Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Kiln Dance

It’s that wire that no one sees but draws us to the magician’s hand.

It’s the true north that mysteriously keeps our needle pointing one way.

One day we saw something-out-of-nothing spin into existence beneath a practiced hand. Material we once thought of only as solid as concrete suddenly appeared as flexible as fabric.

Or maybe in our youth, on a late evening walk past the college art department, we chanced upon a firing -- a glowing kiln. It caught our attention as fire has since…since forever. We were imprinted.

We notice everything pottery. In the background scenery of a movie set, in a commercial on TV, we'll notice the pots.

If we walk into a strange place and there happens to be a hand-thrown piece in the room, little else occupies our mind – at least until we’ve had the chance to pick that piece up, feel its heft, and look beneath it. It calls our attention like an overheard conversation that sounds more interesting than the one in which we’re currently engaged. "Oh, excuse me. Did you say something?”

Now even the wares we use everyday take on new meaning. We’ve glimpsed behind the curtain and what was once a mystery – the “I-wonder-how-they-did-that?” – becomes de-mystified one discovery at a time. Ah, and it is answered with a satisfying life of pursuing new “how-to-do” mysteries to put back into the world.

So, perhaps it’s the process that hooks us at first. But almost simultaneously we’re drawn to these objects that we’re making. On the one hand we observe the component parts of glaze, form, function. And often times, especially at the beginning of our lives in clay, we see the parts in spite of the whole…

..but then, as we grow with the clay and the process, we start to direct our attention to the objective end in form and function. We begin to see the whole becoming greater than the sum of those parts.

Add the fire that takes so much of the end result out of our hands – out of our control -- and we can be utterly surprised by that new whole that somehow managed to exceed our imagination. Upon opening the kiln, it’s like meeting and being charmed by a stranger.

Proof? -- the kiln opening dance. You know the one. You’ve done it. With mitted hands you hold the still hot pot by rim and base, and slowly rotate it in that graceful 360 degree pirouette – attempting to take in the whole of it. Then you set it down and turn, as if to leave – only to echo the pirouette yourself. You spin on your heel, return to the pot and pick it back up for that second look…

…Fred, meet Ginger.


  1. Looking back, I think that clay found me. It was just waiting.

    But it has made me work hard since then.

  2. I don't always do a happy dance when I unload the kiln, but I always am amazed and intrigued about the "how."

  3. I've been firing Cone 6 electric where the results are frequently quite predictable for more than a few years now and STILL can't wait to open the kiln and see how the still too hot pieces have come to life. Forever hooked I suppose.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Barbara, as I'm aging I'm beginning to look at the more dependable results of electric firing as a good thing. I've more than once thought of a divided inventory -- dependable ware to make a living by and gas firing for my soul.

    Carolanne, That curiosity keeps me going as well.

    gz, They say that if you love what you do, it'll never be work. They're cracked in the head. Heh.

  5. John- Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I know my friends are sick of me talking about choices and compromises in working with clay, but I find it so interesting! As a relative newcomer - 5 years as a potter after 30 at a desk job - I find, with a small retirement income, I don't need to sell my pots to survive (although I would like to break even on the cost), but I get great satisfaction by selling and I get to make room on my shelves to make more! Interestingly, I do gas fired for the selling, wood and soda firing for the soul. Everything is relative.