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.

Arrowmont Utilitarian Clay Symposium VI

Arrowmont Utilitarian Clay Symposium VI

Finding peace and calm at the Arrowmont Utilitiarian Clay Symposium in Gatlinburg, TN, these little shrubs offered the perfect calm, complete with a bench nestled against the outside of the room where Gwendolyn Yoppollo was presenting. I found the Symposium to be incredibly stimulating, in a very good way, and meandered back up the Appalachians with many thoughts bouncing about in my head.

One of the thoughts is captured right here in the only photograph that I took all week. There are so many layers to what we do, as people who work with clay, people who make functional objects. What strikes me is how simple it is to see the layers on either side from where we are personally, and how we don’t often even notice the other layers. They’re outside of our view.

The gift of a gathering of makers of functional objects is that glimpse into the richness, the diversity, the spectrum of our clan. Thank you, Arrowmont, for creating a space for so many layers, so many viewpoints.

(And, yes, I’ll be posting weekly again, after a rich summer hiatus…)

Spring into yourself

Thanks for the Willy Wonka, Style Rookie...

“We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams.”  Say it out loud.  Say it again.  Go about your day reminding yourself regularly, and do it again tomorrow.  Be who you are, fully, magnificently, even mildly at first.  It gets easier with practice, and like Willy, plenty of time alone to develop just exactly who you are.   Say it one more time.  Good.

Spring Clay Club…or hands in the mud

(snagged via clamblog on pinterest)

There’s something about the new gang of Robins picking through the ground layers this week, something about the tunes of birds I haven’t heard for months, something about oak buds swelling, wood piles dwindling, and the sun staying a little longer each day…

Spring is near, which means that Spring Clay Club is soon to start.  Do you want to get your hands in clay?  For 8 weeks, the studio is yours on tuesdays and thursdays.  All clay is provided.  Your challenge is to explore, test the limits, try something new, practice matching your mind’s ideas to your hands abilities, show up and play.

Join us.  Starting March 13, 1pm or 6pm.

Here’s the link to the details on my website.  (smile)

(And I’m so looking forward to having you here…)