Packing the 100th Firing
Packing a big kiln is a three dimensional puzzle, with pots being placed in specific places in the kiln, at speed, under a deadline, in the hope that all the variables of the enterprise –materials, making, decorating, glazing, placement in the kiln, and firing, are finessed to create something so beautiful that customers can’t help but buy them, use them regularly, and be uplifted by their interactions with them.
There is complexity in each procedure. Start with good clay (another treatise awaits), develop virtuosic skill (practice for decades), gather a team (sympathetic, disciplined, happy), take care of all the details (make sure the wood is seasoned, the kiln is in good shape), and take the cold, weary walk to the workshop late at night to turn over mugs so they’ll be evenly dried for handling in the morning, and bank up the stove.
And then you’re in the kiln, wads rolled, nuances carefully and kindly explained, “Wads placed thus may pluck,” “Get a split, not a soap,” and assemble a four-month dream. Ten gallons in the back, apprentice jewels around – who’s been smart enough to figure out what’s going to look best there? Don’t chip the raw pots on the ceiling, and no kissing (I’m a huge fan, but not in the kiln – except at a disco). Three big planters (I forgot to make pots for the inside again – or was there no time?), with platters and planters on top.
Move on to shelving in Chamber VI. Down low, beautiful reduction sometimes, half pound juice cups (too tight, too choked?), then Iced Tea Ceremony Vessels (iconic), quarts on top for a change, fewer plates and bowls. Grudgingly give space for more of Hamish and Stillman’s pots where my pots ought to be. Run with it, get a boatload of beauties way back there, and hope it gets hot enough.
Carefully lay out the bottom props to correspond to the irregularly-spaced side stoking holes, put in the first slab platters, surround them with little lovelies, put on the heavy, flat, best shelves. A thicket of mugs down low again, followed by an installation of two-gallon pots – jars, “bottle kiln vases,” regular two part vases. That’s what the whole things is, a temporary site-specific installation. No gallery needed. Move on to plates and bowls, laborious, all those wads. Cap off with mixing bowls and taller pots. After 99 firing I finally realized that the crown of the arch is usually beautifully hot and reduced, not a place for any old pot, but for sweet, selected pots, particularly those glazed in P5 (Salisbury Pink 70%, Wood Ash 30%, Bentonite 2% Veegum T 1%) which is the closest I’ve come to those luscious 12th century Northern Thai celadons that stop me dead.
Now for the big pots. I made some of them an inch taller than usual, and forgot to put cardboard down on the side door threshold, placing the usual half-inch Styrofoam there instead, on top of a slide of sheet metal. My favorite went gently on its ride under the arch, Stillman pulling, Hamish pushing, me guiding, easy does it. Oh no…. stop! She got stuck! So fragile, so vulnerable, and with such potential. One more pull or push and the rim would chip and the pot completely ruined. We withdrew ever so carefully, she had the most minor scrape mark easily fixed with a greenie. We transferred the pot to thinner cardboard and in she safely slid.
Around and about go treasured ash glazed jars and mugs, saved for this moment, into the danger zone where they may be knocked by side stoking strips or tilted by ember build up and end a sticky jumble. Or they’ll be the most beautiful pots ever in the history of ceramics. I do not lie . These are my spots. Brave apprentices ask that their work be placed there. Nope.
On and on, two more towering six-foot stacks, making sure the props are plumb, reaching high up top with the capping pots, trying 728 up there, my favorite blue gray celadon (Salisbury Pink 88%, Limestone 12%, Bentonite 2% Veegum T 1%), guiding them slowly so they’re not banged on the ceiling. Feel the strain of age, back tiring, but I still got it.
The final two smaller stacks up front take a full day to build. It’s the fifth day in cramped quarters with the gang, and we’re sick of each other, but our hopes and dreams the 100th firing keep the adrenaline pumping and the tensions at bay. Hamish and Stillman present a daring idea about getting a few more pots right at the top of the front stack where they’re often tipped over by errant stokes, baffling the pots with props to prevent knockage, and in go the last pots. We got way more pots in than ever. Well done boys!
The doors are bricked, clamming smeared, 100 ceremonially scratched into the mud, and we light a match.