Just the Facts
Clay stoneware and porcelain
Primary forming method treadle wheel
Primary firing temperature anagama wood firing to cone 12
Favorite surface treatment anagama-fired natural-ash glaze
Favorite tools Pyranha-gama anagama
Studio playlist Neil Young playlist during wood firings
Wishlist a damp room
New England is an area steeped in the agrarian aesthetics of the past with weathered, rough-sawn timber buildings and wheel-thrown and wood-fired pottery. Connecticut’s hardwood forests abound, while an enduring network of waist-high stone walls create a bucolic setting for thousands of old barns. It is a perfect place to call home, raise a family, and build a career.
Newly married in 2009, my wife and I purchased our current home on a parcel of land that could accommodate a new studio and kiln. Built between 2009 and 2011 and taking 3000+ hours to construct, my studio is a self-designed and constructed post-and-beam barn with a swooping shed roof that shelters my wood kiln. Concrete floors, electricity, and captured rainwater provide the framework for a working pottery and woodshop. Although radiant-heat pipes are embedded in the concrete floor, some day, I hope to install a boiler. Oversized eaves and south-facing windows work together by providing natural light and supplemental heat in the winter, and shade throughout the summer months.
The studio is positioned in our backyard and serves as a facility to make, glaze, and fire wares. Throwing on the treadle wheel takes place inside the barn and glazing, most often, is done outside. Glazes and works in progress are stored in the barn to avoid freezing. Pieces are stored on a multi-level ware-board shelf with a footprint of 4×8 feet. Firing happens in the anagama wood kiln. Packing and shipping materials are stored under the stairs, although my use of these materials is minimal because most of my sales are customer direct.
The studio is approximately 800 square feet. The same work areas are used for both woodworking and clay. Equipment is stowed while not in use and brought out when transitioning to a new medium. There is a central work table that is used for clay, metal, and woodwork. The stairs lead to a loft space, which is a lounge with a couch, coffee table, and a TV. The loft doubles as sleeping quarters for the firing crew.
Visiting numerous potters’ studios over the years helped me to understand that workflow is an essential aspect of studio design and layout, with creating and maintaining a streamlined pathway for work from the potter’s wheel to the kiln as a priority. I continue to view the artist’s studio as a mysterious clime—a place where ideas come into fruition, a venue where the working artist feels alive with a sense of purpose-filled wonder, a place where vision interfaces and unites with a creative community.
My current kiln is a 125-cubic-foot angagma called the Pyranha-gama. A crew comprised of former students, fellow potters, and friends has fired the kiln 15 times since 2011. The kiln features a raised, flat floor and an oversized firebox. A side-stoke opening on the firebox and side door in the ware chamber are major improvements over previous, smaller-scale iterations. The most recent upgrade to the kiln is an auxiliary firebox at the center of the ware chamber, which draws heat to the tail and creates an additional flash zone.
With friends, fellow potters, and former students, we continue to learn while working around the Pyranha-gama. Folks involved in the firing cycle enjoy a camaraderie fueled by the hands-on aspects of the process, savoring connections with nature and her resources. Welcoming visitors and fellow potters alike, we continue to build an ever-evolving firing crew, zero in on glaze recipes, secure wood supplies, and refine firing techniques; it’s all a part of the game.
Paying Dues (and Bills)
While attending Bethel College (now University), in St. Paul, Minnesota, I discovered the potter’s wheel. Inspired by my instructor at Bethel, Kirk Freeman, I devoted my professional career to wheel-thrown pottery. A sensational sequence of events, friendships, and experiences has spawned from the decision to pursue a life in clay.
A keen interest in passive solar architecture would be a catalyst to the realization of my creative dreams. After graduating in 1992, I spent a summer in Seattle working as a production potter. Returning to Minneapolis, I rented a warehouse space and set up a simple shop. Recognizing that a broad skillset would be essential in carving out a career in clay, I became interested in carpentry. Dividing my time between the clay studio and working full time on a house-framing crew, I knew deep down that I was learning valuable skills that would aid in the establishment of ceramics facilities of my own someday. During this time, I was building kilns while making and learning to wood fire pots. Firebricks torn from the firebox of an abandoned coal-fired boiler were restacked to form my first wood-fired kiln in 1994.
After many adventures in Minneapolis, including an industrial warehouse fire that destroyed my studio space and prompted a narrow escape from noxious smoke, I moved back to my home state of Connecticut. Inspired by Louise Harter’s design, in 1999 I built a catenary arch-style kiln on the Tressler Farm in Easton, Connecticut. Amazingly, Louise is now a friend and neighbor, and we fire together!
After a few years of working out of a dairy barn and other industrial warehouses in the late 1990s, an opportunity arose that gave my clay career a boost. I partnered with a horticultural nursery and ran my own pottery out of a newly remodeled post-and-beam barn. The next five years were spent electric firing glazed terra cotta for the business and wood firing for myself. Then, one day, I was invited to demonstrate on the wheel for a group of ceramics students. The high schoolers were enthralled and full of questions. I knew then and there that I was born to be a ceramics instructor. Two years later, I found myself working as a certified art teacher at the same school.
A bachelor at the time, I bought my first house with my brother in 2004. The secluded, wooded lot soon harbored a small anagama, which I used to develop a natural-ash glaze surface for my new work. I began to understand the importance and effects of the relationships between the firebox, stacking space, exit flue, and chimney.
Currently, I view myself as having a singularly dual career, teaching pottery and practicing my craft simultaneously. My daily routine involves teaching ceramics and photography at Trumbull High School, in Trumbull, Connecticut. Hired to work as an in-the-classroom artist, I continue to find that my teaching is at its best when sharing personally contemporaneous ideas and techniques. Blending wood firing into the clay program prompts students to view color, form, and surface with fresh eyes. Oftentimes, school days involve demonstrations that highlight my current interests in clay. Afternoons and weekends in and around the studio involve making and tending to clay works; gathering, splitting, and stacking wood in preparation for firings; and a variety of other clay-related activities. Glazing, loading, and firing works comprise the remaining duties that encompass the firing cycle.
Wood-fired ceramics is a largely unknown genre to the general public. I’ve found that an educated audience becomes a buying audience. To facilitate this relationship with the community, it was critical to make the property suitable for guests. Once the construction of the barn and kiln were complete, I set about attending to the rest of our property. After all, an inviting environment makes for a pleasant living/working atmosphere and a destination for potential customers. Heavily influenced by my experiences at the nursery, I envisioned a yard and grounds that embraced a spirit of creativity and resourcefulness; a place for folks to join in, learn, and grow.
We welcome people to visit the firings, fire pots, attend the kiln unloadings, and shop at the pottery sales. Over time, the buying audience has grown steadily. The winter holiday pottery sale accounts for 75% of yearly sales. Each fall, participation in City Wide Open Studios, a showcase of Connecticut artists, acts as an additional opportunity to engage with the buying public and to promote the spirit of community-based wood firing.
Initially developing my aesthetic through the study of ceramic form and proportion, I find renewal as I work in various media. A cross-fertilization of ideas and experience awakens the mind to possibility and discovery. Plant material, concrete, wood, metal, stone, and other media prompt idea generation and are often part of creative solutions.
Throughout the seasonal cycle, I’ll focus creative energy on one media or another. Springtime, usually the month of April, is reserved for working in the yard and garden beds. Summers are often devoted to construction projects of various sorts. Fall and winter involve making pots and processing wood.
I’m drawn to both clay and wood because of their forgiving and natural qualities: clay for its responsiveness to touch, wood for its grain structure and workability. For me, curves and volume predominate the manipulation of soft clay. Lines, angles, and notches are the vocabulary of the woodworker. A learned sensibility guides the decision-making process on the wheel. Often, measurements and geometry lead the carpenter as he erects a plumb and level structure. For me, working with seemingly opposing media serves to keep the creative process fresh and interesting.
Most Important Lesson
The most important lesson that I’ve learned in my time in clay is that relationships with others are the essential foundation of a solid career. A long and intricate sequence of friendships and professional acquaintances has provided unimaginable twists and turns to my clay experience. Gratitude and thankfulness to all.
Spectrum Gallery, Essex, Connecticut: www.spectrumartgallery.org