Thursday, February 2, 2012

New Year, New Post

It amazes me just how quickly two months can slip by with hardly any notice.  Of course, at the time.....:)...well,...

I just finished installing a show of wood fired student pottery that was the result of a collaborative firing with my students from Loyola University and Jeff Brown's ceramics class at Nichols State University, down in Thibadaux.  The firing took place the weekend before Thanksgiving break, and it's refreshing  to see the pieces again, only this time framed within the context of a small gallery setting.

The basic ingredients for a healthy and successful woodfiring are (in my opinion and, in no particular order):
-Plenty of good, dry wood. Check.
-A well designed and built kiln that is not so challenging to fire to temperature for the novice that the learning experience becomes a battle against the pyrometer. Check.
-A group of committed, enthusiastic participants who are polite and considerate to one another in the midst of hard work. Double Check.
-At least one experienced person to coordinate the firing. This person should be compassionate to the challenges of folks new to the firing process, accepting of the fact that the occasional mistake is not the end of the world and should be viewed as a learning experience, and possess the assurance that everything will work out just fine.  This person can take charge without being too bossy or overbearing, but is able get things done when they need to get done. Check. (BTW, Jeff...that's you).

...After that, it's up to the fire.

            I learned (sort of) to woodfire while still a student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, back around 1997 or so, this, i mean that participated in wood kiln firings out at Chris Gustin's anagama.  Mostly, I just stayed up all night listening to bluegrass, and the crackle of burning wood,  and sipped scotch; eventually stoking the kiln when i was instructed to by those who knew better, in this case, grad. students or Chris, himself.

Back then, it was a romantic process to me and the team spirit was thick in the air. I never really minded the long stoking shifts, and it got so that I really enjoyed the prep days of cutting, splitting, and stacking the wood.  Someday, I imagined, I might be the one who would work the chainsaw... but, for now, it was all for the good of the golfball (an expression I rarely hear but often use).

 Soon came the day, in the summer of 1998, when i, like most recently graduated art students,  found myself without a studio, free materials, nor a kiln of any kind, but still had the desire to make pots.  Finding a potter's wheel was the easy part, though I was quick to complicate the matter by purchasing a very large, heavy, kick wheel which i then proceeded to move from apartment to apartment in the back of my van . (note: To  all of my friends who assisted in this task, I would like to thank you wholeheartedly....and sorry 'bout your lower lumbar spine(s).
As far as i am aware, this wheel still remains at it's final resting place in the basement of an old house on Chestnut St. in New Bedford, MA, from which we were suddenly, and quite forcibly, evicted in 2001.  So, if any of you UMass kids want to know where you can find a wheel............;) email me.

The kiln, however, was a different matter.  I certainly could not afford to purchase or build a gas kiln and I was (am) too stubborn to submit to the idea of electric kiln firing, so I sort of became a wood kiln potter by default and necessity.  I know, not the romantic, "From the time I first dug a lump of clay, I knew with my soul that I must be part of the process and tradition in it's entirety and fire with Wood!" that you probably expected but, it's the truth:  If you're willing to work (and, often times, pay) you can usually get some pots in someone else's wood kiln a few times a year. And so, for the five years from 1998 to 2003,  I loaded up my pots and travelled to other peoples' wood kilns to fire them. And, once in a great while, the kiln gods would smile on me I'd end up with a nice piece.  This was rare- mostly I ended up with a sinus infection.

This time around, I find myself on the other side of the fence.  Sitting there with my own students,  smelling the split pine and oak logs, and the reduction fumes wafting through the air; watching the flame while trying not to obsess over the pyrometer.....counting the rhythm of the stoking cycle.... I can't help but smile, as I imagine this is what it possibly might feel like to be a proud father,... or, at the very least, a proud pet owner watching his dog do some really cool trick.  Either one.  But one thing is for sure, and that is that this experience stands in marked contrast to the last time I saw 2400 F degrees by wood fuel......

           Prior to this firing with my class, the last time I participated in a wood kiln,was back in the fall of 2007, when I drove from New Orleans to Massachusetts with my friend and fellow ceramic artist, Seth Rainville.  Seth had been living and working in Arizona, and he and Chris had organized a group of Southwestern ceramic artists to come to Massachusetts and fire Gustin's anagama.  I don't clearly remember everyone involved, but that's Tom Coleman lighting the grill for a barbeque...Don Reitz was supposed to be there but I don't think his health, at that time,  permitted it.

Not your typical wood kiln firing...
...a little Hamada moment, Seth glazing by firelight at the last minute.

And, of course,  Steve caught a sand shark (or nurse shark, or something- shark) while fishing in the Westport river behind Chris' house.

How I wrangled my way into this I have no idea, but when Seth showed up in New Orleans after a straight drive from Phoenix, he crashed on my couch that night and we loaded up a box of pots to head out the next morning.  There were bits of dry clay everywhere in our wake,  and it took a long time for the owner of that couch to forgive me.

The following teabowl is all that exists (to my knowledge) from that experience.  I've always been quite fond of it, and it now lives in the private collection of the Carol Robinson Gallery here in New Orleans.