Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Carryin' On

Kilns? ...they're just tools.

Yeah, right.

The potters I know seem to be divided into two camps:

There is the analytical type who views his/her kiln(s) merely as a tool, and whose firing approach reflects this concrete, rational, scientific approach. My friend Tom is this way. He’s famously methodical in his approach to his kiln and to firing it. I’ve had a mutual friend tell me that Tom can fire his gas kiln to within less than half-a-cone’s difference anywhere in the box. Amazing. And, like the methodical craftsman that Tom is, the structure of his kiln could most likely be entered into a competition and be displayed as a work of ceramic art on its own merits. The guy must have killed at LEGO as a kid.

These analytical guys chart every firing, log the temperature, the atmosphere, where the pots are loaded, even the weather of the day. The last thing they want is a surprise coming out of the kiln. They are applied science personified.

Not me.

I fall into a distinctly “other” camp. Oh, back in my school days I loved the sciences too. But I think I enjoyed them more like, for instance, I enjoy my wife. I enjoy her difference from me. I like that she sorta turns left where I turn right. I like that she’s blonde while I am black-haired. Stop laughing. I used to be black-haired.

And if I EVER understood her – ever climbed over that insurmountable mountain of “mystique”, our relationship would probably wobble out of the already crazy orbit that keeps it vital.

I like where teaching science meets story-telling. The “You’re NOT going to believe this, but…” aspect of scientific discovery.

But ask me to work my way through a dry manual or page after page of formulas and I’ll act like I didn’t hear you.

I’m sorry. Did you just say something?

My kiln is different. Oh, it’s part tool, no doubt about that. Realities of life don’t let me get too far from the fact that every dollar that I make in this life starts as a pot that came through that kiln’s fires.

But it’s also part magic, complete with a whole system of rituals, and decorated with talismans (talismen?). I realized somewhere early on with this kiln that I had stepped over that line from John the Potter to Harry Potter when I noticed that I had gone from merely closing the kiln door on a firing with my fingers crossed, to, well to:

One day, after a particularly good firing, I noticed that a hand-rolled bead that my wife had made had rolled out of its firing container and had come to rest directly in the middle of the kiln’s flue. I left it there. I left it there for at least ten years. Ten very productive years. With each good firing I found myself less and less able to remove that bead. Do I believe that the string of good years’ worth of firings are directly connected to the presence of that charm in the flue of my kiln? Of course not.

But why, y’know, tempt fate?

The house I live in was masterfully built by craftsmen of the 19th century. It’s a marvel of ceramic work itself – an Italianate style brick edifice with nicely balanced lines and facades that magically create the illusion of a size that is not there. A majestic place. Somewhere along the middle of the 20th century, the owners of the place finally had to repair the cedar roof. When they did, they replaced it with a metal roof.

Again, craftsmen who could have been strictly functionally minded – could have assumed the attitude that as long as the roof worked – kept out the rain –that would be enough. But they didn’t. Some anonymous craftsman of the ‘30s or ‘40s decided that such a majestic old place required more than just function. So when he capped the top ridge of my house, he did so with forty feet of ridge cap that was double-folded over, scalloped and pierced through every linear six inches with star and clover charms.

When I found myself, sixty years later having to replace that no longer functioning metal roof, I just knew that fate had made me steward to the continuum of the craftsman’s caring obsession. It was up to me to carry it on. So now a four foot section of that ridge cap sets atop my kiln. It’s part charm. And it’s part constant reminder that the happy man never stops at mere function.

I also share life with my kiln in the same manner I might spend time with a friend. We have our friendly rituals, the two of us. Some good times, some tough times.

The kiln and I mark the seasonal changes in the same way, year after year after year. It’s now been nearly twenty years with this kiln warming my back and hands through late night December firings. I’ve spent countless hours watching the stars and moon in the clear, cold winter sky – the heat of the kiln warming my back while my nose hairs bristle with each cold inhale.

And Springtime after Springtime I burn off the stinky mouse nests that have accumulated as I spend a few winter months at the wheel, dodging the worst of the natural gas prices by not firing ‘til closer to the start of the show season.

And in the Summers the door to the kiln room remains open wide, a fan under which I have to duck hanging from the door frame, sending hot exhaust outward so the room is tolerable enough to walk into long enough to check the cones.

Then comes the blessed cool of the Autumn again. And I almost never start a firing in the fall without first burning a small pile of dry maple leaves that blow into the bottom of the kiln, just so I can smell burning leaves – the aroma transporting me back to every past autumn of my life.

A potter lives with a kiln in a manner unlike any other tool I can think of. It can be such a constant thing to tend a kiln – every hour -- or even more often -- looking in on it, adjusting, judging where it is or whether it’s done or not. And the weather can suddenly change everything. A low pressure front can slow it to a crawl. Ironically, the coldest days are so oxygen-laden that it’s a constant watch to make sure the temperature doesn’t run away from me.

And there’s the heart-pounding start that occurs every day that I'm not firing … but forget that I'm not firing. OH MY GOD! I FORGOT THE KIl... ...oh yeah, I’m not firing today.

I think I come by my kiln fears honestly. With my first kiln I burned down my shop. In the middle of the night the neighbors came banging on my doors and windows shouting that my shop was ablaze. Nearly thirty years later and I haven’t slept naked since. Trying to step into trousers in the dark while the shop is on fire with a propane tank leaning against it will leave an impression.

The old kiln’s not looking so good these days. I’ve lost track of the number of firings we’ve done together. It’s a small kiln, so I’ve been known to go through a busy stretch of season (like right before Ann Arbor Art Fair) firing up to sixteen days in a row. I have figured out that I’ve fired at least 1.5 million dollars worth of pottery in that little kiln. It’s served me well. Been a good friend.

I built a new kiln a few years back. The new kiln is still just the bisque kiln. Still just a tool. It’s in the on deck circle. Some day the old one will fire its last load. Maybe then I’ll start some rituals and find a charm or two for new kiln. I think I’ll know what to do when that time comes ‘round. The new one will tell me just like the old one did.


  1. Thankyou, master wordsmith and potter.
    One to savour, read again and think of my kiln, about to be mended after it decided to lay down on its side while being moved...

    1. Your kiln's still re-buildable? It fell over?

    2. It is, surprisingly! It may be a cheap basic gas kiln, but it has a sturdy frame. A few HTIs to replace and plenty of cracks to cement

  2. Ahhhh, the smell of smoke in the air!