Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Alchemy of Pottery

Like the alchemists of medieval times who sought to turn base metals into silver and gold, potters seek to transform clay into vessels of beauty and function. And they do. They dig raw material out of the ground, mix oxides into glazes, and forge their wares with fire.

There’s a fairytale quality to a potter’s life. Watching my son, Josh, work his treadle wheel, keeping it spinning with the beat of his foot while drawing-up beautiful forms from a wet lump of clay almost seems magical, as though he were spinning straw into gold like Rumplestiltskin, the Grimms’ fairytale elf.

When Josh talks about making pots his eyes light-up. He uses words like blunge, slip, and slurry, which conjure images of mystery in me. When he talks about the kiln firings and the crew mates who tend to them with him, I find myself thinking about characters from “The Lord of the Rings,” who forged weapons and rings with fire. The firings often go on all night with the potters taking alternating shifts, the thought of which makes me think of one of Josh’s favorite childhood books, “Where the Wild Things Are,” a tale of a boy’s adventurous ruckus with untamed creatures of the night.

I’ve seen a few of the kilns that Josh uses, some of which he has helped to build. They remind me of another fairytale, Hansel and Gretel, the story of a boy and girl captured by a witch who kept them in cages, fattened them up with food, and then tried to cook them in her oven. Recently, while my husband and I were in Asheville visiting Josh for some art events that he was involved in, he gave us a tour of a wood-fired kiln in progress. I especially thought about Hansel and Gretel and was cautious when one of the crew members, wearing a protective mask, opened the kiln door so I could peek inside, into what looked like a big oven.

The pots inside had shape-shifted into ghostly glowing figures that almost looked invisible against the furnace of fire. Once my eyes got adjusted to the sight, I could see the various sizes and shapes of the pots lined up on a rack, so hot that they were white and translucent!

Making pots is an ancient art that hasn’t changed all that much since prehistoric times. Every firing is a ritual that links the potter with potters from days long past. Every pot in the kiln will go through a transformative creative process. There is no guarantee of how it will turn out. When the kiln cools down and the alchemist potters enter the womb-like kiln, they do so wondering, did their efforts take shape? Did the pots survive their test? Did the magic work? Is it functional? Is it art?

Note: The above was originally published on April 22, 2006.

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