Clay Culture: Shifting into Neutral

Firing wood kilns is usually a group activity. One firing crew faced the new reality of physical distancing just as their wood firing ended, but before the kiln could be unloaded.

Sometimes my passion for ceramics has as much, if not more, to do with the questions it raises than for the so-called accomplishments that come from the kiln. Lately that has been borne out by the shelter-in-place orders we’re experiencing in response to the COVID-19 viral pandemic.

A Shared Event

In March, a crew of about a dozen of us fired the wood-burning Pixiegama—the smaller of two anagama kilns on my property, a mile or so from Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, where my partner, Carolanne Currier, and I live. The firing went along quite well over a 3½-day span, and we closed up at 5am Monday, March 16th, intending to unload Sunday the 22nd. The day after firing, one of the participants emailed that her job required her to interact with the public, and, not wanting to be an unintentional virus vector, suggested we put off the unloading until whenever we could all agree on a safe time to gather.

1 B. J. Watson stoking the Pixiegama, March, 2020.

2 First rank of 27×28-inch shelves in the firebox at medium heat.

All sorts of questions immediately began popping up. “How about unstacking the door bricks and sending pictures around, or at least looking inside and reporting to the participants?” “Would it hurt to take out a few small pieces, photograph them, and share some results virtually? Or remove as many as could be safely snagged and send single and collective images around?” The least dramatic query seemed to work its way to the top of the list, “Why not be patient and arrive at consensus on when to unload safely?”

Unloading the kilns people fire together has always been a shared event that resonates like an emotional tuning fork—an amalgam of anticipation, despondency, and nuanced acceptance challenging conclusive judgment, which can change over time. “When I feel warm about something I never feel cool toward it later,” I heard someone say. The opposite, especially in wood firing, can be true. Who hasn’t failed to see an inconspicuous yet noteworthy pot hiding timorously among more outspoken examples crowded together among several hundred pieces being handed from a kiln? It’s as if you’re 5 foot 3 inches tall and your 5-foot-2-inch-tall sweetie is at the opposite end of a subway car at rush hour.

The unloading ritual hushes us as the work, piece by piece, leaves the kiln’s dark interior, emerging into the light, being seen for the first time. It is more than stuff, reminding us of one of the verities of our art and craft, that everything used to be something else. We remember its husk-like chrysalis being loaded, until now, being its forever self. A bottle or jar may retain over its lifetime these first invisible fingerprints we lay down, while inside lives its one voice to shriek if dropped.

Reminders of a Vanished Experience

Unloading a kiln that’s been fired communally isn’t something I want to experience alone. True, it’s my kiln but, like the fish my family caught and froze in Canada each summer then ate together during winter, it wasn’t food to gobble; they were edible reminders of a vanished experience and those meals had a secular sacredness about them. And so does passing new pots along a stationary conga line, oooh-ing and ahhhhh-ing, occasionally offering up a collective groan as shards appear (with some assembly required) or while handling small, shamelessly mated, codependent pieces.

3 Jack Troy loading the last rank of pieces through the Pixiegama’s side door.

In 1974, I visited a German pottery and the first thing the owner showed me was a sheaf of computer printouts revealing the precise firing charts over time, while crocks were being taken from a salt kiln and tossed unceremoniously into a wheelbarrow behind him. “Hmmmm,” I thought, “the pots are a byproduct of the printouts.” The lack of an emotional tuning fork made the crocks product—stuff, by any other name. Mind you, they were made to a high standard to suit a purpose; they clinked satisfyingly, they had already been sold, their purpose would be met, and all was right with the world in Adendorf, where 40 former potteries have since been winnowed down to 3.

One peculiar aspect of this situation has been feeling uncharacteristically incurious about the kiln and its contents. It’s like having a cargo-laden sunken ship a 2-minute walk from where I type, and an international restraining order forbidding a dozen of us from diving into the exploration. Though we haven’t communicated about it, each in our own way holds images of certain pieces we wonder about. In even a lapse of several weeks, we can only remember a few specific pots, so when the time to unload arrives, we’ll be in for an extra dose of surprising remembrances. As for now, the work isn’t going anywhere, and what we did will escape a friend’s fate: she loaded her very large kiln just over halfway, postponed the firing for a year, only to discover mice had nibbled tasty wheat bran in the wads, necessitating redoing the whole process.

An Uncanny Scenario

Decades ago I had an imaginary what-if scenario, perhaps from watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 classic Japanese film, Ugetsu, featuring potters firing a large noborigama. Forced to abandon their kiln by invaders, they return to find their wares fired perfectly. My imaginary plot features a potter who fires a kiln and passes away before the unloading. What mystery would attend that event, making it unlike any other. Regardless of the firing’s success, the vanished maker’s last pots would command an uncanny response.

4 Pixiegama potluck, second day of loading. Clockwise from left to right: Kristina Gor, Seth Payne, Michael Robinson, Lynn Anne Verbeck, Eileen Sackman, Rob Boryk, B. J. Watson, Jack Troy (partially visible on left, Carolanne Currier).

The COVID-19 pandemic isolation has brought me closer than I’d like to this disquieting plot. A diabetic geezer with small-passageway breathing issues (the lungs of most potters my age probably contain enough clay for some little decorative sprigs on a cup), I feel as though I might be game for swarms of breathable, opportunistic, wee nasties hungry for easy prey, and perhaps worst of all, depriving me of entering medical school through the back door, as planned. (Communicable corpses are not even welcome through the back doors of medical schools.)

Carolanne’s been doing the once-weekly shopping, and my instructions from Dr. Anthony Fauci are clear: stay home; enjoy an introvert’s paradise. Write and read, keep almost-forgetting the last kiln we fired while hoping it’s not the last last. Make pots as always, nurturing every potter’s favorite illusion—that the world needs more of them and we’re way behind filling the imaginary orders.

With luck and clean hands, I’ll join my stoking posse in due time to unload, unless the Fates have other plans.

As the Amish say, “Arbeit und hoffe (Work and hope).”

the author Jack Troy, teacher, potter, and writer, retired from Juniata College in 2006, where he taught for 39 years. He has taught more than 250 workshops for potters at colleges, universities, and art centers in the US and internationally. His career has taken him to 13 countries, and his work is in many private and public collections, including the Smithsonian Institution, Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park (Japan), Auckland Museum of Art (New Zealand), and the Kalamazoo Institute of Art (Kalamazoo, Michigan). To learn more, visit

  • Ann S.

    Thank you for this Jack. Here my pots sit ready for the wood kiln that was to be fired at the end of March. Waiting is something potters do well.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Enter Your Log In Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.

Larger version of the image
Share via
Send this to a friend