ear the end of April, I traveled back to my alma mater, the University of Minnesota: Morris, to help with their wood-firing in the university’s kiln. It is a small, round anagama (single-chambered wood kiln) that fires well! In 2003, I helped build it the summer before my senior year of college, and have enjoyed the opportunity most semesters, to journey back to Morris, meet the present students, and feel useful. I try to bring a few pieces to fire as well, but this spring I only brought one, albeit a large one (at 3 feet tall):
This figure is an attempt to describe growth and stretching oneself. I think of her as the human figure version of Brancusi’s famous Bird in Space sculpture.
I love firing figurative sculptures in wood kilns for many reasons. I love seeing them inside the kiln, glowing like suns, as strange emissaries into the supernatural environment inside a 2,200 degree kiln. In a wood kiln, to heat the work, an armful of firewood is stoked into the kiln roughly every 10 minutes to burn right along side the clay pieces. The wood burns quickly down to coals and fine ash which is lifted on the flame, carried through the kiln, and deposited on the work. When enough heat is gained, this ash then melts onto the work as sort of a proto-glaze. You can see the melted ash following the lines of her face at right. Sometimes the ash isn’t fully or evenly melted and is wonderfully crusty. I enjoy some of the rougher textures especially on more sculptural work.
At left is a close up of the variety in surface that a wood kiln produces, each piece is sort of a world unto themselves. You can see in the bottom image the ‘fly ash glaze’ pooling in the collarbone and running in rivulets down her chest.
Once you understand how much the surface of a wood-fired object reflects the process which made it, it’s beautiful appearance becomes awe-inspiring. The pieces’ profound presence is the result of many people coming together in common work. Wood kilns build small communities around themselves out of necessity: lots of wood needs to be split, and someone needs to be monitoring the kiln and adding wood 24 hours a day during a firing. I feel privileged to be a part of a few communities surrounding kilns and consider them my second families. Thanks to my professor, Kevin Flicker, for hooking me on clay, and creating experiences for people to continue engaging with it.