After my last post, Iput away the laptop. It was dark, and cold, and I had short of spent myself on blather for the evening. Reading over what I wrote, a lot of it sounds crabby… I also realized , when I was looking over how I dole out my time, that I spent SIX hours a week just driving to and from school. Sheesh.

Anyway, after my tea-and-blog break, I headed back to the kiln around 10:30 and Patrick and I fired together for a while. Everything looked good, we had a nice glow going, and you could see the substantial coat of ash settling on the pots. We began side-stoking through a peep, into a narrow gap I left between the front and back shelves. One of Patrick’s really tall pots was wadded on bricks on the floor near this middle stoke port, and peeking through a hole, we could see that it had squashed down its (stupid frozen) wad in the back and was touching the shelf. Patrick pointed out that it seemed to be in an ash shadow at that part of the foot, though, and maybe wouldn’t stick.

I saw throguh the peeps that one of my little canteen forms that had been perched on its rim got knocked into the middle stoke embers by an errant slat of wood, but that’s OK. I put a few really loose pots right in the firebox doorway, hibuse-style. Everything in the kiln is an experiment. I find it interesting that what I want out of a firing now is not necessarily marvelous pots (though that would be fine) — it’s INFORMATION. What made this color, flash, mark? What made the melt work, or not? What caused this problem, what do these slips/clays do in wood?

When it got dark, it got colder. We had chatted with a local man who came to pull recyclable metal out of the dumpster, and our friend Gypsy the painter (who just graduated with her MFA) stopped out to say hello, but unlike firings on warmer nights we didn’t have a lot of visitors. Since it was too cold to sleep and the van didn’t look like a cozy bed, I sent Patrick home to bed at 11pm and settled in.

I assure you, I was a vision to behold. I was a fashion statement from head to toe… from Jeff’s hunting cap — which kept scooting upward atop my stringy, ashy hair for that “Mr. Peanut” look — to the smears of black soot on my face — to the layers of smoky, smudgy clothes, right down to my partly-melted-by-warming-my-feet-near the stokehole boots.

During one restroom break I pondered my image in the bathroom mirror. I used to have the nicest hands, great nails, soft skin, pretty rings. As a potter (and especially these last two years) my hands look more like a stevedore’s. My arty or feminine outfits have been stacked untouched, since my daily choice of wardrobe has more to do with clay chunks than self expresssion. I’m not especially vain, and don’t think much about the shoes and accessories and hairstyles that are supposedly a woman’s focus.. but when I graduate, I plan to reclaim some of my previous style. I am certainly functional but would like to be decorative as well.

Anyway, I got into the rhythm of the firing, hearing the kiln breathe in or out, gazing (with my dark torch glasses) into the various peeps to see glazes melting on yellow-hot pots, shiny as a bright white version of a candied apple. Stoke side, gather wood, park in front of the firebox to stoke and warm up.

One of my 101 students, a young Japanese kid named Hiro, stopped after 2 am when the bars closed just to see the fire. I had waxed poetic about the wonder of a wood kiln at high temperatures, and he was fascianted with how beautiful the fire was — the way it moved like water, splitting around bricks and pots, feathering through passageways and past the peeps. He was also amazed at how clearly visible the kiln was inside when the fire dies back and you can see all the way to the far end. It’s as if the heat magnifies the far end of the kiln, magnifying detail — all in vivid bright yellow light.

I showed Hiro how to stoke and he helped out for a bit before he headed for home, leaving me to the peace of 3am. I really felt safe out there; maybe because it was so cold that no mugger or rapist in his right mind would venture out. The tarp shelter made it feel cozy in there… and the “fireplace” provides such ambiance.

Patrick came back around 4:00. Cones six and seven were long gone in the front, cone nine was starting to bed. At the far end, cone five was bending at the tip. I was doing OK but getting sleepy, and the cold of my stoking seat has worked its way into my butt and thighs — so I laid back the drivers seat in the van as far as it would go, turned on the car long enough to get the heater going, then turned off and tried to get some sleep.

I stayed in the van for two hours, dozing off, getting cold, turning the car on, dozing off… I finally gave up and went back to the kiln, where at least it was warm.

The sun was rising when it started to look like we were ready to wind it up. In the front, ^9 had arched over and was hanging straight down like an icicle off the edge of the shelf. ^10 was pointing at the horizon. ^5 was curled over in the front, and more importantly, we were just about out of cedar (which we chose for the low melting point of the ash, especially late in the firing.)

I will admit that I was not at the top of my game. Th eolder I get, the less I am able to think.function or make decisions when running on no sleep. In retrospect, my original plan had been to close the damper at peak temperature and clam the kiln, back to front, filling every glowing crack between the bricks with newspaper dipped in clay slop.

Instead, I quit stoking the firebox, since that end of the kiln was at temp and we’ve been asked not to exceed ^10 — and kept stoking the side port, to give the cooler end of the kiln a little catch up time. But when I peered back through the firebox stoking port, the shiny melted pots in the very front had lost their shine and had a lot of unmelted fly ash stuck to their fronts. Noooooooo! That was what we were trying to avoid. It’s a complicated loop — the only way to heat pots so that ash will melt is to stoke with wood… which blows ash onto the pots .. which then needs to be melted… how the hell do you stop? In a big anagama that fires for a week and is shut down section by section, it would be more logical.

The only thing I could think to do was to brick up the firing ports to slow down the ash drift. (I was going to shut the damper, remember? But stoking the side port changed all that…)

So bass-ackward and without any of my original plans, I closed up the kiln after 25 hours of firing (and twelve of candling.) We cleaned up the kiln area and took down the tarps as the sun rose in glory over the plant-ops parking lot.

Honestly, as rewarding an adventure as the firing was (and it’s not over yet! Pots still to come) I really felt like crap. My eyes were smoked red, my hands full of splinters, my lungs suffering from the kiln smoke — my mouth tasted like old bongwater. I needed food.

We chose the Denny’s near my highway home for our post-firing debriefing. I spent a lot of time during the long night thinking about people I know — like David Hendley — who fire their own kilns alone, and wondering how I would feel about that. Two days ago, I thought it might be nice to fire this kiln alone. By this morning, we agreed it would be nice to have a THIRD person who might at least come and stoke a shift in exchange for pots in the kiln. A “silent partner” would be perfect, imo, to avoid that “too many cooks” effect.

Patrick pointed out that this felt like a really good “team building” firing. While P. and I get along well, it takes a real open and honest communication to fire a kiln like this and respect the weight of each other’s opinions, know when to weigh in or step back — and help your firing buddy know where the lines are.

I was glad to have him around. At least three times this week he had a real light bulb idea, a solution to some problem I couldn’t wrap my head around. And a few times I threw out an
idea as well, to which he gave a visibly impressed thumbs-up.

So… red eyed, filthy, soot-smudged, stinking of fire, but heartened by breakfast, I headed home down the highway. Jeff was pleased to hear we had finished up so early; when I got home he met me at the door with a cup of warm decaf, and he had the bathtub filled already. I soaked in the hot water until it began to cool, then crawled into my very soft bed and just blinked out for a couple of hours. When I closed my eyes I saw stoke holes and cedar wedges…

It’s evening now and I still can’t get all the way warm. I am going to send in this entry and go curl up by the fire with Jeff, two blankets, and three cats, and try to get warmed through. The fact that I can’t replenish the wood until they start making split rail fence in the spring means that I won’t be firing this again in cold weather. Patrick doesn’t plan to fire it again, at all — his MFA show is in May.

Maybe in better weather I will bring the pop up and my Jeff… have my cake and eat it too. Marital bonding AND school progress!