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.

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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From rocks come glazes

Algae glaze inpsirationFrom travel comes inspiration….looking at algae pools at Yellowstone National Park this spring brought to mind the complexities of glazes in wood kilns.  One of my favorite forms to fire is a wine decanter, side fired on shells, with multiple layers of glazes.  These glazes run, drip, combine, layer, and mingle with ash to highlight their complex history in the kiln.  I crave this.

Dango…

 

…one of the Japanese words for wads when wood firing pottery.  Wads are the little balls of clay that rest under each and every piece in my kiln, making sure that the pieces don’t stick to the shelves, the shelves don’t stick to the stilts (bricks that stack in between the shelves), lids don’t stick to jars, etc.

 

 

 

Luck has it that there are many coffee houses in Shepherdstown WV that are more than happy to share their wealth of used grounds, which are mixed with clay and silica grog to make the best smelling wadding around.  Glazing, wadding, then stacking…

 

After stacking, the door is built brick by brick, and the next morning early, flame hits twig, and we’re off!  (That’s tomorrow!)

A few pals are coming to stoke, soup ingredients are ready to go, and the wood is split and stacked.  Autumn is cooperating with a full-splendor show of leaves, and a gorgeous weekend on the horizon.  What more could a person want?