laughed and joked with one another when just a short time ago we were complete strangers. We trusted eachother, and enjoyed the variety in our personalities and backgrounds. It encapsulated the beauty of not just the ceramics community, but specifically the community created around a woodfiring where we must work uniquely hard and as a unit to ensure the success of the endeavor. I'm so proud of all of these folks. And I'm so grateful that I got to spend all of this incredible time together. It was truly unforgettable. Huge thank you to Elena Wendelyn for inviting me to take this adventure on with her. Thank you to our wonderful students. Each of you made this experience so special. And to La Meridiana and all of the beautiful staff there for taking care of our needs so well. Grazie mille mille mille!
So...see you for a repeat in 2025? ;)