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Speaking the Language of the Soul

Notre Dame University Anagama Works, Snite Museum Exhibition,2003

by Dick Lehman

I experience a kind of reverence in wood-firing that I find in no other ceramic pursuit: The kiln is stoked with wood which has grown over the last thirty or fifty, or perhaps seventy years. During those years the tree, being true to its own biological imperatives (and subject to the particularities of the roughly two hundred cubic yards of soil atop of which it sits, and through which its roots traverse), has quietly but steadily stored away in its bark and cambium layer a peculiar set of soluble minerals and metallic salts.

When the wood, which is thrust into the blazing twenty-five hundred degree firebox, fairly explodes into combustion minuscule trace amounts of these minerals and salts (which are not combustible) hitch a ride on the fly-ash and start a journey through the kiln. The ash swirls and eddies around pots, gets lifted with the heat of combustion to higher elevations within the kiln, then cooling a bit begins to descend through the pots and shelves, being inexorably pulled by the chimney’s draft to a small exit flue hole at the far-end of the kiln. If by some chance of the swirling tides of flame-currents within the kiln the ash has avoided direct contact with the pots, the fly-ash exits the chimney, eventually returning to the earth to fertilize another generation of forests. But should the fly-ash, during its dance among the pots, come in direct contact with the red-hot molten sticky surface of a pot, the ash adheres, leaving the smallest imaginable trace of flux and hitchhiking-glaze-chemistry on the surface of the pot.

After a week or more of these chance encounters (and the burning of 5-10 cords of wood), there begins to collect a formidable swell of these glaze-making traces, and soon a new kind of flow emerges: an oozing sticky mass of improbable collaborators: natural-ash-glaze flowing down the side of the pots and sculptures, drawn now by gravity’s pull to find their way to the lowest point on the pot.

It is this improbable and unlikely blend of biology, chemistry, physics, and intentionality that leads me to a sense of reverence concerning these wood-fired forms. The arbitrary quality of the flames and the fuel sources create never-to-be-repeated surfaces that are rich with clues, hints, and information to the inquiring spirit.

I believe that one can never really make wood fired pottery and sculpture. One can only work alongside the trees and the clay and the flames….and with the OTHERS WHO ARE WORKING WITH YOU…. to receive the gifts of the kiln with awe and appreciation…..gifts of mystery and magic.

But it is now to these “OTHERS” that I would like to turn my attention. For you see, these wood-fired ceramic works cannot be described purely through references to fuel and fire and fly-ash. These works could never be created if it were not for the “OTHERS”. The firing of large anagama-style wood-fired kilns is never a solitary pursuit. These kilns are so large – the firings so long – that no single person could possibly fill and fire the kiln by themself.

In the same way that there is an improbable and unlikely blend that contributes to wood-fired glaze- chemisty, there is a similar unforeseeable mix of people who surround and contribute to each wood-firing. Several years ago I wrote about just such a group of people who came together to fire a Pennsylvania anagama. That group looked like this:

We had come from many places with varied motivations. We had caffein-ed through the night, our trucks weighted down with “the goods”; we had traveled all day, through 3 or 4 States, cartop carriers groaning under the pounds of pots which had ‘wonder’ wedged into them, ‘purpose’ pulled through the throwing rings, and ‘hope’ hardening as pots dried on the ride. Others of us merely walked from dorm or home, or from “real” jobs close-by with boxes of yet-to-be-sintered forms in tow, skidding across the base of snow.

We were English majors, and nurses; orchid-growers and builders. We were professional clay artists and administrators. We were teachers, writers, cooks and psychiatrists, and all...learners. We were all...potters and ceramic artists.

Our life stories were like yours: carpenter ants in our attics, driveways that needed to be shoveled, and exams for which to study. Our pantries were full for the winter, there was venison in the freezer, we had good books to read. We were falling in and out of love. Our relatives were very ill, were recovering.....were fine. We felt inquisitive, sentimental, curious, nervous, bored and contented. And our pots told all these stories -- to those who listened.

I would imagine that the groups who have gathered to fire the Notre Dame anagama might be similarly described………just as varied; just as improbable; just as passionate…..(and including one participant who caught the “red-eye” from the Pacific Northwest, arriving just in time to be “on time” for his first shift): a group of collaborators who have worked together to make happen, that which would otherwise have been inconceivable.

Some who have come to fire the Notre Dame anagama walk away from the firing experience describing it as true “Community” (with a capital “C”). But because of the temporary and sporadic nature of this gathering, I rather think that the use of the upper case “C” might better be reserved for a word like “Collaboration” – that almost magical coming-together of individuals who are willing to give themselves to each other and to the firing process, in hopes of achieving something that is more significant than what they might ever achieve on their own.

And it is this unusual Collaboration that yields a kind of paradox – ceramic results, the ownership of which now seem to be in question: I made it, but I also received it; it is mine, but not wholly my own; I created it, but it came to me as a ‘gift’ of the process.

These works are filled with paradox….and paradox is the domain of poetry. True, we could try to describe these remarkable works with terse, didactic and explicit terms. But anything less than a poetic description of the works produced by this Collaboration might border on the trivial. And so it is that the best works from the kiln become a bit like the best poetry: speaking the language of the soul, and pointing toward a better way.

1997 CERAMICS MONTHLY (USA), October issue, ‘Comment’ Essay: “ Waiting”

Dick Lehman
Copyright January 2003
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