Friday afternoon, Patrick started a small, bright fire in the EMU train kiln we loaded last Wednesday. He burned mostly pine, kindling, and bits of the dry Christmas tree somebody left at the kiln site. It warmed the kiln slowly — not so essential, with bisque — but also left a nice sifting of ash on all the pots. We were trying to see whether a long slow firing would help us even out the firebox-to-chimney-end temperature differences. (Liz W. is right: windy, sunny days are very nice for firing.)
Jonathan Smiegel, a young schoolteacher/ MA with some tall sculptural pieces loaded near the firebox, came after work to put some hours in. The long slow fire plan required only one person at a time, but we overlapped at the beginnings and ends to share info, coffee and company.
Me, I was still in Toledo at that point, hooking the little pop-up camper to my trailer hitch, filling a basket with apples and snacks, stuffing sleeping bags and pillows into the van, and hunting down leather gloves and warm clothes.
A new student — let’s call her Wilma — had two big pots in the kiln and was scheduled to stoke from 8 to midnight. She and I often get on each other’s nerves, so my plan was to set up my camper behind the kiln site and sleep for those four hours, then get up and fire the early morning shift. I arrived and set up while Patrick was on a dinner break, so I kept Jonathan company at the firebox — occasionally helping to pull the top fire door to load, or emptying embers from the bottom, but mostly waiting for Wilma to show up.
8:00, no Wilma. By 9:00, Jonathan had to go home, so I stoked on and waited, mentally subtracting from my few remaining sleep hours, and having uncharitable thoughts. Patrick arrived and we checked the peeps, talked about temp rise and plans. Reem came by (hugely pregnant, due any day) with her husband and some snacks, and insisted on getting a hand in with stoking and scooping embers. We had a glow going, by then, and the pots looked like they were illuminated from within, sporting some promising shadows of ash.
When Wilma finally arrived, two and a half hours late, I made a hasty retreat to my sleeping bag in the pop up and tried my hardest to sleep. Loud drunks careened home from the bars to the dorms, Patrick and Reem chatted and coached Wilma, folks stopped by or wandered out of the nearby sculpture building to see what was going on. Wilma stayed for three of her four hours (though overlapping on somebody else’s shift isn’t much help.)
Patrick kept at it on his own after she left, and let me sleep until 2 a.m. when I started my shift. We chatted a while, agreed we should climb slowly and hold around two thousand degrees, and then he went to find a sleeping spot in the pop up. (I was grateful he was sleeping nearby, as it felt weird to be alone on the isolated edge of campus.) He told me to wake him in a few hours, but I got into a weird dreamy rhythm where time seemed to fly, so I just let him sleep and kept stoking until 8:30 a.m. (when Jonathan showed up with muffins and coffee.)
Friendly folks had come and gone throughout the firing, but by three in the morning it was quiet and I was finally alone. Comraderie “around the firebox” is legendary, but being alone with the kiln was great. The whole feeling of the firing changed, at that point. Personalities and conversations faded, and the stoking became something between me and the kiln, like a dance, a meditation and a science all at once.
I am convinced that humans have some kind of inherited memory, remnants of primal instinct strung like beads in our DNA. How many thousands of years have people sat looking into a fire? It’s both fearsome and comforting, and the sound and pattern of the flame is mesmerizing.
The big pole lights reflected the shadow of the kiln chimney against the corrugated metal of the sculpture building, sometimes with a grey shadow-ghost of smoke, mostly without. I stoked with the slats of hardwood Diana scored from a flooring company, with thick green mulberry branches I had brought in my van from home, with pallet wood, and the last of the christmas tree for variety. I loved listening to the changing sounds of the fire with each choice, and watching the fire swirl.
Apparently EMU students are frequently impatient enough to drive right through the long wooden arm of automated card-reading parking lot gates, because plant ops had left us a nice big pile of the bright yellow broken boards to burn as well.
At some point I remembered to get my polarized sunglasses out of the van, because I literally spent hours sitting on a cinder block, feeding narrow wood through the brick-sized openings of the firebox and leaning right, left, right to see how the fire licked past this pot, around that one, under here and over there.
Early in the firing I could only see the pots closest to the firebox, the ones taking the full brunt of the flame. A couple of Patrick’s big jars, Jonathan’s tall narrow thrown-cut-and-assembled stacks, and my two little ewers on the top shelf. One lay on its side on balls of wadding, and the other (with it’s spout in the air) stood on top of it on tiptoe, looking like some little kiwi bird in victory stance atop a fallen competitor.
As the pots got hot enough to really glow, though, something odd happened. The heat distorted and foreshortened the distance like curved glass, seeming to magnify the now illuminated pots behind that front row. It was brighter than daylight in there, and having taken part in loading, I remembered whose shoulder or belly was poking out here or there, and which way the spouts were pointed. Walking around the kiln pulling peeps showed me my teapots with shiny melted ash, and lidded casseroles glowing yellow-hot. Glaze on pieces in the cooler chimney end was melting. Cones — as ashblasted as the pots — were starting to bend.
Time flew by. Every time I went into the sculpture building to pee (a creepy place late at night, with startling humanoid forms around every corner) I barely believed the wall clock. A night bird started to twitter, and the moon got hazy and then disappeared behind mist. Before dawn a light rain began to fall. I perched as close to the firebox as possible, but it was so close to the roof-shadow that if I leaned my head back, I got cool rain on my face. I did that from time to time; it was refreshing, after the relentless heat-blast, and it woke me up a bit. Once in a while I would close my eyes after stoking to listen to the fire, and half-dream between stokes without dozing off.
I was dismayed at one point to look in a low peep near the firebox and see that encroaching embers had pushed one of my teapots off its wadding and tipped it over forward onto its (glazed) spout. I sat pouting about it at the firebox for a full hour before I got an idea. I went back with a metal rod, opened the peep, poked the wads out of the way, hooked it by the handle and stood it back on its feet. It’s unglazed except inside, rim and spout (just coated with slip and expanded to make a crackle) and it’s sitting on embers and ash, so just maybe it won’t glue itself down. At any rate it would have, if I’d left it on its spout.
Once in a while I would pull the six bricks at the bottom of the firebox, scoop embers into two large square metal bins, replace the bricks and drag the ember bins out to a sandy spot to cool. Or I would put on the big asbestos gloves, pull out the two-handled metal firebox door, and throw in an armload of shaggy hickory logs. It would get smoky and blow reduction flame out the side holes for a bit, and then suddenly shift, and I could look in the firebox and see where the top log-fire flame was rolling downward, bellying down between the grate in lovely yellow, lavender, pink and blue, and licking down the length of the inner kiln walls.
By morning, I was a mess to look at. I had gone from one hooded zipper sweatshirt to two, and then a leather jacket in the chilliest part of the night… then as the kiln got hotter and the sun came up, removed
layers again. But in the sculpture building’s bathroom mirror I looked like a chimney sweep, face smudged with black, and tangled hair smelling of smoke. My eyes were red and hands were full of splinters (still are) but I was already planning how long it would be until we could fire again.
I woke Patrick when Jonathan’s showed up with breakfast, then crawled back into my sleeping bag for an hour or so. When Nancy Sly appeared (the MFA with the broken arm — I tell people it happened in a critique) with coffee, bagels and OJ, and I rejoined the living. We agreed to really go for it and finish up by lunch time, working together to get the cones down.
Diana had asked us to use up the remnants of a propane tank that we need to refill for the salt kiln, so we poked a weed burner into an opening at the cooler end of the kiln and stoked heavily all morning. By the time ^11 went down in front, we had ^4 down in the cold spot by the chimney, and were so excited about the whole thing that we didn’t mind the work of clamming up the kiln and cleaning up the area. I closed up the pop-up and got ready to head back to Ohio.
I have made the guys SWEAR that they won’t touch a thing until I get ther eon Tuesday. We’d agreed that unloading should happen tuesday night during class, so that everybody with pots in the kiln can take part in the unloading AND the clean up. I’ve also invited one of the profs on my MFA committee.
If I were Patrick, I’d sure be over there with a flashlight in the meantime, though. The suspense is hard to take. I will either have the most exciting pots of my life, well worth the hours of labor.. or disappointment that have to be removed from the kiln shelves with a hammer. The important part will be seeing which of our experiemnts — with slips, glazes, woods, timing, position — paid off.
And even if the pots are really satisfying, ash-kissed and delicious, I am not sure how they’ll be pereceived by the non-ceramics profs who will conduct my mid program review on friday the 13th. To their credit, two of them came to visit during the firing, so we’ll maybe get points for effort…
I came home to the most satisfying shower ever, and a nice nap on clean white sheets with fat down pillows. When I closed my eyes to nap — and later in bed that night — I could still see swirling, licking flame patterns like a movie inside my eyelids.
If you read this whole long thing, I am sorry ;0) I’ll post pix of the pots next week.