Clay in Chaos: A 28-Hour Wood Firing on a Lake
Seventy-five minutes southeast of Dallas the elements of nature convene on a grassy peninsula: Lake water laps gently under the shade of oaks and elms whose leaves rustle in the wind, and soft earth yields under leathered footsteps. This is where, in less than 48 hours, flames will lick from small-mouthed apertures in a pink adobe-clad train kiln. Where, last November, clay artists, friends, and helpers trickled into potter Louise Rosenfield’s shared lake house situated on Cedar Creek Reservoir’s silty shoreline. A wood firing gathers them.
From different corners of North Texas and as far away as Chicago and Hawaii, a small crew of ceramists come to fire clay in a kiln that’s sat dormant for more than three years. It’s been just as long since Marcello Ortega had done a wood firing, though this wasn’t his first to orchestrate one. The four-day marathon of labor begins and demands team effort.
Marcellos Andres Ceramics studio production manager Shea Hall and Danielle Chutinthranond, who runs Monsoon Pottery, jump into prep mode. They make kiln wash for shelves, glaze pieces, and roll marble-size wadding, a refractory material that will serve to keep pieces from sticking to shelves or to each other under extreme heat. (At some point in the weekend, they rope a writer into dusting a well-established ant’s nest from a stack of egg-covered bricks.) In the near distance French sculptor-ceramicist-geologist David Challier saws kiln materials behind cords of wood.
With activity all around the kiln, you see a temporary tribe begin to form. “There’s something super primal about manipulating fire [and] gathering in a group for a common goal,” Marcello says. Louise, who prudently oversees operations throughout the weekend, is nearby with her lab Silvie when she’s needed. “For some people it gets romanticized,” she says, “because we’re all cooperating on this group endeavor, and the kiln presents us with gems of your labor.” And, like gems, their clay undergoes an intense transformation—a singular one in which each firing yields unpredictable results.
Despite the mystery, or maybe because of it, these artists will sacrifice their prized wares to a process fraught with variables. From clay bodies to glaze types to the whims of ash fall to zone placement—such as proximity to the firebox and flame—every decision will impact each piece. Even the minerals pulled up from the earth by the trees that have given their lives to become logs as sustenance for the kiln and nourishment for the fire gods within will leave their mark upon everyone’s clay. “Because of all these realities with the kiln, it makes it rare. And because it’s rare, it requires people to bring their best work,” Marcello explains.
On the second day, cups and carafes, vases and vessels of various sizes, amphorae and other kiln fodder are loaded methodically like ceramic Tetris. Shea and Danielle hand pieces, one by one, to Marcello who puzzles them into the kiln according to style, size, and ability to withstand prolonged exposure to intense combustion, radiation, and convection heat. Too loose, and the kiln may fire cool, relatively speaking, such that radiant heat can’t build and retain itself under drafty conditions. Whereas a too-tightly packed space might impede air flow, limiting a healthy rise in temperature. They’re careful to get the balance just right.
The day ends with dinner: herb-steamed fish, carrot mousseline, mugs filled with Italian red wine, and artists filled anticipation.
Two decades and two puppies ago, Louise and fellow potter Liz Lurie walk into a nearby hardware store and leave with a rented brick saw and kiln-making supplies. For much of 2003, the duo—alongside a few other women potters and myriad helping hands—traveled from Dallas to the lake house where they began constructing a wood-fired train kiln.
There are many kiln construction styles, the likes of which we won’t get into here. This wood-fire train kiln was developed by Utah State University ceramics professor John Neely, whose design is relatively easier to build, uses less wood, and requires less people to operate than some other types.
“It was my first experience and Liz was supposed to be the experienced one,” Louise says. They worked for a few hours at time. They laid down foundation and put up layers of cinderblock and brick. “We had redone that part of it like three different times. We’re not experts just people who were doing this.”
They built the kiln for Liz’s work, for which she used an iron-rich clay body that would reveal striking cobalt blues, shades of purple and bright magenta. “Her work was made to be wood fired,” says Louise, who doesn’t much prefer it for her own work. But after 10 or so firings, Liz decamped for Syracuse, New York with her husband. That wasn’t the end of the kiln’s life though.
“It cost us about $30,000 to put it all up. We ought to keep using it. Because this is an asset, we don’t want to take it down,” Louise reasons. Ceramics students from Dallas and other local potters have since fired art here by the lake.
One Saturday morning in November, the kiln is alive again.
Come the third day, the hum of lawn mowers alongside Creedence Clearwater Revival and jazz house music provide an eclectic soundscape. Today is the day. The cool, serene surrounds of the lake juxtapose the fire growing in the belly of the kiln. At 8am in the morning, Marcello creates the spark that will eventually reach somewhere in the realm of 2350 to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit at its peak in the still hours of the night.
Everyone works in six-hour shifts. Hardwood might feed the kiln, but Red Bull and inky-dark coffee fuel the artists. (Though for Danielle, who’s toted a small arsenal of loose leaf, it’s tea.) They wait. They feed the mouth of the firebox with logs. They record temperature readings on two thermometers as the heat slowly builds. Artist William Harkness stokes the fire, which responds with bursts of flames reaching for his blonde eyelashes.
A wood firing is a practice of duality: control versus chaos, a dance between time and temperature, a tribal effort for individual works. “It’s dangerous and challenging and human to have this idea of controlling fire, of manipulating fire for our needs,” but, Marcello says, “out of that violence and pure chaos, comes something elegant and beautiful.”
It’s dangerous and challenging and human to have this idea of controlling fire, of manipulating fire for our needs.
Hours later, Adam Knoche, who owns Glaze Ceramic Studio in McKinney with his wife Angie, checks in for his middle-of-night-to-early-morning shift. While Marcello can start the kiln and rev it up, Adam studied under John Neely and, with a few wise adjustments, makes the kiln purr like a sports car.
“Fire is fire is fire,” Louise remarks. “We’re still dealing with this element the same as anyone in history.” The ancient practice of pottery has developed alongside civilization, making ceramics one of the oldest human inventions. A vast expanse of time may separate this small squad checking digital thermometers with the earliest ancestors of pottery, but the unchanging element of fire binds them across millennia.
In the throes of the wood firing, it’s easy to forget that what is forged in this fire is forever altered. The hot, bright yellow burn of quartz inversion arrives at 1063 degrees. It’s the point of no return. As clay vitrifies, water molecules are thrusted out of the material, when quartz expands and the clay body shrinks due to the water loss. The clay is forever changed and, chemically, cannot go back to what it once was.
“There’s a high degree of surrender that you have to be okay with because you can’t control all of that,” Marcello says. “With wood firing especially, you tussle with it… There’s something else involved with agency—I feel like I’m grappling with nature.”
In Wôpanâak, the native tongue of the Wampanoag people in the northeastern United States, the word clay is an animate noun, meaning it’s an object that has agency. (This grammatical feature doesn’t exist in the English language, as author-historian Glenn Adamson notes in Material Intelligence.) Clay is as much of the natural world as we are and thus has its own life—certainly enough to impose a sort of will on what it becomes, never fully relinquishing to the potter complete artistic freedom.
Fire, too, is alive. Its creative and destructive energy—beautifully chaotic, mesmerizing, opinionated—is so powerful it lures ceramists to a lake in Texas like moths to the literal flame. Ceramists who are forced to surrender their work, both physical labor and tangible objects, to a wood-fired kiln. While they perhaps desire a certain outcome or a particular visual result, like an exciting ash-to-clay contact, they’re nevertheless forced to release expectations. Part of getting it “right” is the willingness to relinquish some idea of rightness, and, in the process of letting go, arrives the art. They’ve molded the clay. Now, it lives.
Words by Rosin Saez, Photography by Daniel Gerona