Creating Containers: the process of wood firing kilns

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Wood firing crew at Joy Bridy Pottery, October 2017.

Twice a year, a small group of curious and hard working friends gather to fire my wood fired kiln for three days, round the clock.  It’s a holiday, retreat, vision quest, sacrament, ritual, work party…and quintessential process in the life of a wood firing ceramist.  We build these kilns that we can’t fire alone, and then we create a different kind of vessel.  Not a soup bowl or tea pitcher, but the more abstract and slippery container of community: the kiln firing crew.

Ursula Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” has been on my mind lately.  In it, she describes the difference between the story of the hero (with a knife, sword, long spikey thing of choice) who tells the exciting story of winning, and the story of the container (gathering, holding, sharing) that tells the story of living.

  “If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again–if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.”  -Le Guin

Wood firing is a creative act in so many ways, and no aspect is more abstract than the creating of this vessel, this firing weekend, that holds all of the participants within, allowing for their moods and preferences, strengths and weaknesses, to be.  We all show up as we are, get to know each other a bit deeper, cherish each other and the process, take care of ourselves and each other, live in rhythm of food and sleep, finish with a flourish, close the gate behind us, and go back to our daily being.  Definitely a ‘carrier bag’ experience.

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As the kiln cools, rain falls, Nina Simone sings her things in my ear, my thoughts meander around the significance of creating this community vessel of a firing experience.  It’s an art form, an honor, and a continually evolving experience that I could never do by myself.  Thank you to the crew of October 2017 for filling the vessel, and all of the crews that I have had the honor and privilege to create the vessel with in the past.  May there be many more.

Impermanence: Sculptures of Native Clay and Weathered Trees

Could You House Your Being Here?

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Rivers Gallery, June 30-August 11

Artist Talk: June 30, 5:30pm

Opening Reception: June 30, 6-8pm

“Native clay, weathered trees, my fingers and thumbs, and a continually evolving sense of animal-ness bring these works into being, the slow concentration of time spent wandering the rivers and ridges of these Appalachian foothills, condensed from hours, days, weeks, months and years of living in this place.   Connecting with our natural environment on a daily basis, the subtle yet pervasive details of this ecosystem, the seasonal cycle of plants and animal life that continue, often as oblivious of us as we are of them, infiltrate my imagination, bringing to life what I imagine to be my own animal habits, patterns and marks, my indigenous touch.

Cutting down dying trees, picking out limbs that already have a whispering voice, a hollow interior space and edges that have healed over time, watching wood weather, waiting for the stage that is still solid, but leaning into the inevitable fact that we will all return to the earth.

Digging clay from among rocks and roots, separating out for the smooth and ochre rich fine particles, soaking it down in an old bathtub with rainwater, laying it out to stiffen up, and aging it in bags for 18 months until it is elastic and lively.

I invite you to consider these materials and their deeply natural footprint.  They are solid and real: stable as long as they are kept out of the elements, and impermanent, simply returning to the ground as clay and carbon when they are allowed to reintegrate with their natural, dynamic environment.  As are we all.”

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“Could you house your being in this space, or is this the body, where we keep our sensitive spirit and heart, our pulsing organs and wildly running mind? Explore through the senses of another creature, find a small spot on the internal rim to curl up, to find comfort.  Accept the challenge to be closer to nature, to embrace unprocessed, un-purchased materials, and to find aesthetic value in something natural.”

 

Community Ware / Community Connecting

Sometimes the making comes from the urge to get a new and personal idea down, to advance a form in a new direction, to bring a surface to life in a specific and inspired way.  Other times, the making comes from the intention to be an engaged community member, and to do it in the way that I can contribute best…by making good pots.

This intention does not always come easy, but by not compromising on my skills and interests, I find that there can be a wonderful balance of true community utility (mugs and vases and race medallions that get the job done), and artistic expression and satisfaction, (taking the time to fit the form to the situation, and making sure that I love what I am agreeing to make).

This year’s Community Wares have taken me in a few new directions….one is the 25th Anniversary commemorative mug for Shepherdstown Farmers Market.  The form was an intentional choice, as it is not only an historic form, but also one of the earliest forms found in pottery, across cultures.  There is always something that has the ‘arms up’ form, as I call it: a slightly bulbous vessel towards the base that ends at the top in the shape that we make if we raise our arms over our heads in pure joy.  There was no other form to even consider.  (smile)

The images and writings on the surface of Community Ware bring a different kind of focus and pleasure…one of slowly writing and drawing, noticing and encouraging the slight variations of the hand.  From Middleway Days written in my own script, to the Mellow Moods or Sustainable Solutions logos, the process of interpreting the design, writing in liquid wax with a bamboo brush, rubbing away the surrounding clay with water and sponge (wax erosion), and glazing with a glaze that I formulated to break on the newly exposed edges continually amazes me when the kiln lid is lifted and the design is there, both recognizable and my hand’s interpretation.

Medallions are becoming more important in the studio (thank you, race organizers, for working with local makers!), and the process that I am working to hone, little by little, is also ancient.  It involves making a ‘positive’ of the medallion, just a little larger, carved by hand.  The second step is to fire the positive, make a set of press molds (clay pressed around the piece, then released), and fire them to a low temperature.  Thirdly, I make the actual medallions hand-pressing small balls of clay into the molds, over and over again, pop them out, let them dry a bit, hand finish and poke a hole, add my studio stamp…..you get the idea.  Many steps, each and every one of them done in the same way since the beginning of humans making things with clay.

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So, I owe my community a heartfelt Thank You, for the opportunities to make things that matter to you, for the gift of being part of our community in the way that I know best.  For being greeted with a smile, and introduced as ‘the potter’ or ‘the one who made that mug that you love.’  For the children who tell me that they wear their medallion to school.  You make it worth the effort, each and every little ball of clay.

Building a Bourry Box Kiln: From the Beginning

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It’s in the Atmosphere at Hood
Curated by Leslie King
May 5-June 12
Reception: June 11, 3:30-5 p.m.
Whitaker Gallery

(This essay was written about building my bourry box wood kiln as part of the above exhibit…)

Perhaps you remember the day, the month, when you first saw a wood fired kiln in action…the wood stacks waiting patiently while a small group of amazingly cheerful and ragtag enthusiasts fed the fire.  It seemed like magic to all of us, something as improbable as a unicorn, that the piles of sawmill scrap wood could add up to a sustained 2400 degree fire, and that the clay would come out of the kiln with luscious ash drips and flame marks from the process.

More amazing yet is that day when you decide to take the first step towards designing and building your own kiln.  Pick up the old standard, The Kiln Book  (Fred Olsen) to peruse the names of each pattern of brick stacking, differentiating ‘soldier’ from ‘header’.  My own process began while traveling to fire kilns across the country, as I measured outside dimensions and mentally calculated the square feet of space in each area: firebox versus collection chamber, throat arch versus ware chamber height, and realizing how much it all mattered.

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Fast-forward to rebuilding a second-hand brick saw, pallets of amazingly heavy bricks lining the freshly poured cement kiln pad, and a brick-by-brick hand-drawn plan in hand, and it hits:  I’m Building My Own Kiln!  After a few days of help from friends laying the cinder block and soft brick foundation, I settled into the rhythm of stacking one layer of bricks a day.  In taking on a project of this size, we often learn just as much about ourselves as we do about the project, and I was pleasantly surprised by the solitude, the slow rhythm of taking each step as it came, from laying with a 6’ level to stopping to make a few special cuts.  But eventually the kiln was as tall as I was, and it was time for the gathering of good-hearted friends to lay the top arches…and they came. Lynsi and Kate lat-rowed bricks up the roof for the chimney. Beth and Jane and Jerry mudded and set the arch.  After a methodical month of bricks and handmade clay blends, we were ready to light the first match.

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A bourry box firebox lends itself to calm, quiet firings, with no smoke and very little flames visible.  The firebox glows red at night, but compared to the flashy and dramatic visuals of its anagama cousin, the bourry box is the reserved poet often found under a tree at the party in a one-on-one conversation.  That said, a firing crew is always a good thing.  We tend to fire with a crew of four as the core, alternating the overnight shift and working in pairs.  The three day firing goes quickly, and we burn through a big pile of twigs (day 1), a good heap of scrap (day 2) and about 3 stacks of silver maple skinny limbs (day 3), all scrap wood from my property.

If you’re considering taking on a project, pushing your work in the direction of your dreams, take the first tiny step.  Don’t skimp on the learning and observing.  Build on what you know, follow hunches, and do it yourself.  You’ll get there, one tiny step at a time.  Your friends and those who have done it before will be there, lending a hand, listening to your dilemmas, and watching with a smile as the shifts happen, taking you and your work closer to your unique vision.

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Controlled Burn: spring freshening

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As luck had it, after a brisk walk at Antietam with friends, there was the most exquisite comntrolled burn being conducted along a field and valley. Sure sign of spring.  The breeze was just right, rolling the fire quickly along dead grass, skipping right around trees, bringing rejuvenation to the prairie grass and wildflowers of summer.

Something about spring, from late winter through to early leaves, sets my mind to pruning, clearing, burning….getting rid of old stagnant growth to make room for the new year’s growth.  Many a conversation has followed the elaborate analogies of the cherry tree, pruned a bit harsh, but not too harsh, brings on the most perfect blooms, followed by a full swell of summer fruit.  Prune too hard, and the suckers grow too hard, reducing the yield, as the tree has to work harder to gather what it needs to sustain. Prune too light, and the fruit yield breaks the limbs, bending them down to the ground, snapping where there is just too much to hold.

Burns as rejuvenation are a strong pull, as a wood firing potter and wood stove enthusiast.  The controlled burn, with many hands each with their eyes and focus on their specific task, is a group pruning, a team with the focus of rejuvenation together.  Cousin to the wood firing by their relationship to controlling fire, I draw analogies of burning the old scrap wood from the property (albeit in a contained brick vessel), setting intention as a group, and coming out the other end with something lovely to sustain us into the future.  The successful containment of fire will always be a thrill.  But the controlled burn….the containment is accomplished with people and water on the edges, a keen eye and understanding of fire and fuel, and serious coordination.

A friendly chap among a large crew, none of whom minded an enthusiastic observer with a camera, described the various jobs among the workers, marked by the colors of their helmets.  (White helmets make the calls and know the whole picture.) He also said that the grass will grow quick, the trees will not be damaged, and the cycle continues.

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So here’s to rejuvenation by fire. May your version of spring pruning and controlled burning be refreshing, and may the prairie grasses sprout soon and strong…

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Returning to the roots….

Time passes, pots spin off the wheel, water ebbs and flows…the Potomac River is spring-low again, and daily walks remind me how the subtle shifts, things we hardly notice, add up slowly to make the big changes. We age, islands erode, friendships deepen, and interests change. Yet we revisit certain places, friendships, habits….again and again, over time.  So, the erosion of time brings me back to the computer, to decide how it is we continually make the tiny choices of how we present to the rest of the world.

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The down-time…an important ingredient in being in touch with who we are, what we believe, and the directions we are looking.  The pots I make are decidedly different from the ones I made three years ago, at the time of my last blog post.  The way I approach clay has shifted.  My take on the wood, the kiln, the studio process has slowed way down, with more eyes and hands, and less automatic actions.  The Potomac River, Appalachian Trail, C&O Canal, and this little piece of home-land have been part of that shift. The pooch and the partner, other parts.

 

So stick with me.  There is more to come.  The exploration continues….

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Water Wednesday

The great lakes have been part of my life as long as I can remember, particularly visiting the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.  Last week, I took my parents, Daniell, and the dog to my favorite shoreline, complete with stick-throwing, bare tootsies in sand, and a hike through the dunes and woodlands.  Water centers us, reminds us what we are.

So, an old-style snapshot to remember the day…complete with camera strap in the corner, and that dunes windblown look.  These are the same trails that I ran as a youth, hot summer days, straight into the water below.  The same trails that I hiked as fast as I could, to see if that high school date could keep up.  And now, the trails that I savor, leading to and from the water’s edge, lingering just one more moment, as it all seems so familiar.