Ceramics Monthly: What kinds of collaborations have you been working on lately?

Dick Lehman: One of my most recent collaborations involves a three-year international wood-firing exchange with Japanese potter, Hiromi Matsukawa—final independent apprentice of Shiho Kanzaki. 

Another long-term, wood-firing collaboration involves my work with Justin Rothshank. In my opinion, Rothshank pursues collaborations more actively than most any other clay artist that I know. Off the top of his head, he listed nine methods of working with others on clay collaborations. He’s also worked collaboratively in other craft media: glass blowing, stained glass, wood, concrete, kiln building, and printmaking.

CM: Tell us about your ongoing wood-firing collaboration with Justin Rothshank.

DL: I’ve been involved in many firings of Rothshank’s anagama-hybrid kiln. Over the years, I noticed one particular area in the kiln that kept producing a particularly magnificent range of results. It’s a small little micro-environment: roughly 12×24×12 inches. Looking into the kiln from the front, it’s the second shelf up from the bottom, on the left-hand side, and just behind the front row of pots.

It’s not that the results were consistent from firing to firing, but each time, the results were singularly successful, as if all the goodness of the fuel, atmosphere, ash, and commitments had focused their best gifts on that little area. I asked him if I could rent the space from him for a succession of firings and document how that little micro-environment treated different clays. He agreed, but refused to accept rent in the form of financial compensation.

In retrospect, I realize that I was asking for a collaboration with space that Rothshank had produced: while the kiln stacking, pots, participants, fuels, and firing duration varied from firing to firing, the space stayed the same. I was collaborating with a two-cubic-foot microclimate that is particular only to Rothshank’s kiln.

Most often the fuels came from Justin’s northern Indiana property: beech, maple, oak, black cherry, black walnut, sycamore, and pine. These trees over time had collected soil solubles into their bark and cambium layers, reflecting 100 years of Elkhart County weather. They stored the soluble salts and metallic salts transformed by root enzymes that were the biological imperative of each species. In firing, those fuels deposited the sodium, calcium, potassium, and metallic salts onto the pots. And out of the chimney on wings of flame, the kiln released some of those salts—those that had somehow avoided contact with a sticky labyrinth of orange-hot pots—raining them back on the very soil that had nurtured these trees for decades before.

What began as an effort to collaborate with Rothshank and his kiln turned into an even more complex cooperation with the biological, botanical, and meteorological history of this little slice of Elkhart County.