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 looseleafnotes.com on September 4, 2007.

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