Opening the Kiln is like Opening a Present…Except When it’s Not.

This week I filled a Cone 6 kiln with mugs and bowls and a few odds and ends for local retailers who carry my work. Cone 6 means that at final temperature, the kiln is at around 2200 degrees. It’s pretty amazing, all things considered. This giant pod toaster brings dirt and minerals, essentially, all the way to a red-hot state. I usually use an electric kiln, which has coils on the inside, just like a toaster oven but able to withstand thousands of degrees of heat without degrading in the midst of a firing. So I opened the kiln and was thrilled (thrilled!) that everything looked great! I’ve been navigating some firing challenges for these past few months, so any time I open the kiln and things fired just the way I would have wanted or better….I do a happy dance. It was possibly better than opening presents. So why is it so exciting?

Well, there are a bunch of different ways to fire that yield different results. And there are variations in every single firing–every single piece is different, even when you throw the same form, even when you dip the piece in glaze the same way, even when two pieces sit next to each other in the kiln. That’s without even considering that you could fire an electric oxidation kiln, a gas-reduction kiln–then there’s raku, pit fire, soda fire, salt fire, and wood fire. And more!

This weekend I went out to see the work of my friends Jon, Didem, and Scott. They’ve been collaborating on building an amazing wood kiln in Burlington Kentucky for nearly a year. A wood kiln isn’t made of wood–the heat is created by burning wood. So it’s a lot different from the toaster idea that I mentioned. They essentially build a fire inside the kiln which is built of fire-resistant bricks and stoke it all night long. I’m  hoping to throw some pots specifically for the wood kiln this spring–they’ve invited me to come out and fire with them. Looking forward to it! And I was happy to share in their happy dance on Saturday.

So there’s a little bit of kiln-nerdiness for you. It is amazing to be part of a clay community where everyone has a different vision using common materials. At the wood kiln art show and sale yesterday, someone suggested that there should be a reality tv show about potters. I have to say that even though I’m not hugely excited about reality tv, I would definitely watch. Clay people are endlessly interesting to me. And everyone does a culturally relevant happy dance when their kiln load comes out looking beautiful. And sometimes when they get just one fantastic piece out of a kiln load.

Clay people are hopeful. Even the crotchety ones (we’ve all been there) are optimists at heart. Because you can lose a piece at any point in the process. When you’re sitting at the wheel throwing wet clay and you push it too far. You can carve through the bottom when you’re trimming a foot into a bowl. You can drop it or nick it or warp it before it even heads to the bisque kiln. Things can go wrong when you fire. Sometimes you push to fire wet pieces too fast and you lose your glorious bowl to a stress crack, or if it’s really not your day, maybe the whole thing explodes! This is rare. But don’t tell the ceramics undergrads. Glazes do strange things. Your pots can stick to a kiln shelf, or maybe the kiln doesn’t heat to the proper temperature for some mechanical or human reason. And, when it’s all over, you might drop it before it finds a new home! Stranger things have happened.

The optimism stems from learning to accept  that nothing is permanent. Which is true of most everything, right? It’s a practice in non-attachment. Not that I haven’t mourned the loss of a favorite pot or been frustrated (angry even!) when half the pieces that come out of my Cone 6 firing don’t look the way I hoped. But I, and all of my colleagues in clay, head back to the studio and keep learning and accepting that nothing is guaranteed. For me, the studio is a place where I practice, like people practice yoga. You get to feel excited and hopeful and disappointed and angry and joyful. And you’re called to stretch. Stretch the limits of the clay and of your mind. And that’s why we keep coming back. Even when opening the kiln is like opening a big ol’ box of disappointment. Eventually, like this weekend for me, there will be a happy dance. And it will be worth every single piece that didn’t turn out.

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