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? ;)
8 months later, here we are... To say there was a lot going on with our country at the time of this firing would be an understatement. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the resulting social justice movement explosion, and the height (at the time) of daily COVID-19 deaths, my conviction for writing a blog post about a soda firing diminished quite dramatically.
Cut to the present moment, where the country has just experienced a violent insurrection at the State Capitol by far right extremists (aka domestic terrorists), resulting in the president's unprecedented 2nd impeachment, all the while the country continually suffering over 3000 COVID-19 deaths per day. One memer got it right when they suggested that "2021 just told 2020 to hold its beer."
On a personal level, 2020 snagged me right at the end when I shattered my left tibia in a snowboarding accident. For the last two weeks I've been riding the couch and frankly consuming way too much of the news. I've decided it's time to finish what I started and share with y'all my notes on my final two soda firings at the Red Lodge Clay Center.
I will do my best to be as detailed as possible, but I presume there will be some gaps after having waited so long to get this stuff down on paper, if you will. Okay let's jump in.
I made up a whole lotta clay body and slip tests for this firing. I was beginning to incorporate Goldart as a fireclay, adding wollastonite to see its color effects, and also molochite to see how effective it is in curbing shrinkage.
Firing #4 Details:
I remember some first-peek disappointment with this firing. My eye gravitated toward some anemic looking pots that seemed to have somehow gotten oxidized. I also noticed how some of the porcelain pots that were wadded on the red wadding registered almost no color in their marks. The most disappointing thing being the clay and slip tests. With a firing that was so far off from what I would have wanted, the information from the tests was almost worthless.
Admittedly, after shutting down this firing I lost a bit of focus. A few of the other residents and I built a camp fire out behind the studio and were making some delicious stuffed waffle cone smores. I was running back and forth between the fire and the kiln for my downfire stokes. I think I may have reoxidized for too long, too early on a couple of times. Another theory is that I didn't maintain enough reduction in the kiln post-body redux. When I came in in the morning to start the kiln and realized that the burner had gone out, I was really bummed because being behind a couple of hundred degrees potentially meant a few more hours worth of firing. With that in the back of my mind, I think I gave the burners too much air on the way up in order to compensate and catch up to the regular schedule.
My notes for the next round included:
I wish I had a ton of awesome clay tests to show you from this firing, but sadly they were a bust. Hopefully there was some helpful info in this post otherwise, though! I hope to get the 5th and final installment out shortly.
The third firing of the soda kiln has certainly been the best so far, yet it didn't come without some hiccups. Temps were fairly even, colors and surfaces were new and exciting, but I didn't quite stick to my exact plan.
After thinking about the results of firing #2, I had planned on a few specific adjustments to the process. One major adjustment was going to be skipping body reduction entirely. The other major change was going to be a re-oxidation period after finishing the reduction-cooling cycle. The funny thing is–neither of these things quite turned into a reality. So why did I want to try these things, and why did I end up not doing them?
In the second firing, I noticed that my reduction was fairly light and yet there was still a lot of great red and purple color in my clay surfaces. While in India last year, I was researching reduction-cooling online and came across an essay by Owen Rye where he mused about what it might look like to fire a kiln in complete oxidation save a full reduction-cooling cycle to finish. It was this article that first got me thinking about the importance of body reduction in reduction-cooled firings, and after seeing the results of firing #2, it got me excited to try it out. (If you happen to know the specific article that I'm referencing, please shoot me a message so that I can provide a link!)
When it came time to pull the trigger and let that kiln climb sans-body redux, I...well...I sort of just chickened out. I started worrying too much about having a kiln full of anemic nightmares and that not slowing it down might result in another terribly uneven kiln. I decided that maybe I'll adjust my plan a little bit. I opted for an intentionally light body reduction rather than skipping it completely. I waited for cone 06 to soften, and entered body via a slight gas increase, and a reduction of air to my burners. No dramatic damper adjustments, no smokiness. Just a gentle lick of flame coming from the bottom peep, and a very subtle reduction smell when close to the kiln. I kept these settings for about 1.5 hours–until my 06 fell in the cooler area. This may seem like a long body reduction, but it was so light that it was barely perceptible.
After my full down-firing cycle the clock read 4:41am. At this point, I was nodding off while listening to podcasts and trying to keep my stokes consistent. My intent was to turn a single burner back on, open the damper, and just hold temp steady around 1600F for about an hour. But, after 23 hours at the kiln, and a double work shift waiting to begin in t-minus 3 hours, I threw in the towel. I like to think that if I wasn't facing that long work day, that I would have followed through with the plan. But honestly I was so deliriously out of my mind, that I don't think it would have been very smart to do anyway.
The idea for the re-oxidation period came at the suggestion of Hideo Mabuchi, a potter and Professor of Applied Physics at Stanford University. Hideo has been scientifically studying the qualities and behaviors of iron in redcution-cooled atmospheres using the very powerful scientific equipment that he has at his fingertips through the university. His research has shown that in order to get the vibrant, cherry reds from a reduction-cooled firing, there must be a re-oxidation period. Usually this re-oxidation happens naturally during the cooling once the addition of fuel for the reduction-cooling has stopped. They found that when the re-oxidation happens is quite important, but something they hadn't tried yet was holding a kiln at the chosen re-oxidation temp to see what would happen. Next time...
Firing #3 Details:
Directly from my notebook...
"This firing was pretty great. Managed to have a pretty even kiln, just about a cone off. The top shelf (cone 10) seems to be the money spot. There was some bloating in the ZMT-3 in the hot zone. RR-4 had some warpage on side-fired mugs at these temps as well. There are a few oxidized-looking pots, yet they still have good color. A few have that redux cherry red. Soda surfaces on the stonewares are beautifully silky matte and have a ton of color. RR-7 showing nice potential; a little more orangey than the ZMT-9. Wasn't able to do the reoxidation hold, but still would like to. Gotta get to temp faster but stay even! The RR-4 is still too waxy/fluxy. Need to reduce silica content. There is crazing in some of the thicker soda areas."
Well I am pretty happy with this firing, in spite of the deviations from the plan. As I noted above, and as you can see from the images, the range of color was quite broad, and appealing to my eye. I'm intrigued by the amount of color and variation within the soda itself. There are some pots that have sort of anemic looking bare clay areas beneath wad marks, yet still have complex colors in the soda. This gives me a little bit of an idea about what might have happened if I skipped the body reduction entirely. In light of this information, I've decided to go ahead and try a full, heavy body reduction in the next firing.
As I sit and write this, it has been one month and two weeks since unloading firing #3. The world has since changed. The global COVID-19 pandemic has altered the human way of life. There have been over 2.4 million confirmed cases worldwide, with over 169,000 deaths. The misinformation pandemic spreads even more quickly than the virus can. I've seen communities pull together to help protect one another. I've seen people compromise others' health and safety because they wanted a haircut. Strange times we live in. But so ripe for learning, and so ripe for change, if we truly pay attention and desire it. Here in Red Lodge, a local business has begun printing signs that read, "Together We Can Do This". They now adorn the windows of just about every business in town.
They're right. We're all in this together, folks. Do what you can to keep yourself and your community safe. Always question what you hear. Seek the truth on your own. Don't accept everything you hear at face value. Even if it is from the lips of someone you admire. Together we can do this.
Thanks for reading, friends.
One month and three days after firing #1, I was back in the frigid kiln yard with a space heater and a bucket of hot water, filling the soda kiln up once again. This time with a more grounded sense of confidence having actually been through the process once before, and also with a heap of excitement for the new work. I also had a new and improved game plan based on the successes and failures from the month before. Let's do this.
This time around I made pots with my 4 favorite clay bodies from the tests that came out of firing #1. I knew that this firing would yield much different results from the 1st, but I still figured it would be a good idea to build off of the first firing's results. I also made another batch of clay tests playing with the recipes of those from the first.
I'm sharing the details of my load so that those of you who also fire soda kilns can compare and contrast with the way that you stack a kiln. I'm always interested in seeing/talking about your strategies as well, so please reach out if you have anything you'd like to ask/share!
Okay, so now the fun part...
Firing #2 Details:
Directly from my notebook...
"My biggest issue with this firing was the huge cone disparity. I believe it was mostly due to cranking the gas too high, too quickly when I came in in the morning. Next time, gradual turn-ups. The pots all looked great. The ash glazes need to be hotter than soft 9, although, the nuka was nice, and white, and dry/matte at that temp. Maybe not great for a plate surface, though. Didn't worry much about body redux. Surfaces were very rich. Immediately sealing the damper seems to be okay. Only very minor blistering. This process seems to be hard on the furniture. Definitely moving in the right direction!"
As stated, this firing was quite uneven. Probably cone 12 in the hot spot, and 8/soft 9 in the cool spot. This obviously isn't an ideal circumstance, but it is great for learning. I found that contrary to my previous belief, clay colors in the hot areas were still very good, including bright reds and oranges. Hotter temps are certainly harder to achieve, but in terms of the work and what I am striving for, I think it is well worth it.
The full downfiring made a huge difference from the first go around. My stoneware body was red and purple instead of brown. Red and orange flashing on the porcelain was deeper and more vibrant. Carbon trapping was good, and only very minimal puckered/sugary surfaces that would be considered "seconds".
One thing I was very curious about after this firing was the importance of the body reduction. My reduction was very minimal with this firing and yet I still had a wide range of beautiful color. I wonder what would happen if I skipped body reduction completely?
Notes for the next firing:
-Don't turn up so fast!
-Skip body reduction
-Tighter stack (to even out temp)
-Re-oxidize with burner for 1 hour after downfire.
Thank you for reading! Please reach out with any questions/comments you may have about this stuff!
After three lovely months here in Red Lodge, Montana, I have officially reached the halfway mark of my 6-month, short-term residency. Red Lodge has proven to be a lovely little town, full of stoked folk who are grateful for, and take advantage of, the mountainous terrain and all of the adventurous opportunities it presents. It is inspiring! I have been frequenting the local ski resort, spending four days a week on the hill working as a Snowboard Instructor, and getting a fair amount of free riding in as well. It has all been a balancing act; figuring out how to *healthily* stay diligent in the studio, work two jobs, eat well, get enough rest, and throw some play in there, too. Such is life, I suppose? I'll be writing on this topic more in depth in the future...
The real reason I am posting today is that I would like to share a more in depth look at the work that I've been doing in the studio since my arrival. So far I have formulated a fleet of clay body, slip, and glaze tests, fired the studio's cross-draft, gas/soda kiln twice, and began making work for firing #3. My original proposal idea was to formulate and test new clay bodies with high potential for exciting flashing and colors in atmospheric firings, based on testing I began during my apprenticeship. Could I achieve a color palette, and depth of surface in various types of firings other than long-form woodfiring? Below are my favorite clay body test results from the apprenticeship, which became the springboard for my experiments here in Red Lodge.
Upon my arrival, I mixed up 100lbs of each of these two recipes to begin making my first pots. I also mixed up several different iterations on these recipes in tiny test batches to see if I could zero in on an even more interesting palette. Soon I had a ware cart full of pots, and I was ready to fire.
Prior to my first firing here, I had participated in a few soda firings over the years, but had never engaged myself in the nuances of the process. It was always just throwing a few spare pieces into someone else's kiln if they asked me to. They would take the lead on the firing, making all of the important decisions, i.e. how long/heavy is the body reduction, when and how do we introduce the soda, how much soda, how much soaking, cooling schedule, etc... For me, it was completely hands-off.
Leading up to my first attempt I read several articles on soda firing, consulted a variety of books, namely Ruthanne Tudball's, Soda Glazing, and reached out to the soda community through the internet. Unsurprisingly, I found that there were many different approaches to this process, and also that there were some key threads that seemed to permeate the field. The more I read, and the more conversations I had, the clearer my goals and strategies became. I input this amalgam of information, took extensive notes, and just had to distill it all down to some semblance of a plan. The working plan became this:
Loading the 16 cubic foot kiln was a pretty smooth process. I decided to try staging all of my shelves before beginning to load so that I'd have a clear picture of what the inside of my kiln would look like; a process inspired by Deborah Smith of the Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry. I photographed each "shelf" individually before and after the firing. This technique takes a bit of extra time, but gives some really beautiful details about what was going on inside the kiln.
Naively, I thought that since I felt comfortable firing large anagamas, a small gas kiln should be a non-issue. By the end of firing #1, I found my foot lodged securely in my mouth. Firing #1 lasted 22 hours from my first turn-up early in the morning, to my final downfire stoke. I was absolutely spent, and demoralized because I decided to end the downfiring early (around 1900F) so that I could get 2 hours of sleep before my shift on the mountain the next morning. Multi-day woodfirings are certainly much longer, but when you are working with a good crew, you almost forget about the physical demands and get lost in the communal experience. Loading and firing this little soda kiln with just me, myself, and I, felt like a marathon.
Firing #1 Details:
In summary, the firing went well with many "successful" pieces coming from the kiln. There was a lot of dramatic and heavy soda build-up; surfaces that are what we would call, "juicy". I got some nice, heavy carbon trapping inside the soda, which did some really lovely spotting where large chunks of silica sand broke through the surface. That said, in terms of the clay colors, I did not get anything like what I was shooting for. Not being able to downfire to my desired temp seemed to leave the pots with a lack of depth and color, not to mention it made for a poor comparison to the original train kiln firing. On the bright side, I learned what happens if you only downfire to 1900F, something that I would not have even tried otherwise. The surfaces of my clay bodies were also a little on the shiny side for my taste. For the next firing I would adjust the clay body recipes to lower their silica:alumina ratio, and also use less soda.
I learned a ton from this initial firing, and it got me super stoked to load back up and fire again. I have enormous gratitude for all of the knowledgeable folks that I reached out to while researching soda-firing techniques. You know who you are; Thank you. And, thanks everyone else for reading! Another (shorter) post will be coming soon about firing #2.
I came to the Golden Bridge Pottery with a few ideas in mind. One of which was to investigate how Indian ceramic materials would respond to the firing techniques that I have learned back at home in America. In addition to making, I’ve spent the last 4 months testing these materials as glazes, slips, and clay bodies, and fired Golden Bridge’s anagama kiln three times, with a wide range of results. Foreign Soil is a documentation of these efforts. I am a foreigner to this place working with materials that are familiar, yet foreign to me. Woodfiring has a long history of place-based aesthetics, and I hope that this work might have something to say about the place where it was created.
I have carried formal decisions with me from home and implemented them here with the new materials. Bulbous cups and proud pitchers, bowls with generous lips that want to be used. I subdued my tendency to decorate the forms as it was my intention to let the inherent colors and textures of the materials speak for themselves. The little decoration that I did allow is influenced by the foliage and architecture of my workspace at the Golden Bridge Pottery.
The two wall-pieces are manifestations of ideas that came to me years ago while immersing myself in altered states of consciousness, and the writings of Alan Watts and Ram Dass. At first glance, the processes of this world may seem chaotic. Us humans have a tendency to try to explain and define everything to the tee in order to make ourselves feel more secure inside, and when we can’t explain something, we can get panicked and uncomfortable. This work is about noticing how ostensible the chaos is, appreciating the perfection and order that lay beneath, and accepting the notion that there are things in this world that we as mere humans just do not have the facilities to define or fully comprehend.
Following a multiple day firing of a large wood kiln, the time it takes for the work to cool down can feel excruciatingly long. The highly insulated chamber sits dormant, full of all of our hard work, heat lazily dissipating at a speed slow enough to keep both the pots safe, and also drive our eager minds awol in anticipation. One really doesn't know the meaning of the word "restraint" until they've stood next to their kiln the day after finishing and kept themselves from sneaking a peak inside.
Thus the "Cool Tour" was born. A 3 day, 2 night historical adventure through southern Tamil Nadu, guided by Mr. Ray Meeker, himself, to experience some of the region's most significant temple sites, traditional village pottery, and other amazing craft-oriented stops, and of course to distract us from mettling with the kiln.
Sleepy-eyed and still lacking rest post-firing, our small group convened at Ray's place early Feb. 13 to begin the journey. We headed south out of Pondi on hwy 32, and arrived two hours later in the town of Chidambaram of the Cuddalore district. We stopped for tiffin before walking down the street to our first marvel, a Hindu temple called Thillai Nataraja. Thillai Nataraja is a Dravidian style temple complex from the 10th c., typical of south India. The complex is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva, and particularly the dancing form of Shiva, whose dance represents the functioning of the universe itself. Seriously, no parking on the dance floor.
After checking our shoes in with a warm-eyed and wrinkled baba at the storage stall, our bare feet carried us toward the entrance. I was infinitesimal as I passed through the towering gopura, a strategy used in spiritual architecture across the globe. We are so small, and I think it is quite important to keep that in mind.
Photography was strictly forbidden within the temple itself, so I have only words to describe it. It was quiet, damp and dimly lit. The feeling of sacredness was heavy and I felt conscious of every little movement that I made. We were all taken with the hundreds of tall, intricately carved, stone pillars that held up the structure. Bruce expressed his relief about seeing some pillars with some visual interest in contrast to the comparatively basic cylindrical ones of the West. Reliefs and sculptures were carved all around, representing different active postures of classical Indian dance.
We were lucky enough to experience a pooja while inside the complex. A pooja is a prayer ritual and this one was for the main deity, the Nataraja Shiva. Two huge bells began to ring deafeningly and everyone gathered around the garbhagriha, or inner sanctum, of the temple where the Nataraja idol is located. The devotees surrounding the sanctum were chanting and holding up their hands. Eventually the steel doors enclosing the chamber opened slowly to reveal the murti and all of the holy men who were inside performing the ritual. Goosebumps rose on my skin as the chants grew louder and the pujari (priests) washed and blessed the idol.
We exited, amazed and eager for the next stop: A humble Kali temple.
Kali is another Hindu deity; the destroyer of evil forces. There were also no photos allowed of the inner sanctum of this small temple. The visage of the Kali idol was visceral. There was a similar, dim reverence to this shrine, and the featureless figure sat wrapped in red dust and robes. Looking into it made my heart beat at a more rapid rate.
As we were driving down the road after leaving the Kali temple, we spotted a brick-making operation and stopped to have a look. Brick-making is something Ray became quite familiar with while he was experienting with his "fire-stabilized structures" in the 80s. He mentioned how two men could pump out about 2000 bricks in a morning before the heat of the day became too much to bear. The brick-makers stack the bricks into these gothic-esque corbeled structures. When they are ready to be fired, they are filled with combustibles, sealed up, and lit. The last photo below shows Bruce getting his Hollywood on with a hot brick pile behind him. It was amazing to see the part of the structure which got a bit too hot as evidenced by the drippy melted bricks. Every bit of it was just beautiful.
Next stop, Gangaikondacholapuram. Yes, say it three times fast.
Gangaikondacholapuram is another Dravidian style Shiva temple which is located in a town called Jayankondam. For some reason, photos were encouraged within the inner sanctum during the pooja at this temple, whereas usually it is closed completely to the general public. You may have seen a short video on my instagram feed of two horn players and a drummer performing during the ritual. As we circled the temple grounds we mused about what life may have been like back when this temple was constructed. How have the rituals changed? Are the intentions different now? Has faith taken a new form in present times? How the hell did they pull off something so incredible anyway? That dome on the top of the temple weighs about 25 tons... How would YOU get it up there?
Onward about 20 miles southwest and we find ourselves at the Airavatesvara Temple. This may have been my favorite temple that we visited. It was much smaller in size compared to the Gangaikondacholapuram and the Brihadeesvara Temple, but it was densely packed with intricate stonework. Here you can see some the incredible columns that I had mentioned earlier.
Ray suggested that we walk around the corner to visit a local weaver. He invited us into his home and we climbed up his tight, steep spiral staircase into the loom and showroom. He was working on a beautiful silk sari using his home-made loom. The complexity behind this machine goes way over my head with its hanging weights and intertwined threads that criss-cross in every direction. It was like looking at that big wad of cords that you hide behind your television table, but times 1000, and somehow it all translated into intricate patterns on the piece. Line by line he shot his little bullet through the tunnel of strings, laying on each layer and then cinching it toight. Both Bruce and Ray bought a little something for their sweethearts before we took our leave.
Next stop: Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur. We arrived at this complex during the evening and closed the place down. The next morning we got up early to soak it all in again at dawn when it would be less crowded. It is hard to put into words the sheer imposing mass of this complex. The main deity of this temple is also Shiva, and the murti within the garbhagriha is Shiva in his Lingam form. At nearly 30ft. the Lingam in this temple is one of India's largest, and people travel from all over the country to come and see.
We hopped back on the 36 south and set our sights for a small rural village called Oorpeti to visit my first Ayanaar shrine. Ayanaar is a deity pre-dating the Vedic Hindu traditions who is widely worshiped throughout Southern India. He is a strong, horse-back riding, mustachioed protector of individuals, communities, cattle, and crops, is, "both loved and feared by the villagers, who ask him to resolve their main day-to-day problems which revolve around disease, weather, conception and childcare", and he has an incredible connection to clay.
I give you the terracotta horses of Ayanaar.
The larger Ayanaar temple complexes have long pathways lined with these guardians in various states of disrepair, leading up the the main shrine. These horses, and sometimes elephants or bulls, are commissioned by people in the community for the local potter to make as an offering to Ayanaar, usually for a very specific purpose. They are the world's largest monolithic terracotta sculptures, sometimes reaching up to 17ft. in height. Their presence is imposing, all of them watching your every move as you make your way toward their leader, making sure you bring no funny business.
Although, some of their expressions were quite humorous. It seemed to me like the head shape and expression of the horses were where the makers had a lot of fun and took the most artistic liberty.
One interesting aspect of the Ayanaar horse is that when making and ritually dedicating them, the village potters temporarily take on the roll of priest and act as a direct conduit to Ayanaar. The rituals and ceremonies surrounding the horses are extensive and I won't go into much more detail here, but you can read a wonderful account about them in Jane Perryman's book, Traditional Pottery of India.
Village potters with generations of handed down skill and knowledge, create these beasts using coiled clay and a paddle and anvil, and we had the privilege of getting to meet one such craftsman.
Not too far from the shrine, after pulling over to buy some fresh, lightly toasted cashew nuts grown in the surrounding fields, we veer off of the main road into a small pottery village called, Duvaradimanai. We passed several horseshoe style kilns and shard piles on our way in, confirming that we were now amongst the potters. Here we met Palinasamy, a terracotta horse-maker and a friend of Ray's. When we arrived, he had two horses in process, just awaiting their beautifully sculptural heads.
The shapes and proportions of his horses were absolutely gorgeous. The entire horse was a uniform thickness of a touch less than 1/2", and he is so skillful in his process that the interior needs no additional structural support. He is a true master, and standing beside his horses I was once again filled with humility.
He showed us his horse-shoe style kiln, in which they fire both horses, and the domestic wares that they produce. A layer of pots remain in the bottom to act a a sort of grate for the updraft kiln. The entire space is stacked carefully with both pots, and fuel. Once they've peaked up over the edges of the walls, a layer of straw, pot sherds, and finally mud are covered over the top, and the kiln is lit. Because the fuel is contained inside, they can basically walk away after lighting the kiln and it will fire itself off. Palinasamy told us how this kiln has been in his family for 200+ years.
Palinasamy is one of the few people left who make these horses. Most places have switched to commissioning cement horses, which is considered a superior material because of its durability. I'm unsure if Palinasamy has trained anyone to carry on in his footsteps, but I sure hope so.
On the final day of the trip, we visited a bronze museum in Thanjavur. We got to see several centuries worth of bronze idols ranging from 9th c. to the present. It was wonderful to see the slight variations throughout time. I particularly enjoyed how each sculpture included a decorative pedestal of some sort which somehow elevated the importance of the figure atop it. I was inspired by the idea and decided once back in the studio to make "pedestals" for some of my large jars.
After the museum, Ray brought us to a workshop where bronze idols were being made right then and there. They weren't doing any casting when we visited, but we did get to see a man sculpting a new Kali figure in wax, and another man doing some finish work on a figure that had already been poured. I loved the thought of one of the pieces the men were working on that day being a part of a bronze exhibit 10,000 years down the line.
After the bronze workshop, it was time to head back home. We slouched in our seats, so much visual information packed into 3 short days; pots, figures, patterns, thalis, textures, temples. My head was ready to burst, but it didn't have enough energy to follow through. India is filled with incredible arts, crafts, and architecture, and this tour was a wonderful sampling of some of the examples that are specific to this region. I'm grateful for our driver, Kumar for keeping our near-collision count high, but actual collision count at 0. For Bruce, Hrito, Raji, and Aarti for adding to the fun. And of course for Ray, for providing such an unforgettable and incredibly enriching opportunity.
Now wasn't there something else we were supposed to do? ...OH! There's a kiln to unload!
Follow me to the Chinnagama gallery
The Thunder Train is a wood-fired, pottery kiln based off of an elevated bourry-box design, called a "Train Kiln". The footprint is 14' long and 4' wide, with a 20' chimney. The chamber is 46" tall and holds roughly 50 cu. ft. of ware. Construction was a long 9 months, riddled with sweat, blood, laughter, frustration, triumph, failure, and perseverance. The knowledge and experience gained from this project will forever be invaluable to me as I continue on this path and inevitably build more kilns in the future. I want to share some photos, thoughts, and reflections from along the way.
For me, this project began at the beginning of my apprenticeship when I arrived in Gresham, Wisconsin in early June 2017. Before I arrived, Simon had deconstructed the train kiln that he had built there so that he could use those brick for the new kiln in Pawnee. Much of the first several weeks of work consisted of cutting, cleaning, re-organizing, re-stacking, and wrapping over 20 pallets-worth of those brick. It was tedious, but necessary work in order to make the rebuild go as smoothly as possible.
After making the move to Pawnee, we promptly figured out where we wanted this kiln to sit inside the barn, and began to dig the foundation. 3 days of shovel and pick-axing later, we had a big, beautiful pit. 3' deep around the perimeter, and 1' deep in the center. The soil was dense and gummy, full of clay and silt, and proved to be very challenging to remove from the ground. Wheel barrow by wheel barrow, we piled it up behind the kiln shed with material testing in mind down the line. I had just discovered the musician, Sixto Rodriguez, and was listening to his album, Cold Fact, on repeat as I burrowed deeper into the earth.
...Woke up this morning with an ache in my head, I splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed, I opened the window to listen to the news, but all I heard was the establishment's blues...
The day after we finished removing all of that earth from the pit, the concrete guys came and filled it right back up again. I had mixed emotions about that.
With the pad poured, it was finally time to start laying brick! Simon and I specked out the footprint and mapped out some lines just in time for him to leave for his month-long residency at La Maridiana Ceramics School in Italy. While he was away, the brick showed up on the flatbed truck and our new friend Greg brought his front-loader over to help me get them unloaded. I laid out the first couple of layers of brick leaving gaps in the bottom layer so that we would later be able to tie the steel frame together from both above the kiln, and below it.
Upon Simon's return, we organized a work party to make some strides in the build. This week we were joined by Ian Connors, Lars Voltz, Amy Song, and Katy Schroeder. At this point there were single-digit temperatures outside. We had the jet propane heater blasting while our teeth chattered and fingers froze. Despite the unfriendly conditions, the company made for a good time. I must say, building with a crew makes the process loads more fun. In this week, we made it from the floor, up to dropping the loading door arch.
With the bitter cold showing no sign of relenting, we put the kiln on pause to focus on building the studio. After all we did need to have a place to make pots for this kiln, right?
It wasn't until about 4 months later that we blew the kiln conch and assembled a crew for another week of building! This time we were again graced with the presence of Amy and Katy, with the addition of a new friend, Pip. This was a productive and satisfying week. We laid up the throat arch, the main chamber arch, and fabricated and installed the majority of the steel frame and buttressing. The throat arch (smaller arch spanning the width of the chamber) is a very crucial part of this kiln design. Its purpose is to support the rear end of the elevated firebox. Whereas all 3 of the other sides of the firebox are supported straight up and down by the walls, this arch is necessary for that 4th side which spans the chamber. It gave us a lot of trouble, and we actually ended up removing a few of the brick and casting the space after the first firing.
Can't forget a few action shots of the crew...
Next we began work on the chimney and bourry box. Our chimney is about 20' tall and korbels in 9" from bottom to top. We had to make the chimney extra tall so that it could clear the eve of the barn's roof. We built in plenty of passive air above the dampers just in case the tall chimney pulled a little too hard, but we haven't needed to use them yet. Simon has taught me that it's always a good idea to build in solutions like that, just in case.
To start on the bourry box, we cast a flat area above the throat arch, level with the surrounding walls. Three, 2" thick stainless steel grate bars are laid on top. These catch the wood that we stoke into the kiln, and hold it up above the coal pit below while it burns. Just as the grate bars are placed, and the bourry box begins to go up, we paused again for Simon's two week workshop at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina.
Upon our return from Penland, we get right back to work on the bourry box.
We managed to get both the main arch and the door arch laid up before Simon left a few days earlier than me for his Intimate Anagama workshop up in Wisconsin. It was my goal in the few days before I left, to get the space above the door arch cast, and to fill in the wall under the main arch. I built the form and poured the castable and was just a hair short of what I needed. As a result I had a slightly off-kilter surface to build from. My solution was to grind the first layer of brick down until they laid level again. It is quite a funny sight.
At this point, the profile of the kiln looks pretty much like it will when finished. We are hungry to fire, and I can just about hear the wood crackling inside the firebox.
The next job was to insulate and finish the chamber and firebox arches. I want to start by giving a huge thank you to Stephen who came out and lent a hand with this process and made it go so much smoother than if I were just tackling it alone. Thank you, sir. First, we used a layer of 3" IFB (insulating firebrick), cut at angles to traverse the arch with minimal gappage. Next, a layer of insulating ceramic fiber gets cut and draped over both of the arches, effectively sealing any gaps that we were unable to prevent. Then we reached for the chicken wire. We tightly bound the chicken wire around the insulating fiber in order to give the finish layer a bit of purchase to prevent it from falling right off. To finish off, we mixed up a few bags of regular old concrete and spread a thin coat over both of the arches. We also stained the skim coat red with some iron oxide. I think we were subconsciously inspired by the red arches of our basketball hoop back there.
Next stop, finish fabricating the frame and stoke door.
We decided that the best option for our door would be one that rolls on a track like the very doors of the barn. This type of door is easy to use, and relatively simple to make. I also like that it is fully integrated into the frame itself. No hanging from the ceiling, or precarious lean-to's. With Simon's help, we decided on a height for the track, which was just a piece of 1" angle iron, and tacked it up into place. We stuck the casters up on the rail and suddenly the kiln looked about as excited as we did.
The door itself is just a stack of 3" IFB, mortared together *with the seams crossing*. As you can see below, my first version was not crossing seams. I removed two bricks, cut them in half, rearranged a bit, and viola! Stronger door. Luckily I hadn't mortared them together yet, so that process was quick and painless. The brick are cinched in between two flat pieces of steel with threaded bar on either side for tightening. Once I got the arms attached it was just a matter of minor adjustments to get the door to hang flush with the wall.
With the door dialed in, there was only one thing left to do: Cut open the roof of the barn and shoot that chimney up through it. Wu Meng-Che had arrived from Taiwan just in time to help us with the final steps! Brick by brick Meng climbed that ladder to hand off bricks for me to place atop the stack. After the final course went up, we stepped back to drink it in.
For 9 long months I had been dreaming of the day that I'd see a chimney peeking out of the barn's roof while driving up North Pawnee Road to the pottery. Coming back the next day, I saw it for the first time and got all warm and fuzzy inside.
We completed the kiln just two days before our first scheduled loading day. The night before loading began, Simon was jolted awake by a large crack of thunder and bright flashes of lightening. He scrambled up to look out and make sure that the new lightening rod that we had just stuck out of the barn roof hadn't been hit. The kiln was safe. The next day he told us about it and decided that the kiln's name should be the Lightening Train. Simon asked Meng how to say lightening and thunder in Mandarin. Turns out thunder is, "da lay". Unable to resist the play on words, the Da Lay Gama (Thunder Kiln) was born.
One of the main reasons that I wanted to come and work with Simon was for the opportunity to build a wood-fired kiln under his guidance. Through this process I learned the foundations of brick laying, and principles around the planning and execution building a wood kiln. I learned my way around a brick saw, and how to MIG and flux-core wire weld. I learned about framing-in chimneys, and building roof crickets. I cultivated the standards to complete individual jobs well, and with intention. I even learned how to design a kiln using 3-D modeling software. I familiarized myself with the many different skill sets, both physical and philosophical, that are necessary for a project like this, and I am grateful.
We've now fired the Da Lay Gama a total of 3 times. Each firing has taught me so much and it has been so cool to take that knowledge and quickly apply it to the proceeding firings. From a more macro perspective, getting to take clay pots that I made inside a studio that I built, and fire them inside a kiln that I constructed, with wood that I split and stacked, is an incredible feeling. The best word that I've come up with to describe it is wholesome. Everything feels like it belongs. It feeds my hunger and reinforces my plan to establish my own pottery some day, maybe not too far in the future.
Once again I want to thank, Simon, Ian, Lars, Amy, Katy, Pip, Dan, Meng-Che, Greg, and Stephen for the efforts you all made in the process. Awesome work, gang.
Thank you for reading. Here are some pics from firings 1-3!
Recently, the #metoo movement has taken the ceramics community by force. For those of you who may have missed it, Emalee Hudson (@softearth.ceramics) spoke out on Instagram to report sexual harassment by the instagram-famous potter, Eric Landon (@tortus), with whom she was assisting last year at his studio in Copenhagen. Her confession sparked an enormous response from the online community; an out pour of loving support, as well as vehement rejection from both sides. Her courage in speaking out empowered several more women to come forward with their own atrocious accounts of harassment and abuse by Landon, and other male figures, effectively exposing a shameful dark side of our beautiful community.
I'm writing this because I feel like it is my responsibility as a white male to speak up and use my platform as a means of affecting change. Neglecting to do so is a privilege reserved by those whom the issue does not reach. In a society where the majority of the power is in the hands of the white male, and where that white male will very often abuse that power just because he can, because it is normalized for him to do so, those of us with this power who disagree must come forward and voice it. In all honesty I am sad and ashamed that I haven't done so sooner, even after seeing so many friends and family share their #metoo. This movement is by women, for women, and I am here to humbly lend my privilege in support of them in the pursuit of achieving equality and safety for all.
I know that articles and perspectives like this may be triggering to many white males out there. Please understand that nobody is after you; this movement is not a personal attack. Maybe you believe that identity politics are just another divisive social construct. Maybe you are a good guy. Whether you are correct or not, the time for this conversation is now, and the identity of the white male of privilege is the one that needs to have the brightest of spotlights shown directly at it. Your job as a white male is to listen, and to do your best to understand. Taking it personally and becoming defensive is a sure way to make women around you feel unsafe. "When you maintain presumed innocence of your mediocre male heroes, you prop up abusers and let the women in your life know you too are an unsafe person." I pulled this poignant quote from a post by @kristywestendorpceramics. We need to build a platform of safety, security, and support for victims and we can do this by listening, cultivating our compassion and empathy, and speaking out when and where we can.
Despite the strong, supportive, and loving community that we all identify clay with, it really is no surprise that white male privilege is rampant within it. The truth is that it is just rampant. Period. But thanks to Emalee, and the other women who have come forward, a strong dialogue has been initiated and the momentum is building. Many people are choosing to #unfollowtortus as more and more accounts of his abusive nature and poor business practices surface. Thanks to @Ayumihorie and @PotsinAction, the hashtag #PIAbadasswomen is highlighting incredible female artists who are doing amazing things, making amazing work, and doing it in all in a(nother) field dominated by men.
Thank you for reading.
When asked what his preferred wood to fire with is, without fail you can expect a response from Simon in the form of a smirk followed by two words, "Free wood." It's a slightly unsatisfying answer for the curious inquirer, but it relates a reality about woodfiring that is important to consider: wood ain't cheap. Of course the wood-firing enthusiast would love to hand pick their preferred species of tree to fire their kilns with, but with wood costing upwards of $200 a cord, and kilns burning through 4-5 cords per firing, this is a luxury that the majority of us don't get to take advantage of.
Being able to source wood for little to no money is an essential skill for the woodfire potter. Back in Gresham, Simon sourced about 99% of his wood from a nearby lumber mill that allowed him to scavenge through their discard pile. He formed a relationship with the operators and would periodically drive up with his pickup and trailer, pop his head in to say hello, and politely ask if he could take some scrap off their hands. It was a nice relationship and tie to the community. Simon gets wood to fire with, the mill gets a shrinking scrap pile, and a part in a local artist's process, and gifts of pottery to see what became of their wood. No trees need be felled unnecessarily; everybody wins.
Down here in Pawnee, IL, we have yet to find our local go-to wood source, but have been slowly building up our supply. We've learned some important tips such as that the county trims and fells trees, and leaves them by the roadside for anyone to come and haul away. We've met some folks who run a pallet-making factory and have been scoring trailer loads of scrap pine from them. Craigslist is also always a great resource. Our eyes and ears are always open, ready to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. And just the other week, an opportunity did just that.
While driving down New City Road last week, Simon noticed a big tree in someone's front yard had fallen over in a recent wind storm. A few days later we were driving by again and decided to stop in to investigate. We met John, the friendly brother of the property's owner, and his little, 12 year old pup, Sammy. We asked if.he had any plans for the wood, and he told us that we could take as much as we liked.
The next day we got to work. We brought our chainsaws, clippers, and axe, and started disassembling the fallen soldier. John would come out with Sammy to watch our progress.
After about 3 hours we had cut up all of the manageable branches into stoke-sized logs, hauled them back to Simon's, and unloaded and stacked them. "You two sure made quick work of that tree," he complimented. I'll tell you what, it feels pretty good to have your work ethic validated by a lifetime farmer.
Now there was only the trunk left, and the 3'+ diameter rounds were just a tad too big for the two of us to lift up into his truck. We were going to have to bring in the big guns...
We returned with this beautiful, shiny, new toy to aid us in the home stretch. Log splitters are loud, smelly, and can be extremely dangerous, but when it comes to processing numerous cords of wood for a firing, it is a tool to be truly grateful for. Despite the previously noted adjectives, I've actually come to quite enjoy using splitters. Splitting the wood is a chance to become familiar with the material. While splitting you get in touch with the structure of your wood; a sort of intuitive relationship develops where you can pick up a log, analyze the best place to aim the wedge, and execute. A rhythm develops and the whole activity becomes a meditation. You notice the smells and the moisture content. This particular tree was very pungent and full of liquid. Some of the logs were even squirting or producing rivers of juices as the wedge sliced into their surfaces. You hear the pitch of the powerful cracks and splits as the wood tears apart. (Side note: it is quite disturbing to read and think about this having the tree in mind as a living being. My apologies tree... Your corpse was beautiful and will live on in the pots that you fire for us. Thank you!) Anyways... The loud motor can be drowned out by some good music in my headphones, or maybe an interesting podcast or audiobook, and the smell of the little motor's exhaust is actually not one that I mind too much. I realize that all of these great things are true (probably more so) of splitting wood the old fashioned way. Swinging an axe and feeling the wood split right down the path that you were aiming at has its deep primal satisfaction, and that can't really be beaten. However, when working in these volumes with many other chores to do as well, the splitter sure does come in handy.
The wood from this Tulip Poplar was incredibly beautiful, almost psychedelic. In fact, it was by far the deepest, sexiest purple that I'd ever seen in a wood grain. I'm often floored by the wide range of color in ash surfaces that can be seen emerging from a woodfiring. How can all of that color come from the wood? Well, check that out. It has been in there all along!
Wood sourcing is an integral part of the woodfire process. Yes, it is a laborious part of the process, (honestly though, which part isn't), but it's really more than just the work. All in all, this tree has provided us with a great many things: A couple of new friends in our neighbors, John and Sammy. A human connection that is worth more than words can quantify. It has increased our wood supply by a total of about 2 cords to be used to fire our pots, and at home in the stove to keep us warm. We've earned the soul satisfaction of some hard, physical labor which does have a quantifiable result. And personally, I've received the inspiration from the beauty of this newly discovered tree. These dry flowers peppered the small branches of the tree and I thought they were quite wonderful. I collected a bouquet of them to keep close while I work in the studio. I have a feeling that they will make their way into my clay in one way or another.
An unplanned post, short and sweet, to get back in the swing of things...
In the studio today I was humbled. Sitting at the wheel for hours trying to throw a particular form; A pitcher that I deemed acceptable in its shape and weight. For the life of me, I could not do it. Too heavy, bad spout, too heavy, wrong belly height, too heavy, too heavy... On one attempt I even failed in centering the clay.
I've been making pots for the better part of 7 years now. I suppose I fancy myself a pretty strong thrower. Today I learned that sometimes when you think you know something, when you take for granted, it might be barring you from seeing the truth. I swallowed my pride and asked for help.
With a little guidance I was finally able to break my pattern of failure, see my technique with fresh eyes, zero in on my issue, and focus on fixing it. I was re energized and filled with gratitude for a new found excitement.
Today wasn't an isolated event. Situations arise quite often in the studio where the opportunity to cultivate humility is presented. The thing is, they're only of use if you let them be. Lately I haven't been letting them, not just in the studio, but in general. Today's event was a much needed reminder to nurture the habit of humility.
Today was one of those "pinch me" kinds of days. The kind where an overwhelming sense of gratitude floods your body as you reflect on your current life situation. Sometimes when life begins to throw a few too many questions at you at once, sitting back and noticing moments like these has a way of putting it all into perspective; a reminder that where you are is where you are supposed to be.
About noon, Jack strolled into the dining room where I was finishing a cup of black tea with toast and jam, and wondered aloud if I'd like to join him on a trip into town for lunch at the local coffee shop.
"I certainly would! And your timing is impeccable."
We gathered our coats, checked in with the firing crew, and off we went. Jack ordered a soup and salad and I sprung for the chipotle sweet potato wrap with a mug of their dark, roasted-on-site Sumatran coffee. The coffee was sweet and the wrap was tasty, but our conversation was the most filling. We spoke of some of our favorite books and the ideas within them. We shared stories of trust and betrayal, faux pas, and fears. Here and there someone would recognize Jack and with a big smile he'd rise to greet them. "How would you like to go have a tour of Big Valley, Harry?" I wasn't sure what Big Valley was, but I was down. After another brief check-in at the kiln and a stop to deliver the NY Times to an elderly couple of Jack's friends, we headed east to Amish country.
"I always love coming into Big Valley," Jack offered, his eyes fixed on the winding road ahead. "It's a bit like traveling to another country only 30 miles away."
Big Valley is precisely what its name suggests. Nestled between Jacks Mountain to the East, and Stone Mountain to the West, the farm-peppered land was hilly and somewhat barren with most of the crops and fields harvested and waiting to be turned over. Only the teepee-shaped, hand-bundled corn shocks remained.
The area is home to mostly Amish and Mennonite families. As we drove up Big Valley Pike, Jack taught me about the Amish as he knows them. He pointed out how one can immediately spot an Amish residence because the power lines pass right over the houses without any connection; as you may know, the Amish have an aversion to electricity. Horse-drawn buggies trotted with rhythm down the roads. We got caught behind them several times in our speedy modern vehicle. Some buggies sported black tops, and others yellow, each signifying a slightly different version of Amish faith.
The strict lifestyle that the Amish choose is indeed a clear and conscious choice. At the age of about 16, Jack explained, Amish children undergo a sort of rite of passage period called Rumpspringa where the typical lifestyle restrictions are relaxed in order for them to experience a taste of the non-Amish world. During this time those participating go out and try new things, form opinions, grow, and often court a partner. Eventually the time comes where they must decide to return and be permanently Baptized into the Amish faith, or to break from the safety, familiarity, and acceptance of their tightly knit community to brave the outside world. Jack mentioned that a child leaving the community can often be a humiliating process for their family who remain rooted.
Our first stop was at a Mennonite-owned and operated general store where they buy various items in bulk, repackage them, and distribute them with their own labeling. The Mennonites are more liberal in their views and take advantage of the convenience of electricity. Jack bought some snacks and I bought a pack of butterscotch chips to make cookies, and an Amish creation called a Whoopee Pie. Essentially it is a sugary, cakey sandwich with a sort of whipped cream in the middle. Incredibly rich, and horribly unhealthy. Curse this sweet tooth of mine...
We continued on, bound to find the man who makes the best apple butter in the whole valley. Along the way Jack explained how the Amish do not like to be photographed. There is a biblical passage that deals with the prohibition of 'graven images' and evidently that doesn't jive with smiling for the camera. However, there is a certain sect of Amish that are slightly more relaxed on the issue and may allow you to take a picture for a small price. With this in mind, I photographed these little guys instead.
We rolled up to the apple farm which was located slightly higher in the valley as it rose up to the ridge of Jacks Mountain. There were buggies parked in the garage attached to a stable for the horses, and two sheds. As we walked closer I saw that the larger of the two sheds was filled with apple crates stacked 8 feet high, containing a variety of different apples, and the sweet aroma of the fruit encased the buildings. The smaller of the sheds, with rows of apple trees rising up behind it, housed the small shop where the fruit was neatly sorted into labeled bins, baskets, and shelves ready for sale. The rainy day left the interior quite dimly lit, with great shadows defining the shelves of apple products and honeys.
As we were checking out, I noticed the hands of the owner and was amazed at the site. I'd never seen hands quite like his. They were larger than you'd expect from a man of his stature, and knobby at the joints almost as if they had been turned from wood; very likely arthritic from a lifetime of onerous manual labor. His nails were shrunken, yellowed, and thicker than a stick of gum. A task no nail clipper would be happy to handle. The skin was tough and leathery and stretched tightly over the knobs. I wanted so badly to shake one and feel the steel-crushing grip which I imagined they secretly possessed. I resisted, not knowing the protocol for hand shakes in his world.
Before leaving, Jack made sure that we had a drink from their natural spring faucet. For this Mr. Swarey gave us an empty apple butter jar to fill and sip from. The natural springs in the two mountains flanking Big Valley were a big deciding factor in the Amish settlement of the area. Every home in the valley has gravity-fed access to the crystal clear spring water of the mountains; no electric pumps or city water necessary.
Off we went toward our last stop of the day. We pulled into another driveway next to a horse stable, small garden, and chicken coop. Jack strode straight into the barn to say hello to a horse called Ginger, and treat her to an unexpected apple. She snorted happily as she crunched the Hayman Winesap in her powerful jaws. Simultaneously knocking on and opening the front door, we walked into the house to find old Katie sitting at her table getting ready to eat a simple meal of bread, fruit and pickled cabbage. It was warm and dark, with only a small bit of pale light spilling in from a west window. It was as if we had walked straight into a Vermeer painting. The wood-burning oven was the centerpiece of the house and all around were drawings, and small trinkets decorating the walls. She was surprised to see us, but graciously humored our unexpected presence. She and Jack caught up and she showed us the beautiful quilted runner that she had been working on. Jack gave her a peck of apples purchased from Mr. Swarey for her to slice and dry out for the holidays, wished her well and we departed.
On the drive home I heard more stories about the area and the relationships that Jack has forged throughout the years. What a treasure to be exposed to this whole new way of experiencing life. The Amish live so simply and ask so little of this Earth. They work hard, and value the relationships in their lives. They don't impose their ways on anyone else, and they don't judge anyone else for living the way that they choose. Did I form these opinions and generalize about an entire culture based on a couple hours and a few interactions...maybe. But I think you catch my drift;)
By the way, you must try some schmierkees un lattwarrick. It's da bomb.
Hey folks! I am taking a break from setting up the Miles of Art show here at the pottery to get this post about the anagama firing started. I may not finish today, but I know that if I start it, then I will finish it sooner or later, and that's what counts, right? The last several weeks have been non-stop with wood prep, sanding, glazing, loading, tough muddering, firing, trips to Illinois, unloading, processing, pricing, and packing....whew!! It is a good kind of hectic craziness, but still makes me really appreciate the times that I get to sit down and take some deep, conscious breaths, and come back to center.
So I suppose a quick overall view of how the firing went would be a good place to start. In a word, it was excellent. I have never fired a wood kiln for so long with such minimal stress, issues, and loss of work. Even Simon was exceedingly pleased with it all. The ashed up surfaces had beautiful variation from grays, to blues, to greens, and even some pinks. And the clay surfaces had a huge range of color, with the iron bodies looking particularly beautiful and rich in my opinion with burgundy, deep blue, red, orange, and yellows. Below are detail photos of 6 of my pots.
As I mentioned previously, we loaded and fired only the first two stacks of the kiln. It took 5 of us a full day per stack to complete. The total number of pots inside the kiln came out to 457, including 3 of Simon's huge hand-build stools and his hand-built coffee table/bench. We all guessed the total amount while the kiln was cooling and wagered a pot to give to the person with the closest guess. It's a Mill Creek tradition called the Pottery Lottery. All of us over-guessed, but Simon was closest.
Above you'll see images of the two stacks of pots from this firing. I'm convinced that we could not have stacked this kiln any better with the selection of work that we had available. Packing a wood kiln is a process that takes much forethought and care. We can't pack it too tightly, but having too large of gaps between pots can result in an uneven flame and heat distribution. The goal is to create a stack with a relatively even amount of space spread among all of the pots. We had an excess of relatively small work, which can make it easy to pack too tightly. We made sure to have at least a karate chop between each piece once we were getting to the cup-size shelves towards the top. To me, these stacks are works of art in themselves. Sculptural and intentional. The feeling of beholding a stack after a day of intense focus and decision-making with its loading is pretty amazing. Knowing that the placement of each and every piece has a direct affect on how it, and the pots around it will look.
After two exhausting days of loading the kiln, we decided to take a "day of rest" and go run a half Tough Mudder down in Plymouth, WI. Go team Burners!!! "What's your favorite letter!?" "Let'er RIP!!!"
After the mudder, it was back to the firing. We lit the kiln at dawn the next day. We had the privilege of a digital record of the temperature of the kiln throughout the firing. Simon's friend Loyd Lentz created a live-stream temp readout that we attached to the front thermocouple inside the kiln. As we fired, it plotted the data on a line graph to show our progess. As you can see by the graph of the firing (below), we had a wonderfully slow and steady rise to the early 2000s, a nice long soak at that temp, a perfect little peak at the end, and then a mellow slow cool back down once we finished actively firing. No major stalling or loss of temp. Smooth sailing.
We nailed the peak temps. Only one 11 dropped in front, 10s were nearly down in the middle, and they were down in the back. I found it strange that the back was hotter than the middle. One of those mysteries that I hope to understand through more experience! After hitting our peak, we sealed up most of the kiln and began to downfire. Downfiring is a way of oscillating the atmosphere inside the kiln between oxidation and reduction as it cools. By doing this, we are drawing out more dramatic colors from the clay bodies and ash-covered surfaces. The downfiring lasted nearly 12 hours, finally calling it quits at about 1612 degrees. At this point we sealed up completely and began our wait for the unload.
Unloading day came, and we were all floored. The variety of surface and color was overwhelming. Usually when one takes down a door of a wood kiln, they are faced with a sea of brown. Not this time. Seeing variation in color before pots even come out is a really good sign. I was very happy with many of the experiments with my work that I had tried. The flower-shaped wads were a success where they were readable. I found a great stain to use inside of my carvings, and I am honing in on the quality of slip textures that I want to lay underneath them. There is a lot to be worked out, as always, and I often focus too hard on the negative things, or things that I want to change, but I'm reminding myself to see the positives in them too. Balance.
I'd like to conclude this post with a huge thank you to our awesome firng team. Sam Thompson, Nancy Korth, Simon Levin, Ian Connors, and Logan Marcus. I'm proud of us. We spent all of these hours together, grew in our relationships to one another, shared meals, feelings, and experience. We worked with one another, attended to needs, and created something beautiful. Firing is like this. It creates bonds, and solidifies them quickly. It gets us out of our own heads and provides the opportunity to be more than just ourselves. And when we embrace this opportunity, we end up with firings such as this. I love it.
In preparation for the upcoming Fall firing, Simon assigned me the job of building a bagwall inside the anagama.
A bagwall, as defined by Marc Lancet in he and Masakazu Kusakabe's book, Japanese Woodfired Ceramics, is "a wall or barrier used to direct flame within the kiln." In many kiln designs, a bagwall is built between the fire chamber and the ware chamber to regulate the flow of ash and heat into the kiln. Normally, a bagwall wouldn't be necessary inside this particular kiln. The reason we built one for this firing is that we will only be utilizing the first two levels of stacking space, leaving the back half of the kiln wide open. Without the bagwall, the heat would be sucked through the pots at too quick of a rate and therefore would make it much more difficult to evenly heat up the space that they occupy.
The style of bagwall that I constructed could be called "accordion." The bricks alternate at right angles creating holes that are not aligned with the flame path. The idea is that by making the heat/flame turn a corner before exiting through the wall, it will slow it down. The flame will roll back on itself in the space and linger amongst the pots, hopefully resulting in a more even heat distribution.
Each brick is dipped in kiln wash and dry laid. It is very important to make the first layer level and not wobbly to give the wall maximum stability. the measurement of the holes was about 2" x 3". The total amount of air getting through this wall should be roughly equal to the air getting out of the flue in the back. By this logic, these holes are probably a bit oversized. We may go back and partially fill in some of the holes.
I used a combination of 3" straights and standard straights, both hard and soft. Getting the sides to fit against the arch took some care and patience. I also made sure that I was building straight up and not allowing the wall to start leaning backward or forward.
And that's it! Can't wait to see how she works!!
During a weekend trip into the Twin Cities, after attending a lovely Pots in the Grass sale at the studio of Warren Mackenzie, Simon and I stopped at the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota campus to have a look at the current exhibition, A Culture of Pots: The 25th Anniversary of the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour. The St. Croix tour is one of the largest in the United States, featuring some 50 ceramic artists across 7 host locations along the beautiful St. Croix River valley. Simon has work in the show, and many of my favorite makers did as well, so as you may have guessed, we were pretty giddy to go.
The Weisman, recognizably designed by Frank Gehry, curated a spectacular show highlighting both the host artists, and the diverse group of guest artists from across the globe who have had the honor of participating in the tour. The show was spread across two rooms. The first spotlighted the hosts, with individual pedestals reserved for each artist. The other, sported a similar spread of pedestals with guest artists thoughtfully mingling with one another. The large, circular images flanking each space became windows to the rural potter's landscape, transporting the museum goer to the tour itself.
The pedestal surfaces were colored with bright primary reds, blues, and yellows. The color brightened up the space, adding some vibrancy to the room in contrast to the mostly muted tones of the pots. Simon suggested that the colors helped create a rhythm to the space to subtly guide you around the room. It was a bold decision, and on the whole I'd say a successful one. The one critique that I must express was how much the color reflected itself up onto the work above it. It was a distraction from the true surfaces of many of the pots.
It is worth noting how appreciative the Midwest seems to be when it comes to pottery. Through this exhibition, the Weisman is codifying the St. Croix tour and all of its participating artists as fine art makers. They sincerely recognize the pursuit of the contemporary studio potter–to create beautiful and useful objects that enrich the experience of their users.
Ceramics is a way of life in Minnesota, and the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour exemplifies the passion of both the artists and the collectors who consider it an annual pilgrimage.
Walking through the exhibition, steeped in the work; the hearts and souls of all of these extremely talented makers, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude. As a young potter who is just beginning his journey down the firebrick road, I am grateful to even be peripherally associated with this community. This show represents years of work by each of the makers that compose it. Lifetimes of trial and error, good ideas and flops, epiphanies and dead ends, perseverance, passion, and play. I'm humbled by the dedication and beauty found spread across these colorful pedestals.
As a maker, all I want is to make something that engages me, which will later bring you some joy as you view, handle, or use it. Things that will sneak their way into your daily routine, whose presence is ever present, but never intrusive. Vessels that will hold things that you hold dear, and be gathered around by you and those close to you. I think I can confidently say that just about every artist in the show feels somewhat the same. Thank you, St. Croix potters for your hard work and dedication, and thank you Weisman Museum for recognizing them.
So with a full heart and inspired soul, I leave you with these words by Pamela Espeland which sums up the sentiment with perfection:
"...Pots like these have become part of our everyday lives. From them, we've learned to see a bit differently, set a table more deliberately, eat or drink more mindfully. We've felt the artist's fingers on the rim of a plate or the curve of a handle and noticed how a glaze can look like a painting. Maybe we hang out at the dinner table longer. It's amazing what a lump of clay can do, in the right hands."
Sometime in the last year, Simon built a small woodfired pizza oven out in his backyard. After a few uses it became apparent that the design was flawed because they were having trouble building and retaining heat. Simon went back to the drawing board, redesigned the oven, and assigned me the task of demoing the old and rebuilding the new. I was stoked to take on this project because of the similarity to building a wood kiln for pottery. I was sure to gleen lots of knowledge and experience in that direction.
The main differences in this design are a taller entry door and interior arch, and the addition of four stoke ports, two in front, two in back. The stoke ports will provide better air circulation and a space for wood to burn out of the way of the cooking surface, and the larger interior space should allow for a more efficient heat distribution.
I took some process shots that I wanted to share along with a little insight into the process. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!
I began by marking out the dimensions of the first layer and drawing the lines for each row of brick.
Complete first layer. I used scrap softbrick for everything except the two rows of full hardbrick which will become the bottom of the stoking aisles.
Complete second and third layers. Here you can see the stoking aisles. I used larger 6 x 9 hardbricks for the cooking surface. These layers are entirely hardbrick. Notice how seams are always crossed for stability. Always being very careful to make sure the bricks are level and not wobbling. Add a little clay under corners to fix wobbles. I also used a grinder to smooth out the cooking surface and take down any lips.
Simon's friend Justyn is building a woodfired pizza oven as well so he and his daughter came over for a few hours one day to help out and learn a bit. His daughter, Alicyn helps us trace the catenary arch form created by hanging a chain from the width of the door, down to a mark for the height.
Complete form suspended in place, ready to support the first arch.
First arch complete with high-temp mortar.
We created the main arch form by tracing the doorway arch. The first row of the large arch will rest halfway over the door arch.
Complete main arch. No mortar was used here, just coils of clay. Then I stuffed clay into all of the cracks, allowed to dry, then removed the form. You can also barely see where I left a roughly 5 x 6 opening toward the front of the arch for the chimney.
A peek inside.
Next, a layer of refractory fiber wrapped tightly in chicken wire to help the mortar adhere. This was my least favorite part of the process. Chicken wire sucks to work with. After this picture was taken I went back in and put more wire across the bottom in between and beneath the ports. Mortar will not stick to brick alone.
I also notched out the chimney hole from two 4.5 x 9 soft bricks. They look like this  from above. And put scraps underneath to level them out.
Three bags of quickcrete mortar, a bit of fussing, and finish-sponging later.
Mix a bit of dishsoap in with the mortar to increase its spreadability.
Presto! It's pizza party time!
Under the Maple Tree
I swing suspended under the maple tree,
My right side warmed by the setting sun.
Shadows are growing longer,
Blue bird songs are sung.
When I close my eyes I can see a bit better,
Throw my hands back to cradle my thoughts.
Relaxed into a quiet drowz
A mosquito's life was lost.
Independence Day, quite ironic.
Claiming no need for the world which supports us,
The legs of our gluttonous ranks.
Unacknowledged they go as the ignorance flows.
Sometimes it's hard to relate.
It is hard to relate.
It is easy to reject.
But, we have so much.
Right now I hear fireworks exploding outside my window.
Ever been to a place where the explosions aren't so fun to watch?
I guess there's a balance to be found.
Gratitude for the ups,
Consciousness of the downs.
Hate never healed a thing.
So when that resentment bubbles,
I'll notice it.
I'll acknowledge it.
And that's it.
It doesn't win, or fill my mouth with negative speech.
The control of my heart's within reach.
I'll be gentle with the words I choose,
For plenty a person outside of these states,
would give it all up or line up in length,
to take a walk in my American shoes.
It has been about 1 month since I arrived here in Gresham, WI to begin my apprenticeship. As you can imagine, moving from a situation where I was living alone in a cabin in the Pacific Northwest, out to a house in rural Wisconsin with a family of 4, might come with some significant changes in lifestyle.
Wisconsin has surprised me with its brand of natural beauty. The landscape is lush with both coniferous and deciduous forests, full of wonderful lakes and rivers, and covered with endless seas of farmland crops. Without any mountains to impede the horizon, the sky seems to go on forever. If you stand in a large, open area it feels like the sky actually dips underneath you. Clouds race by faster than I've ever seen before. Sunsets are long and firey. Rainstorms can come and go quicker than you can get all of your pots brought back inside the studio. The mornings bring a chorus of bird melodies, and at dusk the fireflies paint the atmosphere with their bio-luminescent butt brushes. It is a big change from the dramatic landscape of the Pacific Northwest, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss it, but I can honestly say that I am pleasantly surprised by the beauty that I am finding out here in the Dairyland.
For my apprenticeship, I owe Simon 30 hours of work per week in exchange for materials, room and board, kiln space, a $100/week stipend, and his mentorship. So far, most of my work hours have been spent processing wood for future firings. Other jobs have included staining walls, weed-wacking, sanding pots, cutting and palleting firebrick, etsy listing, and web design. I am trying to find balance between chores and studio time just like I would be if I were a full-time potter. I'm managing some time for exploration as well.
Probably the most challenging part* about moving out here, which really hasn't been bad, has been adapting to living with another family. I am the first of Simon's apprentices to live under the same roof as he and his. The reason being that they (and I) will be moving to Illinois sometime in the near future, so finding a place to live for just a couple of months would have been extremely difficult. If you're accustomed to living on your own, and not having to worry about the schedules, bedtimes, etc. of anyone else, dovetailing into a family dynamic can take some getting used to. Ubering home in the middle of the night still drunk from a concert, and stumbling around the kitchen while trying to make a snack is not something one would feel particularly comfortable doing when living with a family of 4. Luckily there's not much of a night life out here, so it isn't a problem. Despite the tricky circumstances and elevated stress levels from the move, Simon and his family have made an effort to make me feel welcome and comfortable and I am grateful for it.
It is a strange feeling to be land-locked. My whole life I've lived within an hour or so of the ocean, and if I were any further than that, I was in the mountains. I find comfort in the mountains. Not having them around does sting a bit. As far as snowboarding season goes...I guess we'll just have to see about that. But it is all good. Life is about embracing these changes, leaning into them, stepping forward with grace, and finding the beauty in what is right in front of us, because it really is quite abundant.
I came here to learn what it takes to be a successful woodfire potter; to work closely alongside Simon in order to broaden my perspectives and grow as an artist, just as the 16 apprentices who came before me did. I am already being challenged both within the studio and otherwise. I'm observing closely the way Simon runs things, asking many questions, and taking many notes. After one month, I am feeling energized and excited for the rest to come.
*Edit: The most challenging part is loving their two cats, but also being allergic to them.
And so it begins...
I've been telling myself for a while now that a blog would be a fun thing to try out. I quite enjoy pouring out personal musings onto paper, but those notes rather sadly don't meet anyone's minds other than my own. I'm not so sure who my "target audience" would be, or whether or not anyone will actually read it. I won't be advertising or actively trying to get people to follow. I just want to quietly write, and see what happens.
I've decided to give myself some parameters to work within in order to keep things focused and interesting. I'd like to write about things that have meaning for me. Momentary inspirations, struggles, experiences, and perspectives are a few categories that come to mind. I expect a solid amount of writing related to my pottery practice and my new apprenticeship as well. So, if you're reading this, thank you. I hope that the following words might linger in your head as you operate throughout your day, and hold your interest enough to bring you back again for another dose.
The name for this blog came quite spontaneously as I was sitting here preparing to write the first post. There is a classic Zen quotation that you may be familiar with. The quotation goes, "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." Feel it? In our lives we create goals for ourselves. These goals sit at varying distances and hold varying weights of perceived importance. There are the small and mundane goals such as finally getting that pile of dishes done. And then there are big goals which you put days, months, years upon years of effort and energy into, such as graduating from college, scoring your dream job, or the dream of one day buying a house and starting a family. These goals can seem quite far off in the distant haze, but they give you purpose and in time become a part of your identity..."identity" being a fascinating topic that I could see myself writing about later on...anyway... They become beacons of light that guide us along like an ever-present undercurrent. But what happens when after all of that time and energy, your goal is finally reached?
The other day I was standing alone in the studio here at Mill Creek Pottery and I was filled with joy as I reflected on the journey that had led me to this point. My interest in apprenticeship began several years ago, and standing there in that moment it hit me that I was finally there. My hard work had paid off, and my dream had become my reality. The Zen in the situation is found when you realize that nothing has actually changed. My life is still happening moment to moment just as it was several years ago when that goal was conceived. I have chopped ample amounts of wood, and carried many buckets of water to get me to where I now stand, and now that I'm here I can smile gratefully, and I will continue to chop and continue to carry.
What this Zen saying is attempting to expound is that it isn't about the destination, it is about the journey. Life doesn't stop when you find your 'enlightenment.' Life was as it was during the search, and it will remain as it is afterward. It is a reminder not to become so attached to an idea that exists in the future, but to give emphasis to , and appreciate what exists right now.
So I borrowed the quote, but swapped around the words. It still works, kind of...and that's the thing! The original message remains, yet it is a reminder that life doesn't always have to make complete sense. Chop your water, carry your wood, don't be too serious, and enjoy.