Into the Woods and Out of the Flames: Wood Fired Ceramics

 

For centuries Maine has been an artistic haven and inspiration for artists. Painters in particular, such as Andrew Wyeth or Winslow Homer have placed Maine on the art historical map with their depictions of the rocky coast. However, besides the visual splendor that Maine provides, the state’s natural resources (clay deposits) and untamed wilderness (meaning low cost living with ample room for artist studio space) has attracted another breed of artists – potters. One place that has made Maine a destination for ceramic arts is Watershed: Center for the Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, Maine.

Continue on to view my photo journal documenting and read about my wonderful weekend in the woods at Watershed as I tagged along for a wood firing with an amazing crew of ceramic artists: Sam Thompson, Nate Willever, Gillan Doty, Wendy Jackson, and Shana Brautigam.


We traveled on Maine’s scenic route 1 which winds along the coast, passing through lovely little towns that epitomized New England’s quaintness. Towns such as Bath, “the city of ships” rich in seafaring history, Brunswick the home of the prestigious Bowdoin College, and Wiscasset, “the prettiest little village in Maine,” (it truly is the prettiest) that brought delight to our eyes and left me oooing and ahhing over gorgeous 18th and 19th century homes. These towns, though splendid, were not our final destination. We cruised down the hill, past lobster shacks, boarded up for the season, and glided over a bridge, leaving the “prettiest village” in the rear-view mirror. We drove on for a few more miles until we made a sharp left hand turn off the main road that lead us to another one of Maine’s “prettiest” spots- Watershed: Center for the Ceramic Arts.

Down a winding dirt road, past a working farm, nestled among the pines lies Watershed: Center for the Ceramics Arts. Formed from the creative innovation of artists Margaret Griggs, George Mason, Lynn Duryea, and Chris Gustin in 1986, Watershed stands as one of the great places for artistic practice, inspiration, and retreat from the outside world for ceramic artists.

Supplied by the natural clay deposits of low fire red clay, found along the banks of local rivers, the area surrounding Watershed was a hotbed for water struck brick production during the 19th century. In 1974 an attempt was made to re-establish the Watershed Brick and Clay Products Company, but due to high production costs and low demand the company closed after one year. Stacked brick sculptures and lonely piles throughout the Watershed property are all that remain of this endeavor. The natural supply of red clay, however, is utilized by a chosen artist every year who is commissioned to make 500 unique plates for use and sale at Salad Days, which is a festival of food and ceramics held every summer at Watershed. Pictured above: water struck brick sculpture and red clay plates for an upcoming Salad Days.

Getting away from it all… One of the founding principles and ideals of Watershed was to provide artists a place to come that was separated from the chaos and hubbub of the “societal” world. A place to reconnect with nature, to live simply, to breathe in fresh air and to let the work flow from your hands, mind, and spirit. Here at Watershed I felt this romantic philosophy come to life as I immersed myself in the landscape and observed fellow artists hard at work.

Thick woods surround the barn, studio, and kilns on the Watershed property. An empty fire pit nestled in a grove of trees and ceramic sculptures scattered throughout the forest were just a few of the things I stumbled upon during my explorations.

The barn, or shed perhaps at Watershed is the hub of production.

A factory of pottery production.

Filled with endless amounts work space and materials for the artists in residence.

Such as white plaster molds for slip casting.

And equipment like this slab roller or potter’s wheel.

Though I wandered the barn alone, it was full of life and character.

I could see how this place would be an ideal place for an artistic retreat. Even in the first few minutes I was trying to capture it all through my camera’s lens.

The beauty, the quiet, the magic that really does exist here. I breathed in deep – the fresh air, the farm smells, everything. Filling my lungs, opening my eyes, refreshing my senses. Three days out here…it was going to be great!

I left the barn.

Outside on the kiln pad (the partially covered outside area pictured above which houses all the kilns) everyone was hard at work, unpacking, sorting, and preparing work to go into the kiln. Rows and rows of delicate bisqued pots lined every table, it didn’t seem like they would all fit.

Bricks coated with kiln wash were selected to hold up the shelves inside the kiln. Seashells were filled with wadding, which is a mix of ball clay, kaolin, and alumina used to prevent pots from sticking to each other and the kiln walls, in order for pots to be fired upon them.

Shells are often used in wood firing to create interesting marks on the pot’s surface.

Cone packs, which measure the kilns temperature by melting in a particular order, sat on the table along with mugs, vases, plates, cups, and bowls waiting to be placed in the kiln.

Loading the kiln is a somewhat long and arduous process. Every pot carefully squeezed into the kiln like a very precarious game of Tetris. One last peek until it was all bricked up.

Then the real work began. Chopped wood was hauled from the trucks and stacked into neat piles around the kiln. Large pieces were split and added to it. You really can’t have enough wood for a wood firing, about one and a half cords was used for this one. Every firing is different though and depending on many variables such as weather, type of wood, volume of the kiln, human error, personal preference and duration of firing different amounts of woods could be used. Some kilns such as an enormous anagama kiln (another type of wood fired kiln) are commonly fired up to a week and burn between five and seven chords of wood. The amount of preparation and cost of wood alone, especially in comparision to a gas or electric kiln, has made wood firing a less common practice.

Only the die-hards remain. Those who aren’t afraid of a little hard work and getting their hands dirty.

It was undoubtedly one of the most labor intensive processes I’ve ever witnessed. Day one alone involved: 1.unloading work, 2.preparing pots with wadding so they don’t stick to anything, 3. putting shelves into the kiln, 4. loading pots into the kiln, 5. bricking up the kiln, 6. stacking and chopping wood, 7. building a small fire in the firebox, 8. staying up all night tending said fire to slowly and carefully bring the kiln up to temperature; too fast and you risk cracking pots and too slow you just waste time and materials. Then it was day two and began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

Darkness fell as we all got cozy next to the kiln. Beers were passed around and we all cheered for the beginning of a great wood firing and drank into the sleepless night.

The steady stream of wood being fed into the fiery mouth of the kiln was halted briefly for a little breakfast to feed our hungry mouths. Eggs fresh from the farm cooked over a camp fire in a cast iron skillet, were especially delightful after a sleepless night and satisfied our rumbling bellies.

Surprisingly, day two was much more relaxing. The brunt of the work had been done so for the most part it was just the continuous stoking of the fire until it reached the desired 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, and a bit of hanging out on the couches too.

Other materials such as salt and soda piled onto wooden planks were put into the fiery belly of the kiln to create atmospheric effects on the pots. Unlike electric or gas fired ceramics which most likely have a smooth or glossy surface, wood fired pots are a beautiful mess of drips, bumps, and lumps of wood ash and covered in markings from the salt, soda, and fire. Stoking, eating, drinking, and having a grand old time continued the rest of the day and into the night once again.

The sound of coyotes yipping in the woods accompanied us as we put the last logs into the fire, pulled out the metal rods, which rotated the hot coal bed, and shut the door for good, or at least until the kiln cooled down and we returned in two days to open it up.

That night we all got a good night sleep (as good enough as you can in a freezing cold barn), and awoke to a surprisingly snowy morning.

With the howling winds at our backs we left Watershed feeling tired and cold, but proud of what we had all accomplished and excited to see what the result of our hard work would be.

Two days later we all returned to Watershed, blue skies above our heads and a blanket of snow beneath our feet. It was like Christmas morning, so the snow was especially appropriate, and everyone was giddy with excitement to see what gifts the kiln gods would bear us.

The kiln gods must have heard our prayers or accepted our sacrificial goat (just kidding) because we were blessed with beautiful pots.

pitcher by Nate Willever

In many shades of earth tones the pots emerged each one speckled…

two plates and a bottle by Sam Thompson

or even dripping with wood ash.

jar by Gillan Doty, tea bowl and mug by Sam Thompson

Truly gorgeous and each one unique, the effects you get from a wood firing cannot be mimicked by gas or electric firing processes.

flask and large jar by Nate Willever

The earthiness of these pots is appropriate and reflective of the process.

decorated cup by Shana Brautigam and mug by Wendy Jackson

They were born of clay, wood, and fire.

miniature vase by Wendy Jackson

Though not all the pots came out as splendidly as the ones pictured above, placement in the kiln dramatically affects how each pot looks, overall, all the artists who participated were ecstatic with the results. The initial excitement of opening the kiln quickly wore off when the clean up process began.

Just as much, if not even more, work is done in the clean up process than in preparations before the firing.  1. All the work unloaded, 2. wadding removed (though most falls off easily), 3. pots carefully wrapped and packed into boxes, 4. floors swept…

5. kiln shelves scrapped then painted with kiln wash, 6. bricks dipped in kiln wash, 7. stuck wadding, pots or any extraneous objects scrapped off the kiln, 8. kiln cleaned…

9. ashes emptied from fire box, fire box swept out, 10. and then general cleaning and organizing…then we were finally done whew!

We could now wipe the metaphorical sweat from our brow (it was too cold out to sweat) with a smile. We (I say we because I was there, but let me assure you that I was mostly photographing and did minimal work compared to Sam, Nate, Gillan, Wendy, and Shana, they really did everything) accomplished a lot that weekend and have amazing things to show for it.

author’s note: all photographs were taken with an iphone 4s and were edited using the vscocam app, please do not take or reproduce without permission. I would also like to personally thank all the artists for letting me tag along, it was lots of fun, I hope to do it again, maybe next time in the spring when it is warmer!
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