Firing log

After heavy snow on Monday, when I got off the plane from Florida, and and ice storm on Tuesday, and Patrick’s schedule conflict on Wednesday, I had to abandon plans to fire the salt kiln alone before the wood firing with Patrick — and even had to postpone the wood firing.

We settled on a Friday overnight candling with the weed burner to dry the frozen shelves, and an early Saturday morning start time for buring lots of smoky brush and then starting the stoking.

My plan is to fire longer than we have in the past, to try to get a better ash melt and to even out the front to back. In previous ^10 at the front firings, we have had pots at the cold end of the kiln that didn’t even mature the ^6 glazes, and we’ve often had too much unmelted grit in the front.

So based on a lot of advice on the clayart list and a thorough reading of Jack Troy, I’m going to try to get the front to temp and hold it there until the back catches up… I’m going to do a small amount of side-stoking in a chamber I left open at the center.. and I’m planning to use only cedar at the end, because the ash melts at a lower temp than hardwood.

In this kiln I have three different claybodies, and Patrick has two. I have six different flashing slips and a couple of glaze experiments.

Thursday I came to school in the afternoon and glazed pots… I was kind of getting into a rhythm, and enjoying the process, since a) I have so damn many test pots that I am not terribly precious about any of them, and b) I am using the spray gun to get the thick-thin effects I like in ocher and shino. Sprayed glazes can look like sprayed glazes, or they can mimic the flame-path, ash-drift and shadow effects of atmospheric firings. It did (potentially) nice things on some of my textured pieces. In fact, the effect of sprayed-at-an-angle glaze from one side and ash/flame flashing from others might make some complex surfaces.

I especially enjoyed the decisions involved with loading the kiln and the considerations of where wads and shells could go, including what might lean against what in a mini tumble-stack. I am beginning to appreciate the concept of “painting with flame” and the cooperative relationship between potter and fire, accident and intention.

The “teamwork” aspect of this, though, is complicated. I was wished we had a whole firing “team” like we did last fall, when half a dozen students had work in the kiln and showed up to stoke a shift… but I am not convinced of that anymore. I suspect my friend Tony Clennell is right, that more on a kiln team is NOT merrier.

Even with a big group firing, the “firemaster” gets stuck holding the bag, from setting up the kiln and kiln yard, (which is a drive across campus from the clay studio) to making wads, loading, closing up, unloading, clean up…

Everybody who shows up to put wood in the hole for a couple of hours has no real idea about that part, or understanding of the hundreds of choices and decisions that went into the process. It’s like bringing a jello salad to somebody else’s thanksgiving dinner. You helped, but often you have no clue what the big picture involved.

With just Patrick and I, it’s a bit easier. We take turns being “firemaster” (translation: stuck with the lion’s share of work, but claims the final call on firing decisions.) Still, playing well with others means explaining all your decisions, debating the best course of action.. and feeling responsible for the success or failure of the other person’s pots.

As the firemaster for this wood firing, the thing that bothered me most about loading was making all the decisions for the placement of Patrick’s work’s in the kiln. I mean, he had two groups of tall jars: unglazed outside for the front, glazed for the back. Kind of a no-brainer… still, I hated to be the one to decide where the flame should lick that one or where the shadow should be on that one.

The temptation to just fill the whole kiln with my pots, dispense with diplomacy and negotiation and sharing, is big… but not bigger than the idea of spending three plus days loading, stoking, unloading on my own. I could likely stoke for a day and half the night but I’m happy to have some help with that other half of the night. In the past, when I have been able to bring my camper, it was nice to have Patrick sleeping nearby in those kind of scary hours of late night/early morning in not-a-great-part-of-town.

Anyway, Thursday I worked on loading until late, and Patrick and I went to Denny’s for a one in the morning breakfast before I headed to Toledo with the kiln half loaded, for a good night’s sleep.

Friday:

I got up at and headed back to school. The cats looked bewildered about being abandoned yet again by the one resident of the household. My family has two weeks in Florida to my one, so I spent every waking hour of my snowed in days this week in my own studio, making kind of exciting (to me) work.

The hour up and down 23 has become familiar, and ranges from dull to nerve-wracking depending on weather. I find that a conversation on a cell phone, an interesting podcast or some BBC news can make it go faster – though about half the time I need it quiet so I can think, plan, solve design problems in my head.

I keep forgetting that I need to carry a tape recorder with me when I drive; I’ll be rolling along at 75 mph and suddenly the wording to my artist statement will volunteer itself, clear as a bell… last time I ended up calling my own answering machine at home and dictating the whole idea to myself for later.

Anyway, I went to the EMU studio and glazed a few more small pieces that I knew needed to sit in special spots I had made for them on the kiln shelves. Then I headed out to the kiln and spent most of the morning hanging upside down into the kiln, trying to roll wadding into balls. It seemed a little soft to me, but it froze as soon as I set it on the edge of the kiln. When I went to reposition my already-loaded pots to make room for new ones, I found that the pots were frozen to the wads and the wads were frozen to the kiln shelf. I had to go to the van and get my propane torch to thaw each individual wad on pots I wanted to move an inch this way or that.

Note to self: Next time, make wadding balls indoors and keep them in a warm thermos container.

Just as I was beginning to make some headway, my cell phone rang (well, croaked… my ring is a recording of a frog) and it was Jeff and the kids, just arrived at baggage claim at the Detroit aiport, home from Florida.

I drove to pick them up just as they came out to the sidewalk in front of arrivals: freckled, tan, rolling their suitcases and looking a little shellshocked at the transition
from sun and warm to grey sky and big snowdrifts.

I had originally planned to drive them right home, but the frozen wadding had slowed me down enough that I still hadn’t finished loading the kiln. It would need to be done and covered if Patrick was going to stick the woodburner in it for the night when he got off work.

So my poor kids sat in a van behind the sculpture building for an hour and a half while I finished loading the kiln. Jeff (suffering from the cold after two weeks of sunshine)helped me close off the top with kiln shelves and off we went, leaving Patrick the job of putting topping it off with soft bricks before he left the burner to candle for the night.

I drove home half distracted, worrying that the wads might only be doing their support jobs because they were frozen solid. What if, when they thawed, they flattened out and tipped pots?

Saturday

I am writing these entries from a laptop, with my feet up on cinderblocks under the firebox stoking ports of the kiln. When I got up at 6 this morning and threw my gear in the van, there was half an inch of ice on my car and the snow was swirling again. It’s going to be 14 degrees F tonight, and we’ll be out in it, like my hardy boy scouts at Camp Alaska.

(Jeff and I seem to have crossed some kind of a line this year, past wistful “wouldn’t it be nice to live in a more temperate climate” to actually sending resumes out of state.)

I had stopped at a business on the way from Ohio and picked up maybe 50 yards of leftover evergreen roping, stuffing it into the back of my van. Once there was a little fire going in the firebox, I fed in the greens, getting a good sooty drift that settled on the pots to trap flyash later.

A peek in the firebox revealed that my wadding fears were justified: one of my big oval canteens that had been perched on its rim tipped onto a neighbor. That meant unbricking one end of the lid and rearranging the mess, while the small beginning fire was still burning. Only an hour into the firing and already I smelled like a forest fire (and my lungs felt like I had just come from a Who concert. )

Patrick relieved me so I could go teach my 101 (studio art for non majors) class. After we went over the midterms I showed them a power point of the history of kilns and firing: open bonfires, clamp kilns, updrafts, downdrafts, anagamas, climbing kilns, electric, with the corresponding pot-results… different effects at different heat levels, dramatic pix of raku firings and the results, ancient and modern majolica, lead glazed colonial ware, salt glazed crockery and arty pots.

Then I brought them over to the wood kiln, where Patrick stood in the swirling snow like Yukon Cornelius. I had them find (and explain the function of) firebox, dampers, pyrometric cones, flue, peeps, and stoke holes.

When class left around noon I went back to stoking. It’s 6 and I am still at it. Patrick bought bunji cords (which he calls shock cords) and put up tarps on three sides of our end of the kiln roof to cut the wind – which was great, because wind was bitter cold, and the snowflakes had been sifting onto my keyboard as I typed.

Now the sky is clear with a cheshire cat smile of a crescent moon, though the snow is deep and the wind wild… I have white ash drifting onto my keyboard now instead of snow.

Between paragraphs, I am stoking. We have abandoned the bourry box on top of the kiln as it seems ineffective and kicks a ton of smoke back in our faces; we just stoke through brick-wide portholes in the firebox.

I have been thinking about the environmental impact of burning this wood, and I think I have managed to rationalize it to my own satisfaction. Except for some waste hardwood strips from a defunct flooring company, every bit of wood being used in these firings has come from a maker of split rail fence. They are the angled cut off ends that result when a straight cedar pole is sharpened at each end to become a rail.

They are stacked in a pile, in the cuting yard, and when the pile is too big, the company burns the wood. So all this wood was going to be smoke anyway, only having acheived no purpose in the burning.

It’s funny to stoke the kiln realizing every stick of wood has been in my hands three times: loaded into my van, unloaded from my van to the kiln yard, and now into the kiln. It ain’t mel’s Stradivarius, but it’s certainly a connection to the process.

Later:

Now it’s 8:30 pm on saturday, and we’ve passed the twelve hour mark for stoking. I had been perfectly content to stoke all day (where else would I go, this far from home?) so I asked P. to just come back at dinnertime.

By the time he arrived I was doing OK, though hands and feet were in need of thawing. I am wearing two shirts, long johns, heavy socks and stretchy jeans under my hubby’s camoflage hunting coverall, with a hat, gloves, and a parka with a hood over it all.

But I needed to warm up, so I came to the absurdly overheated ceramic studio at Sill hall. I am now sitting at Diana’s desk with my laptop, stripped down to my inner layers of clothes and drinking warm tea.

I am going to pick up the pyrometer before I go back. I hate the thing, though. I hate that I end up firing to the temp numbers on the damn machine, instead of listening to the crackle and fade of wood between stokes, eyeballing the level of glow through the peeps, letting it go as it will. We are in no hurry. The cones have not yet begun to bend. Firing without the pyrometer feels like labor without the machines and monitors: a wave of work some rest… then a wave.. numbers. Hmmph. Who needs them?

Maybe I resent the measuring machine because, at this almost-finished point in my MFA experience, I am tired of advice, suggestions, “progress reports”, and any form of instruction… even what temp the kiln is at seems like an imposition on my train of thought. I am far from young, but I am reliving an attitude from my teen years — I remember thinking that if everybody would just leave me alone and let me run my life, I could get somewhere.

I am weary of criticism and negativity in any form — and it’s everywhere, in the bleak parts of winter around here. Somebody, somewhere is always predicting your plans will fail, your ideas are flawed, your hopes are naiive, the world is going down the tubes and it’s all for naught.

I catch myself in the process of complaining along with the crowd and try to put a positive spin on it in my own head… instead of rolling my eyes over how things are done, from politics to school to other people’s dramas, I think, “I would do this a better way…” and then make plans to do so.

I am al
so weary of the tug of war for my time, and the guilt I carry about it. My family’s gung ho, supportive “you can do it, mom!” attitude about my going to school (Jeff said, “We can do anything for two years!”) is wearing thin as we reach the finish line. Homeschooling is still going well, but I miss the kids’ evening sports and scout events, and leave most days just before Jeff gets home from work.

After a week apart, Jeff and I had a scant few hours together last night, and I crept out while he was sleeping this morning to spend an entire weekend firing this kiln. He calls my cell phone frustrated because he can’t find Molly’s girl scout cookie stuff, and whether or not he means it, I hear, “You should be home with us, making things go more smoothly”.

But when I am at home being a good wife/mom/homemaker, I get grumbling from Patrick about not pulling my weight in the studio, and doubts about my work ethic (!) from profs because they don’t see me around much (I’m here until midnight, after my evening classes, when everybody has gone home.)

The truth is, I spend 8 hours a week making pots in the EMU studio (not counting marathon firings) — six hours a week in my seminar and history classes — six hours a week at the Toledo Potters Guild, teaching throwing, mixing glazes, firing all my students’ bisque and glaze kilns, serving on the education committee and managing the guild website… and if you ask my kids, I spend every unscheduled moment at home in my own studio, making work for my MFA show. Probably 20 hours a week, if I count loading and firing kilns, pugging clay and paperwork.

My studio business, on line sales, craft fairs and wholesale accounts have been put on hold for these two years until I graduate. I’m hardly a lazy, blow-off college student who can’t remember to come to class. But it’s the place where I am stuck, at least for a few more months: no matter how well I am doing in one of my roles, I am letting somebody down in another one. Maybe time to adjust my giveashit meter.

Somebody said to me recently — in that “word to the wise” way — “You know, once you graduate, you’ll be in the REAL world.” A was dumbfounded. The real world is what I am taking a break from — after years of teaching college, raising kids and running a studio business — in order to get this degree.

Wow. I’m whining, aren’t I? And after that whole lovely paragraph about staying positive. Is it a bad idea to vent on a blog? Maybe. I’m not like the lady in the ad with the bottle of wine in hand, posting wildly… I’d have to blame sleepiness, and cedar smoke inhalation.

Time to stoke my shift. More later, with pictures.

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