An idea for an accessible weekend conference focused on soda firing came to fruition through volunteer work, partnerships, and teamwork.
The SodaPosium conference grew from conversations between us (Gay Smith (aka Gertrude Graham Smith), who started soda firing in 1993 during a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, and Paul Wisotzky) as well as fellow avid soda firer Ron Philbeck. Seeing the popularity of the technique explode over several decades, and wanting to find a way to acknowledge soda firing’s lineage—its inventors, innovators, and early practitioners in the US—as well as to engage with contemporary practices, we created SodaPosium, a national conference on soda firing.
Developing the Event
From the beginning, we knew that SodaPosium had three essential elements—education, community building, and celebration. We intended for the event to bring the soda-firing community together by offering a valued resource for information and networking, providing opportunities for mentorship, and expanding the field’s diversity and inclusivity. The notion that SodaPosium would be the first gathering that we knew of to focus solely on soda firing fueled our enthusiasm.
We developed an ambitious program for the weekend conference. Events included keynote presentations by pioneers Jeff Zamek and Warren Mather. Zamek’s 1973 master’s thesis at Alfred University and Mather’s 1978 Studio Potter article about soda-kiln construction and firing gave fellow artists likely the earliest access to information and practice with the technique. The programming also included a preconference soda-firing opportunity, workshops with experienced practitioners, an exhibition juried by Ron Philbeck, a presenters exhibition, and a sale highlighting contemporary soda-fired work.
Fundamental to the success of SodaPosium was our choice of partners, presenters, and collaborators. In addition to our friendship, we’ve worked together extensively in educational settings. We knew we could play to each other’s strengths in producing SodaPosium, and remain friends and colleagues. We were committed to making the best decisions together, even if it meant changing course or changing our views on things. We both are organized, clear communicators, and have good follow-through. We could trust each other to get things done. And we did.
Vital to SodaPosium’s success was our collaboration with event host and co-producer, The Clay Lady’s Campus/Mid-South Ceramics (TCLC), in Nashville, Tennessee. Co-owned by Danielle McDaniel and Tami Archer, TCLC has a proven track record of putting on events similar to what we envisioned SodaPosium to be. It was helpful that one of us (Gay Smith) had prior experience working with TCLC. She valued this community clay center’s commitment to collaboration, support of and generosity to artists, and community building. TCLC’s exceptional gift for hospitality made everyone feel immediately at home, and Mid-South Ceramics sponsored SodaPosium with equipment, materials, and assistance. It was a match made in heaven.
Fundamental to our early planning was clear delineation of our respective roles and responsibilities. TCLC created a document we referenced as plans evolved, and we developed a realistic, yet flexible, budget. This was particularly important considering we produced and launched the event during the COVID-19 pandemic. This early clarity on roles, responsibilities, and budget supported our working relationships and led to the event’s success. We knew what we each had to do and we stayed out of each other’s way.
We invited presenters who would offer the widest range of information and techniques currently available with emphasis on the uniqueness of the soda-fired surface. This meant inclusion of low-fire, mid-range, and high-fire practitioners, with a diversity of approaches to surface treatment. We agreed it was also key to present information on kiln design and firing considerations by an experienced kiln builder, information overlooked at times in education around atmospheric firing. Our friendships and connections in the clay community helped us find and invite presenters, and we knew the two of us would also present. We are grateful to presenters William Baker, Ian Bassett, Susan Feagin, and Justin Rothshank for joining an untried event and generously sharing their time and expertise with us in the development of and at the event.
Each of SodaPosium’s components had its own logistics. For example, the juried show required a juror, a timeline, application materials and process for applicants, and clear communication. Publicity had its own set of logistics, as did the program and communication with presenters, etc. The discrete nature of the logistical components of SodaPosium meant we could focus on them one at a time. Publicity included a TCLC–designed logo and website, our Instagram posts and e-newsletters, and the generous help of the clay community in spreading the word nationwide. Often, one of us took the lead on a specific component. Managing the components simultaneously was complex, requiring time and constant communication. At the height of planning and preparation, producing SodaPosium became at least a half-time job for both of us. Again, having clearly defined roles, responsibilities, tasks, and timelines was critical to staying on track and getting things done.
There was no seed funding for SodaPosium. We volunteered our labor and covered small initial expenses like purchasing a domain name, setting up an email account, and paying for printing and mailing publicity materials, etc. TCLC generously covered expenses in advance of the event related to their roles: doing design work; registering and communicating with participants; lining up vendors and volunteers; and arranging for meals, refreshments, snacks, etc.
Another aspect of funding relates to who has access to the event. We wanted to price SodaPosium to be accessible ($300 for early birds, $350 for later registration, with lunch and refreshments included), but even more than that, we wanted to provide a mechanism for participants with financial need to receive scholarships and honorariums so they could attend. We are grateful to Vince Montague and The Julia Terr Fund for the Ceramic Arts for providing a grant to us for scholarships and honorariums for artists and educators who are Asian/Asian American, Black/African American, Native American/Indigenous, or Latinx, as well as people from communities that have been underrepresented in educational and community-building events such as SodaPosium. The fund’s generous support provided six scholarships to the event that included participation in the preconference soda firing as well as the conference. Some scholarships included travel stipends. The grant also supported an honorarium for a presenter. In order for us to receive the grant, we needed to identify a nonprofit organization willing to receive and disburse the funds. We found another great collaborator in Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill in Truro, Massachusetts.
We believe that SodaPosium was a great success. The revenue covered all expenses and there was a little left over to use as seed money for the next event. We had 45 participants from across the country with a diversity of experience, approaches, and backgrounds. Our aim was to provide education, community building, and a celebration of soda firing. Participant feedback indicates we accomplished our goal. As one participant wrote in their evaluation, “The presenters provided an abundance of information and were so willing to share knowledge. The environment was so welcoming and inclusive, which enabled a community to be formed.” Another put it this way, “There was so much that I liked about SodaPosium. Prior to attending, I really did not know much about soda firing, so what I liked most was learning about the process from so many different people. I also loved the connections that I was able to make.”
The studio-pottery community is generous and caring. An aim with SodaPosium was to generate a sense of community at the event and to give back to the community that has been so supportive to us. We plan to continue to offer education and build upon our success creating a network and resources for the soda-firing community. One current effort is to develop a database of artists with soda kilns who would be willing to share and offer soda-firing opportunities.
We knew putting on SodaPosium would not bring any financial reward. That was not the point, and it certainly helped to never have that expectation. And fortunately both of us are at a point in our lives and careers where we could afford to donate the amount of time necessary to put on the caliber of event that we did.
Plans for SodaPosium 2024 are underway (tentative dates April 12–14). Please stay tuned.
the authors Gay Smith, aka Gertrude Graham Smith, has been firing porcelain ware in a soda kiln for close on 30 years. Residencies include Penland School of Craft and The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. She teaches workshops and exhibits nationally. Paul Wisotzky is a studio potter and educator. He soda fires his work at his studio in down-draft and cross-draft kilns. He teaches at the Harvard Ceramics Program and Truro Center for the Arts. For more about the conference, visit www.theclaylady.com/sodaposium.