A professor reflects on the overwhelming importance of focusing on both what one can give and the honor of humility.
In a small midwestern town there’s a university. It’s located somewhere within a roughly-300-mile radius of Chicago. Back in 1997, this university decided to support the idea of its then long-time clay professor to build a large anagama. When completed it was, if not the largest wood-fired kiln in America, then certainly one of the largest. And while you’ve almost certainly heard of the university, it’s likely that you’ve never heard about this kiln.
Just how large is this kiln? “Well, when we get the baffle walls built, and all the benches in place and the kiln full of people, it doubles as a sauna . . . a 22-seater,” says the professor, someone whose name you likely won’t recognize.
The size of the kiln was critical from the very start of the planning: “I needed something large enough to be able to handle my large sculptures and large pots,” the professor muses. “I wanted it to be large enough that I’d never, ever be tempted to try to fire it by myself. I wanted it to be substantial enough that I could attract enough other clay artists to help me fire it for the 100+ hours that it takes to finish the firing. And if I had help from others, the kiln needed to be big enough that they, also, would be able to get lots of their works in the firing: it had to be large enough for them as well. It’s size would require a community of people.”
This professor’s work is truly monumental, and constructed in a manner that would make him a candidate for national and international teaching workshops. But no. And you’ve likely not seen his work anywhere in the wide array of international ceramics publications, not, that is, unless you were paying really close attention over the last 30 years.
This kiln was built, wisely, off-campus. It requires an enormous amount of fuel for each firing, and a huge amount of messy space for wood-processing. The fuel appears, almost magically (delivered by the university’s maintenance staff), at the kiln site every year, and it is always just enough for the once-yearly firing: trees that have died, have needed to be trimmed, or have been removed altogether for a university building project. Fuel that grew on those relatively few university acres over the last century or more; trees that absorbed the soluble salts and minerals from this very specific tract of land; land that was formed and re-formed by repeated glacial incursions and retreats; glaciation that produced soil with salts and minerals that each tree, according to its specific biological requirements, held and shielded in its bark and cambium layers; salts and minerals that will eventually go flying through this large anagama in order to land on molten-hot pots and stir up a little chemistry experiment; the peculiar mixture of sodium, potassium, and calcium from the cambium layers of the tree, combining with the silica in the clay to produce sodium/potassium/calcium-silicate glass: natural-ash glazing, as indigenous as it can get.
Each year this seemingly random assortment of wood (this year we had some lovely black walnut mixed in with the other mostly-hardwoods) creates a peculiar aesthetic, one that, remarkably, is repeatable, and recognizable, albeit still random. Each firing corroborates the improbability: there is a recognizable aesthetic coming from this kiln; one that is tied to land, trees, climate, weather, rain, and to the hands of those who ultimately process, stoke, and fire it. Those who know of this place can recognize this look, this aesthetic.
If the fuel creates a random yet repeatable aesthetic, perhaps it is an appropriate metaphor for those who staff the kiln. Most of the firing-participants come from a tight geographical area. These participants (undergraduates, graduates, research assistants, local professionals, local teachers and their students, neighbors, and friends), however randomly assembled, seem to learn almost every year how to fire the kiln, and to bring out the refined and particular aesthetic of which the kiln is capable. And there is almost always exactly the right amount of work to fill the kiln: rarely too much, never too little.
On any given day in the US you can peruse social media and see photos of quite a number of wood kilns being built and fired. Likely you can list a few, if you think about it for a moment. But even though this kiln has fired works from some of the greats (Voulkos’ stacks, platters, and teabowls; Reitz’ monumental thrown sculptures; Soldner’s bowls and sculptures), this kiln likely won’t have been on your list.
One might think, that with the kinds of connections necessary to fire for/with the greats that the person who conducts this orchestra-of-fire might be well-known. That he would have ridden his hot little pony to the top of the wood-fired hill and joined the rest of the wood fired “cream-of-the-crust-a-nista.”
Not so much. I recently asked him how it is, or why it is, that he did not give more energy to promoting himself and his work, over the years. He answered by referencing a Towns Van Zandt album from 1985, using phrases like “illusive anonymity,” “live and obscure,” and the “honor of humility.” “I’m the invisible wood firer. I’ve been busy pursuing that illusive anonymity,” the professor said.
Then: “Well, you know, don’t you, that the most important thing is the power of the offering. That’s what this is about! The power of the offering. It’s not so much about the works, themselves. It’s about what happens here when what I’m offering gets received.
“I keep thinking that if I offer the kiln, if I give it up, that finally we will, sometime, break through the membrane to something greater, something bigger, something more important. A pause: “And really, I guess, that is what we have already done, just look around at this group of people working on this firing.”
The look in his eyes when he said “break through the membrane;” the far-away look; the tone of his voice; the cock of his head—all of this could be understood as referring to something deeply mystical. But I think that it is less mystical, and more deeply personal.
And while I’m not sure that I can represent completely what it means to him when he says it, I think that “breaking through the membrane” refers to inclusion through empowering, embodying, and enabling. These are the things to which he wants to break through. These are the most important things. More important, even, than self-promotion and international recognition. The power of persistent offering is akin to the power of living a tithed life—consistently offering a portion to others.
He is turning 70 on his next birthday. We all wonder, privately, what will happen to this kiln, to these important things as he ages. As if to answer the unasked, he sang a little made-up song as he worked his shifts on the last firing. The lyrics: “You’re not needed now.” As I listened, I wondered to whom it was that he was singing those lyrics.
Bill Kremer has taught ceramics at the University of Notre Dame since August of 1973; more than 42 years: a life’s work.
the author Dick Lehman, a participant in numerous firings of the Notre Dame anagama, lives and works in Goshen, Indiana, and is a regular contributor to Ceramics Monthly magazine.
Subscriber Extra: Archive Article
Click here to read Press Molded Sculpture by Bill Kremer from the February 1988 issue of Ceramics Monthly.