Clay Culture: The Afterstory

When COVID-19 made it unsafe for people to gather in groups, these potters postponed unloading their latest firing. Months later, the results are in. 

On May 31st, 74 days after our March firing concluded, 6 out of our crew of 12 gathered to unload the kiln. We had decided it was important to get the work to its owners, even though everyone’s summer shows had been canceled. At 9:30am Rob Boryk, who teaches at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania; Jason Laney, a graduate student at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland; Michael Robinson, a long-time crew member; Carolanne Currier, ceramic artist and my partner; and I began unloading the kiln. Carolanne and I had removed the door the day before. This was this most businesslike process we’d ever undertaken, and in about an hour 300 pots and sculptures as well as the kiln furniture were out. Afterward, Carolanne and I clustered the work by maker to be returned to each by various means in the next few days.

Experiencing the Results

Seeing the work in such a factory-like milieu was like having helped plant a garden, then receiving vegetables delivered months later through a community-supported agriculture (CSA), except that you could identify the vegetables. The pots had an abandoned look about them instead of being part of a curious welcoming brigade. Oddly, some had been nearly forgotten. Ever since opening the first wood kiln I helped build with Rob Barnard at Juniata College in 1978, every unloading has had a collective, quieting response, in which “We did this,” has been the prevailing, humbling, ambiance. Rarely has anyone been gluttonous for their own work as if it might be hidden in a rummage of collective effort. Kiln sites should be considered sacred altars because of the sacrificial transitions that occur there over time—the transformation of immense quantities of wood into its elemental components, enabled by human will and energy, and attended to by all manner of muses, blessings, and poxes.

1 Eileen Sackman’s African Elephant Jar, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, wheel-thrown, hand-carved stoneware, porcelain slip, partial shino glaze, fired in Jack Troy’s Pixiegama kiln, spring 2020.

2 Lynn Anne Verbeck’s tall pierced vase, 11 1/4 in. (29 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and altered stoneware, natural ash, sprayed glaze (Unzicker Brothers’ tenmoku sprayed heavier at the top shoulder, then nuka sprayed on the top third), fired in Jack Troy’s Pixiegama kiln, spring 2020.

Rob, our resident black-belt firing analyst, was at his best, calling out some oxidation/reduction patterns he noticed picking through the unstacking, zone by zone. This firing had two cool zones, strangely, the lower front, and top rear. This had been the third firing since replacing the flatter, 13-year-old arch a year and a half ago. The replacement is closer to that of a catenary, and as he said, “It’s like firing a whole new kiln.” He made excellent notes about flame patterns with suggestions about future stoking protocols. In its life since 2005, the kiln has undergone several firebox and sutema iterations—it resembles the fabled Vermonter’s axe: “Two new handles and three new heads, but she’s still a good old axe.”

Thoughts and a Clean Kiln

This was the first time since 1986 that we failed to clean the kiln and wash all shelves and posts during unloading, leaving the kiln ready to load that evening if necessary—a procedure I learned from David Shaner at a workshop he taught here that summer. It is surprisingly efficient and takes a dozen of us about two and a half hours. No one leaves the site with the equivalent of a huge stack of dirty dishes for someone else to wash up.

Our aim in each firing is for everyone to take away some food for thought after our potluck lunch. Watching participants reaching out for a piece that moves them personally—shopping for things there’s no need to buy—is always enjoyable. Following the tidy up, a potluck lunch features an informal round-robin discussion of individual pieces. This ritual is similar to a christening, or humanizing aspect of what we do. Pots fresh from the kiln haven’t triggered any “felt knowledge” from people until they’ve been passed around and responded to, and these are their first moments to take on those initial invisible fingerprints and a little body heat from appreciative beholders. Over their lifetimes, pots occupy places of importance, and by each of us selecting one to speak about, we’re granting a dozen or so their first human encounters. Every selection is an invitation to express our observations about a new cup or bowl held at arm’s length. We follow Garrison Keillor’s “Head Stop Program for the Rehabilitation of the Over-educated,” so there is no jargon, no polysyllabic blather, or “critical discourse,” just honest expressions of how individual pieces speak or mutter to us. Sincere conversation about the ways clay objects affect us helps authenticate individual pieces by granting them a touch of meaning.

Michael Robinson’s mug, 5½ in. (14 cm) in diameter, Laguna Clay’s B Mix Wood Fire clay, Unzicker Brothers’ tenmoku glaze. Fired in Jack Troy’s Pixiegama kiln, spring 2020.

A little pyro-forensics always works its way in—“Why things look the way they do,” “How did not stuffing the firebox at the close of the firing affect the colors and textures near the firebox?” “Here’s how the new bagwall/sutema worked so well.”

All the above is what we missed most about this unloading—the unquantifiable camaraderie.

This time, in keeping with pandemic dictates, a pitcher of cold mugicha roast barley tea and a variety of nuts sufficed for amenities. We masked up, broke ranks, said our goodbyes, re-quarantined, and called it good.

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 www.jacktroy.net.

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