Sunday, January 31, 2010

Good Dirt

Clay is a material accepting of impression. It is a record of every process, from its geological formation in the earth to its eventual transformation in the fire. My work with ceramics begins with the clay. By using local materials dug from the river bottom and mountainsides of North Carolina, my work gains a connection to place and establishes the materials as a valuable source of influence. ~ Excerpt from Josh's artist statement posted on the Gallery @ Good Earth Gallery website

Since early summer I’ve been documenting the progress on the woodfiring kiln that my Asheville Potter son, Josh Copus, has been building on his property in Marshall, North Carolina. In June I wrote about the raising of the kiln shed roof, which was built with parts from an old house that he tore down and salvaged. Last month, my husband and I traveled to visit Josh at the kiln site where we helped with last minute construction preparations and then took part in the first ceremonial firing. The intensity of that first firing was heightened by the fact that many of the pots stacked inside it were due in Athens, Georgia, for a show just days later. Josh and other area potters were set to have their pots featured at the Good Earth Gallery in a show titled “Pushing Traditions: Asheville’s New Voices.” Adding to the pressure of getting the kiln finished and fired in time was the fact that Josh was the show’s curator, the one responsible for organizing and putting it together. joshovalvase.jpg

The manifestation of the three chamber climbing wood-fired kiln started with the excavation of eleven dump truck loads of wild clay from a local farmer’s tobacco field, which Josh wrote about in an article for Studio Potter titled “Neil Woody’s Turkey Creek Field.” The Clay excavation got some good attention and led to a research grant, awarded to Josh and fellow potter, Matt Jacobs, to further their work using local materials in ceramics. The momentum continued when Josh won a Windgate Fellowship Award to build a kiln, not only for the purpose of furthering his exploration with wild clay, but to support the theme of his UNC Asheville BFA thesis show “Building Community,” which Josh described in a recent article for the Log Book, an international publication for woodfirers.

Land was purchased and plans were drawn up. With the help of others, Josh headed up the three month full-time building project. His enthusiasm and motivation for what he’s accomplished and continues to do can be best explained in his own words contained in the rest of his Good Dirt artist statement for his first showing of pots fired in the newly built kiln:

I dig my own clay from a tobacco field alongside Turkey Creek and everything I make contains an element of my response to that experience. Every pot is informed with the qualities and character of my clay; whether it is the subtlety of its dark iron body breaking through a white slip, or the drama of its diverse particle size exposed through a facet, the qualities of my clay effect what I make and my intention is to bring out the inherent beauty of the materials in every pot.

However, my interest in using local materials for my pots is not limited to the influence of their physical properties and extends to the intangible qualities that those materials can bring to the work. The physical properties of my materials are not as unique as my experience of using them and it is the increased participation in the creative process that I have come to value the most.
Digging my own clay has increased my connection to the area where I live and furthered my relationship with the surrounding community, creating an authentic context for my work to exist in. Most importantly I find a great amount of excitement in digging my own clay and my hope is that the enthusiasm I have for my materials will transferred to the finished product. I want each pot to carry with it the feeling I get each time I visit the Turkey Creek tobacco field.

The experience of working with local materials has contributed greatly to my growth as both an artist and a person. It has confirmed my belief that the more highly developed a potter is as a human being, the better their pottery will be. There is no real beauty without character and like the clay that I use to make them, my pots are a reflection of my character. As a human being, I am accepting of impression and each pot I make represents my personality, experience, and my dreams.

Post notes: A short video clip of Josh at the kiln first firing talking with a fellow potter about how the kiln works is HERE. All of the photos posted above are of pots made by Josh that were fired in the first firing of the new kiln. You can view more pots at the Gallery @ Good Earth.

~ Originally posted on loose leaf notes on October 16, 2007.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Speaking of Collage Art

A collage works in the same way a dream does. It’s a visual snapshot of various symbolic images that can bypass the brain’s process time and convey a lot of information at once. ~ Colleen

1. The above and the following are a few selected photos of my Asheville Potter son’s collage journal. Josh has had to work with others to design specially made books to accommodate his collaged journal pages. The books expand as he adds to them.

2. I’ve been drawn to collage art for as long as I can remember. I had been doing rudimentary collages for many years, while putting together photo albums and baby books for my sons, but I wasn’t really inspired and didn’t recognize the potential of collage as a creative way to record one’s life until I saw Josh’s journals.

3. My first attempt at collage journaling myself was done as I approached the age of 50. It was a chronicle of my life thus far in colorful bits and pieces. Some photos of that are HERE.

4. Neither Josh nor I tend to buy special items for collage. We prefer to use found items and recycled scraps of our lives. The story of how Josh first became a collage journal artist is HERE.

5. One can work through personal issues by creating art, collage included. Some of Josh’s pages are too personal to post here. Some are almost too personal for me to look at, but I love reviewing his latest work and so far he still lets me. But doesn’t all art come with the risk of having the personal exposed? Doesn’t all art reflect what is deeply inside the artist who made it? (The above is an early collage, one I have always loved.)

6. Josh is a hard worker and an inspired artist. I think he has over a dozen collage journals. He usually weaves the creative work of making them into all parts of his life. But lately building the Community Temple wood-fired kiln, making pots, and having two firings back-to-back has been his full time art.

~ Originally posted on on October 6, 2007.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Houston We Have Ignition

My potter son, Josh, who was a big Lord of the Rings fan when he was a boy, confessed to me while he was dunking pots into glazes that he had just read six Harry Potters books in two weeks.

It had been three months since the last time I visited him at The Community Temple kiln site in Marshall, North Carolina, during the early stages of the kiln building when the shed roof was being raised.

“How did you do that with all this going on?” I asked, referring the pressing deadline of getting the kiln ready for firing pots already promised for shows.

Sean, a potter from the Clayspace Coop that Josh belongs to and part of the kiln work crew, joked that Josh had been taking some extra long lunch hours lately.

“I got addicted to them,” Josh explained.

We estimated that Josh’s Harry Potter diversion set the wood-firing schedule back by about two days and that it might have been Josh’s girlfriend Anna’s fault since she had the books and was reading them too.

Later, I was in our camper making lunch for the workers when my husband, Joe, came in for some reason I forget now. He was getting ready to head back to the kiln site to cut more firewood when I said, “Hey, if Josh asks you where I am, tell him I’m out here reading Harry Potter.”

Next, I heard a ruckus coming from the work site. Peeking out the camper window, I saw Micah, Josh’s neighbor Rob’s daughter, unload six cases of beer from the trunk of her car, which made me wonder if the firing that night was going to be “Wood-firing Animal House Style.” The beer was hauled to the spring box to keep it cool, and in the hours leading up to the first firing and for a couple of nights and days that followed, it proved to be refreshing to more than just the woodfiring crew.

The Community Temple, which will directly serve five Clayspace Coop potters, is aptly named. Because wood-firing is a labor intensive process that demands round the clock time and care, it takes a small community to pull one off. The kiln’s name is also appropriate considering the number of potters and friends who came out during its building to offer support. The visitors that floated in and out to see the kiln on the day of the first firing were like a who’s who of regional potters. There were also a few from neighboring states.

Karl, a potter from Josh’s hometown of Floyd, Virginia, arrived bearing pesto to share and other fragrant delicacies from his garden. Maynard, also a potter, came all the way from Nashville (Yes, you heard me right. That’s Asheville with an N) hauling a load of firewood on the back of his truck and pulling another load in a trailer. He, dubbed the “Fairy Godfather of Wood,” brought a clay horse that his niece had made to add to the community of pots being fired.

Firewood, and a lot of it, is the key ingredient in wood-firing. “We burn enough in one firing to heat a house for a whole winter,” Clayspace potter Matt told me. Josh made sure I knew that it was kindling scrap they used.

When I asked how many wood-firings they do each year, he answered, “about four or five.”

Meanwhile, Josh buzzed around like the kiln maestro conducting the symphony of elements that must come together for a successful wood-firing. Even so, he was always ready to take the time to greet visitors and act as a host. His ceramics teacher at UNCA, Megan Wolf, dropped by, towing her young son in her arms. With them was Jon Keenan, a ceramics artist and the associate director of UNCA’s Craft Campus, an upcoming facility that plans to merge creative arts with green building technology.

Later, work stopped to greet Paulus, a longtime Penland teacher and potter who came to see the kiln with a woman I recognized from seeing at Josh’s UNCA BFA show. Two other women potters brought pizza that night. Others called on the phone.

Vases, platters, plates, mugs, bowls, lidded jars, and teapots loaded into the first chamber looked like a still life art installation. I was told by more than one potter that loading the kiln is the most complicated part of wood-firing, the part that involves the most thoughtful planning.

“You have to know what each piece needs,” Matt told me. I learned that it takes a special knack to determine how close each pot should be to the fire and how to stack so many various sizes and shapes and get them all to fit.

At 11:00 p.m. Saturday night the kiln was ready.

Josh used Sean’s lighter. Joe uttered the words, “Houston we have ignition.” Everyone was speechless when it finally happened. Then, Anna broke out her violin and played as the fire began to rise. Joe joined in with his flute. Rob, from the farm above Josh, had company from Atlanta who had come down with him to witness the occasion. “Like the first torch at the Olympics,” one of them said. A sense of reverence and magic hung in the air.

“Look,” someone noticed, “Josh is finally sitting down! It was the first time in several days that anyone had seen him do that.

Photos: 1. Joe, Megan with baby, Sean holding up pot, Josh, Jon, Matt. 2. Maynard admiring the clay horse. 3. Joe and Sean unloading Maynard's truck. One block of firewood is caught in mid-air. 4. Josh talks to Paulis. 5. Pottery in front chamber ready for firing. 6. Josh lights the fire. 7. Josh finally sits down. Karl sits behind Josh.

Originally posted on on September 4, 2007.

Friday, January 22, 2010

First Wood-firing at the Community Temple: The Countdown

A Noborigama chambered climbing kiln is built on a slope, and each succeeding chamber is situated higher than the one before it. The chambers in a noborigama are pierced at intervals with stoking ports. Climbing kilns have been used in Japan since the 17th century. ~ Wikipedia

Like a rocket ship with shuttle attachments, the Community Temple kiln in Marshall, North Carolina, has three individual chambers for wood-firing. When my husband and I arrived this past Friday night for the kiln’s first launch, my son, Josh Copus, and other Clayspace Co-op potters were glazing their pots and building brick shelves inside the adobe chambers to load them onto.

After greetings and updates and after setting up enough night lighting, my husband, Joe, stationed himself at the electric stone-cutter. A steady stream of water was pumped over the whining saw, preventing the diamond blade from getting too hot, as he cut through bricks. Various sizes were needed for “the furniture” the potters were stacking, which included chamber fireboxes and firewalls, along with the shelves.

Curious about everything, I took photos and asked lots of questions as I navigated around the impressive 27 foot long kiln. Clayspace Coop member, Eric Knoche makes pots with dramatic architectural angles. He was dipping them in a milky white glaze. Matt Jacobs, another Clayspacer, is known for the small houses that often show up on the pinnacle of his pots, reminiscent of refuge on mountainous landscapes. “They look like Dr. Seuss-like worlds,” I told him.

Matt was making a mixture of pine sawdust, clay, and sand in a wheel barrow for “wadding.” I guessed by the name that it was something to plug up kiln openings but was told that the material would be balled up and stuck on the bottom of each pot to buffer it from the direct heat of the brick shelf surface.

Louisa, Matt’s girlfriend and an anthropology student at Warren Wilson College, brought Ellen, a fellow student who was doing field work for their class. The idea was observe while participating in a community project and then write about the group dynamics. Ellen and Louisa sat on a dirt step under the lights, sticking what looked like various colored cone incense into blocks of wadding or clay. The box they were taking them from said “pyrometric cones.” Josh explained to me that they would be put in the kiln and act as testers as they reacted to time and heat.

Later, Louisa and Ellen would ball up the wadding, and I would be handed a trowel for chipping away extra mortar that had dried between bricks on the chamber walls.

Potter, Rob Pulleyn, Josh’s always supportive neighbor who sold Josh the property the kiln was built on, dropped by with a few pieces to be included in the momentous first firing. Rob is the former founding owner of Lark’s Books and is currently heading up Marshall High Studios, the development of creative space for a community of artists in the historic Marshall High School on Blanahassett Island, downtown Marshall.

But the firing didn’t happen as planned that night. Delayed by a day, every one got some sleep, knowing that the next couple of days and nights would involve the painstaking and constant watching and stoking of the fire, done in shifts by the Clayspace community of potters, family, and friends. To be continued …

Post Notes: The Community Temple is a manifestation of Josh’s pottery career that began with the excavation of eleven dump-truck loads of wild clay from a local tobacco farmer’s field (as outlined in the article Josh wrote for Studio Potter); followed by his UNCA BFA show on Building Community, involving a 15 x 18 foot brick wall installation constructed out of handmade wild clay bricks stamped with the word “individual” to represent the strength an individual has when joined together in community; and leading to the winning of a Windgate Fellowship Award to help fund the construction of a wood-fired kiln and further his exploration into using local materials in ceramics.

To see a short video of Josh glazing pots at the Community Temple this past Friday go HERE. Another kiln building clip is HERE.

~ Originally posted on on September 3, 2007.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Outtakes

The following are photos from the Community Temple Kiln Building. For more photos and narrative, scroll down to the next post or go HERE.

1. An inside job

2. Josh and Karl pondering the plans

3. Checking on the progress

4. The law of attraction

5. The mud that holds it all together

6. Noah's Ark?

7. Fixing a hole where the rain gets in

8. Very cool!

~ Originally posted on on August 27, 2007.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Kiln Update

AKA: Potters who aren’t named Harry

It’s been nearly three months since my husband, Joe, and I went to the kiln roof-raising at my Asheville Potter son's place, where Joe joined the work crew and I cooked for them. Joe’s been back to help a second time. So has our friend Karl, who snapped this photo of the results of the roof raising, which I documented by way of videos on Youtube HERE. The material for the roof came from the old house on the property that my son, Josh, tore down and salvaged for parts.

Lots of back-to-back work days, hard labor, and sacrifice have gone into building this kiln. Josh worked from morning to night for weeks at a time. Friends and fellow potters (like Matt Jacobs pictured here) came out to lend their bodies and hands.

Josh (pictured here) and other potters at the ClaySpace Coop in Asheville (founded by Josh in 2003 along with fellow members Matt Jacobs and Sean Fairbridge) are making new pots to be the first fired in the new kiln, which is called The Community Temple. It’s a wood burning, three chamber climbing kiln that is 27 feet long, with a stacking space of 260 cubic feet. Check it out and click around on the new ClaySpace webpage HERE. Josh still plans to put together a personal website when construction slows down.

Before the roof went up, the kiln site looked like a Mayan ruin with a tarp hung over it, or an archeological dig. Later it began to take on a mythological look, reminiscent of the building of a megalithic stone structure or ancient pyramid.

A kiln always remind me of the oven that Hansel and Gretel pushed the witch into, and woodfiring is like a "Where the Wild Things Are" fairytale that involves staying up all night and fire alchemy.

The irony that bricks are made of fired clay and that a kiln is a construction for firing clay that is built largely of bricks is not lost on me.

Soon Joe and I will be traveling back to Josh’s place in Madison County, NC, to dedicate the kiln for its first woodfiring. I imagine in this case the dedication will involve the smashing of a bottle of a beer, rather than the traditional champagne against the brick structure, because although Josh currently lives in an Airstream trailer called The Land Yacht, he’s more of a Pabst Blue Ribbon man than a champagne one.

~ Originally posted on on August 25, 2007.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

I’m Not the Girl with the Power Tools

I’m not much good at a construction site. I don’t have the inclination or stamina for it. So, like my grandfather’s brother, Carol Wentzell, who cooked for a lumber camp in Nova Scotia, I signed up to feed the workers helping my son Josh raise the roof over his kiln this past weekend.

Mostly I used an oversized cast iron skillet that took up more than one burner space on our Palomino camper stove. I scrambled eggs, cooked chili, and sautéed onions and green peppers using it. I refer to this skillet as a cannon because whenever I pull it out from the camp drawer, I feel like I’m pulling out the big guns, as opposed to the small Teflon omelet pan (also in the camper drawer), which is like a pop gun in comparison.

I cooked three meals a day for anywhere from three to seven people for the nearly four days that my husband Joe and I were there. Josh, like a Hobbit, loves a second breakfast when he’s working hard, and sometimes snacks in between meals were in order, especially if it was a box of Cheez-its, his favorite. When the food was ready, I drove it up to the kiln site in Josh’s old Subaru. One afternoon, the workers showed up at the back door of my camper. Wild lamb’s quarters soaked in olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic was served with venison and brown rice that day.

Before I left home in Virginia, I harvested lettuce, kale, arugula, basil, and cilantro from my garden and brought it with me, which added a gourmet touch to the camp fare. I sliced up naval oranges from Ingles grocery store, four miles from Josh’s property, and filled water jugs from the spring on a wooded hill. I discovered that it takes five full minutes to collect enough spring water to fill a gallon jug, which was okay because it was cool up there on the hill and I had a good view of the construction progress.

Sometimes in the heat of the day, I would retreat into Josh’s Land Yacht Airstream (I’m sure the workers would have liked to do that) tucked into the woods by a creek. There, I’d charge up my lap top, write some notes, or download the photos and videos I was taking; for that was my other self-proclaimed responsibility: documenting the roof raising progress.

I didn’t just cook and take pictures. Beer is sometimes a friend to construction workers and many empty bottles had collected from before we arrived. I put them in a garbage bag but never did find a recycling center or even a green box in town where I could dump them. I staked up Josh’s tomatoes using tobacco stakes lying around that Josh pointed out to me when he saw I was breaking up tree branches for stakes. I mulched the tomatoes using grass clippings from when the garden plot was plowed, but I forgot to get someone to hammer them in with the sledge hammer. I wonder if they’re still standing.

My muscles are still sore from hauling three loads of Josh’s laundry to the laundry mat, which, besides cooking, was my most successful activity and one I was happy to do. A potter’s clothes can get purty dirty and so many had piled up since the constant work of kiln building began. Add a building site and a few afternoon sprinkles that turn dirt into mud to a potter’s already dirty clothes and you’ll need one of those jumbo washers (which I happen to know takes 16 quarters) to get them clean.

Always the collector, I learned some new words hanging out at the building site. I wrote down “hurricane clips,” “collar ties” and “purlins” in my notebook. Nobrigama is the Japanese name for the type of climbing chamber kiln Josh is building. At one point Joe referred to a saw cut as a bird’s mouth cut. I wrote that down too.

In the few days I was there a couple of Josh’s art collectors, a couple of people from the neighboring farm community, and a woman doing a pottery tour stopped by to witness the kiln’s beginnings. One of the three nights we took showers up a Rob’s. Rob, a member of the community that borders Josh’s place and the man Josh bought his property from, is also a ceramics artist. He was cutting clay slab pieces in his workshop as Leonard Cohen played on the stereo when we arrived. Not only did we get hot showers, but Rob fed us hot soup, and so the camp cook got the night off.

The morning of our first day back home, I called Josh on the phone. He answered from the building site and I could hear him and Sean putting up the salvaged tin from the house they tore down. I knew by the end of the day the kiln shed that was framed over the weekend would likely be covered. So now the rain that’s been badly needed but only threatened to come down all weekend could hopefully let loose, I thought. And maybe the cosmos seeds I planted in Josh’s garden will be standing tall in bloom by the time the kiln is finished.

Post Notes: Photo #2 (left to right) is my husband Joe, fellow potters Matt and Sean, Josh, and his girlfriend Anna. Photo #4 is of Josh and I just before Joe and I headed back to Virginia. You can read more about Josh on the Asheville Potter Son category on my sidebar HERE. Scroll down for older posts. A collection of video clips from the long work weekend can be seen HERE. Origninally posted on on June 8, 2007.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Night Life

“Always we are eating and drinking earth’s body, making her dishes.” ~ Potter and poet, M.C. Richards.

Between the bullfrogs and the snake handling church service being held just above Josh’s pottery kiln site, Saturday night in the Walnut part of Marshall, North Carolina, was pretty lively. The sound of hammers banging, electric saws singing, and the big bass hum of the generator filled in the mix as the kiln shed roof was being framed. Gabe, who was perched high on a beam rafter, occasionally broke out in building commands, or a song.

Josh’s girlfriend Anna arrived from a gig where her band was paid in beer, so there was beer for supper that night. I’ve heard that her fiddle playing is impressive. So is her skill with an electric saw. I held the flashlight for her when it got dark to see without it. In between the whine of her saw someone who sounded like Bob Dylan sang from a nearby IPOD.

Looking more like an ancient Mayan compound at night, with a spotlight emanating from the center, the construction site took on an eerie glow that felt primal and monumental. From the first shovel of clay dug from Neil Woody’s tobacco field, to the Windgate Fellowship award Josh won for his work with wild clay, followed by the Wild Clay Exhibit and his Building Community BFA Thesis show, each were steps that lead to this roof raising night. I thought about the future wood firings that would take place here and the area potters they would bring together. What would the clay vessels created here hold? Where would they end up, I wondered?

What’s the name of the kiln going to be?” I asked Josh as the night and the frame of the roof grew pitch.

“The Community Temple,” he answered.

Soon there will be two kinds of services going on in the neighborhood.

"Potters like sun and stars perform their art--- Endowed with myth, they make the meal holy." ~ M.C. Richards

Originally posted on on June 5, 2007.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Pottery Doctor Is In

AKA: See the T-shirt in photo number 4.

“What’s the first thing I should do? Enjoy the scenery? Okay, I’ll check that off my list,” I joked to Joe just few miles out of our driveway, heading south on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We were on our way to Asheville to visit Josh for the weekend, to help put a roof over the pottery kiln he’s building. I was having a hard time shifting gears from the flurry of last minute travel preparations to beginning the actual three-hour drive to North Carolina. Mabry Mill, just ten miles up the road from our house and the most photographed scenic site in Southwest Virginia, got my attention. There were two white ducks looking perfectly placed, gliding across the pond in front of the old grain mill when we rode by.

I tried to deny that I wanted to stop and get a better look when Joe asked if we should pull over, thinking we shouldn’t waylay our trip. But Joe knew better and I was glad he did. After a fellow traveler in leather biker pants (a confessed workaholic who had strict orders from his doctor to stop and smell the rhododendrons) offered to snap our picture in front of the picturesque scene, I took a deep breath, let go of the life details we were leaving behind, and felt like we were on vacation.

When we arrived at Josh’s two acre property in the town of Marshall, he was on his hands and knees working at the kiln site. Using white sand to level out the bricks he was laying in a measured section of flooring, he explained that he was doing what he knew how to do best.

Raising the roof was something he would be learning as it went up, with the help of Joe, a one time timber framer, his master carpenter friends from his Warren Wilson College days, Jody and Gabe, and fellow potters, Sean and Matt.

I couldn’t believe how much the three-level kiln site looked like a Mayan ruin or an archeological dig. Josh had dug out the site, including a dirt stairway, from the side of a hill with a tractor. It was loosely framed with salvaged boards from the “Tearing Down the House Party,” held up by locust posts that were harvested off the land. A tarp spread across the top where a roof would hopefully soon be.

The Zuma Café in downtown Marshall, five minutes from Josh’s property, featured turkey wrap sandwiches, a wireless internet connection, and one of Josh’s Community Bricks displayed on a shelf behind the counter. Josh and Joe ate while I checked my emails and blog comments and sipped on some Earl Grey tea. I couldn’t see buying lunch when we had a camper fridge full of food, venison sausage, lettuce and other greens from the garden.

Our waitress let me go behind the counter to snap a photo of the brick. I later learned, from looking at Josh’s latest collage journal, some more places where his Community Bricks are building community, brick by brick: Besides locations up and down the east coast, there are bricks in California, Arizona, Hawaii, and Alaska; as well as England, Ireland, and Japan. The bricks have traveled on planes and been sent by mail. I didn’t expect to see one at the Zuma Café. I’m going to have to start paying more attention because I’m sure there are more than a few that have found homes in the Asheville area.

~ Originally posted on on June 3, 2007.