The Kiln's Burning Mystery

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Author: Andrew Santella

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They are perched on folding chairs at the edge of an alfalfa field in lower Michigan, babysitting a fire.

Bill Kremer and his wife, Diane, and a bunch of their friends have been at it for a few days now, tending the big brick wood-fueled kiln that sits out behind the Kremer house. Inside the kiln is enough room for a few tons of combusting firewood and more clay pots, vases and sculptures than Kremer and his potter friends could fashion in half a year. A new shift shows up every six hours or so, to worry over the fire and feed it. Tending the fire, it turns out, is a job that requires near-constant vigilance. Not that anyone’s complaining.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like throwing wood onto a fire,” says Kremer, a ceramic artist and professor of art at Notre Dame.

As he talks, he stabs absently at the ground with a piece of firewood he has plucked from a nearby pile. Behind him, the late fall sun is angling low over freshly mown fields. In the near distance another set of car wheels is crunching over the gravel drive alongside his house. The next shift has arrived.

It’s a display of devotion of sorts, this vigil, but the kiln seems singularly unimpressed. It has decided, like a willful child, to refuse to respond to any attention. The temperature inside the kiln should be rising, but it isn’t.

The kiln is a big brick furnace, 30 feet long. It’s shaped like a pleasure boat turned over to expose its hull. Regularly spaced along the flanks of the kiln are stoke holes for feeding the flame inside. A pair of artists up from Notre Dame, Rod Dugal and Drew Goerlitz, have taken up positions on either side of the kiln. They have put on heavy gloves and welder’s face shields, and they are tossing in splits of wood, one piece after another. Sparks and ash stir.

Through the open stoke hole, you can see the flames do their dance. They are serious flames. They part every once in a while to allow a view of the vases and pots arrayed inside the kiln. Some of the pieces are so tall as to vaguely resemble a human form, and the sight of the shapes engulfed in fire makes your heart catch for a second. It’s some antique vision of hell.

The heat and the rumble of the kiln are enough to drive a novice a step or two back to consider the spectacle from some more reasonable vantage point. But most everyone else around the kiln seems wholly unsatisfied with the blast. The temperature inside the kiln is supposed to climb, over the course of a week or so, up over 1,500 degrees. It’s supposed to climb over 2,000 degrees. If all goes well, it will settle around 2,400 degrees. That’s hot enough to melt steel. More to the point, it’s hot enough to turn the raw clay pots and vases baking patiently inside the kiln into something dusk-streaked and wondrous.

But Kremer’s kiln only occasionally does as it is told. At the operation’s low-tech Mission Control—a clipboard hung from a nail driven into an upright timber—Diane Kremer has been recording the periodic readings taken from the pyrometers rigged up inside the kiln. By now the kiln should be rumbling and smoking up over 2,000 degrees, but it is instead stuck around 1,900.

You never really know what you’ll get with a kiln like this. You never know exactly how heat and melting ash will mark your pots. You never even know for sure how to drive up the temperature inside. Sometimes the urge to feed the fire has to be resisted, sometimes you have to starve the kiln and do nothing.

“Working with a kiln like this means giving up some of your control,” explains Dick Lehman, up from his studio in Goshen, Indiana, to take part in the event.

Strangely, he says, it is when you cede control to the kiln that it can reward you with wonderful gifts. By some mysterious act of chemistry or physics or blind chance or all of the above, the fire will rouse itself and begin burning in earnest. The rumble will grow louder and the smoke will chuff more steadily from the chimney. Inside the kiln the ash will fly. An oozing glaze will form on the shoulders of pots and begin to drip down sides, leaving a visible trail.

Kremer and the other potters gathered around the kiln have a phrase for this moment when they are least in control of their work and yet most delighted by what the kiln has given them. They call it pot luck.

***

A few years ago, Bill Kremer found himself trying to recover from one of those traumas that make you question what it is you are doing with your life. He had just finished five years as a university department chair.

Kremer thought it would be a simple matter of taking his turn as chairman of the art department at Notre Dame. He would do his share of the administrative detail work and attend the committee meetings, then go back to making his art, picking up where he had left off. It didn’t work out that way.

The meetings, to name just one thing, were enough to suck the life out of him. He found that out quickly enough.

“Let’s get everyone in a circle!” Kremer says in mock enthusiasm, offering his version of academic meeting-taking. “No, wait, first let’s talk about when we’re going to get in a circle. But we haven’t discussed who’s going to be in the circle yet. And how big of a circle is it going to be? And I hate to bring this up, but maybe it should be a square.”

When his tour of duty as chairman was up, Kremer was ready for the leave of absence that was due to him.

“They give you a year’s leave after being on the front line, and I found out why,” is how Kremer puts it. “I was kind of lost.”

So there was Kremer with a year on his hands and a lot of art to catch up on. Except that the mixed-media sculptures he had been doing no longer interested him. He had gotten off track, it seemed. There had to be something else. So Kremer started building a kiln.

Maybe you’ve seen an electric kiln, maybe you’ve even worked with one in a pottery class. Forget about that. What Kremer had in mind was another species altogether. What he wanted was a big brick beast of a kiln that would eat a tower of wood and spit smoke and fire and hold enough pots and vases and sculptures in its belly to fill an art gallery.

“I wanted,” he says, “a kiln so big I couldn’t fire it by myself.”

If art is a series of choices made by an artist, no choice is more critical to a ceramic artist than the type of kiln he chooses to work with. It determines the size and scale of his work, the look and feel of his work, even his work routine. Kremer decided to build an anagama kiln, a wood-fueled type invented in Korea and perfected in Japan a thousand or so years ago. Pots fired inside an anagama come out wearing a gorgeous natural glaze, the result of wood ash settling in their shoulders and melting in the intense heat. It’s an effect highly prized by potters precisely because it comes not from their own hands but from the barely controllable chemistry of the kiln. The scorched, organic, crusty look of anagama ware stands in stark contrast to pottery produced in conventional kilns.

“If you want everything to look the same,” Kremer likes to say, “you might as well just go to Crate and Barrel.”

But it wasn’t just the quirky glaze Kremer was after. What he liked about anagamas was that they demanded a group effort. Anagama kilns are so big that most potters would be hard pressed to produce enough work to fill one. And building the fire inside the kiln is certainly more than one person can handle. It is a job that can demand up to a week’s worth of constant stoking and requires nearly constant attention from as many pairs of hands as can be gathered.

So it was that Bill Kremer, released for a blessed year from all the meetings and obligations of academic life, with the chance at last to be left alone with his work, began building something that turned his very work into an interaction with others.

***

It took him two years. Kremer began by building a plywood skeleton in the form of a 7-foot-tall arched hut. In photographs of the construction, Kremer looks like a boatwright working on an inverted vessel in dry dock. Only when he had finished the frame did Kremer begin to wonder where he would find the bricks needed to finish the kiln.

“I was in the house looking out the window, literally asking myself where I was going to get bricks, when the phone rang,” Kremer recalls. It was a former student calling to ask if Kremer could use some bricks. Within days, he was emptying two semi-loads of secondhand fire bricks. Eventually, the bricks were laid over the wooden frame, the plywood supports were dismantled and a floor was laid. Finally, Kremer completed his chimney, topping out at 20 feet.

Kremer had built other kilns but never anything quite this large and never anything that worked quite this kind of magic on pots. Drawn by the chimney’s draft, the flame, ash and heat flows from the front of the kiln to the back, leaving the raw clay pots inside with a distinctive glow on one side, a kind of ceramic suntan. As the pots bake in the kiln, the ash that has gathered on their surfaces begins to melt, turning into an oozing flow that makes its way slowly down the sides. And so each pot comes out of an anagama kiln wearing its own idiosyncratic glaze, a record of its time inside the kiln.

Anagama enthusiasts like to say that there is no room at the kiln for the idea of the artist as solitary genius manipulating his tools. Instead, potters come to the firing in humble partnership with each other and with the enigmatic kiln. Reverence for the kiln’s part in producing the work is part of the aesthetic of wood-fired ceramics. It’s not unusual to hear potters talk about receiving their work as “a gift from the kiln.” Sometimes the talk verges into the realm of moony Zen-lite profundities. The kiln is a goddess. Or maybe it is a dragon. Or it is a mystery to be entered.

Whatever else it is, firing the kiln is a good time. Kremer began firing twice each year, usually in the spring and fall, and the occasions turned into small festivals that drew old friends, former students and the merely curious from around the country. Most have work of their own cooking inside the kiln, and they volunteer to help tend to the feeding and maintenance of the ever more ferocious fire. There never seems to be that much difficulty finding volunteers to fill all the shifts. Wood-firing, thanks to the work of Peter Voulkos and other artists, is more highly valued than ever by ceramicists. But with only a few dozen anagama kilns in the United States, there are relatively few chances for potters to fire their work in one. One year a potter flew in from Seattle to be a part of the firing at Kremer’s place. He shipped his raw pots ahead so they, too, could take their place inside the kiln.

Kremer lives in a white farmhouse built around 1880. Behind the house, in a weatherbeaten outbuilding, is his pottery studio. A wooden swing hangs from a limb of a tulip tree looking over a neighbor’s field. Tonight there is beer in the kitchen and music pouring out of Kremer’s studio outbuilding. Some kind of impromptu ceramics party seems to have broken out.

Most everyone gathers under the tin sheet that canopies the kiln, where the chief entertainment is arguing about the proper technique for stoking. In lulls in the action, the potters swap stories or do some philosophizing about working out the riddle of the kiln.

The anagama is seething, almost alive with heat and bright light. A full orange moon is rising over the fields where the scent of wood smoke drifts. A cake appears, adorned by candles. It is Kremer’s 58th birthday, and his guests gather around the kiln to sing him “Happy Birthday.” The kiln, indifferent to the celebration, continues to cook.

By the following morning, when the sky is just beginning to turn pink, it has climbed for the first time over 2,100 degrees. The stall is over. Last night’s crowd has disappeared, save for a small crew taking the night shift watching over the kiln. It rained overnight, hard at times, and now the air smells of mud. In the dim light of early morning, Kremer can be found outside on a folding chair with his guitar. He has stayed awake with the fire throughout the night. Now he is nursing a beer and playing and singing a George Jones song called “The King is Gone (So Are You).” He looks at once exhausted and exhilarated.

“Where else are you going to find this?” Kremer wants to know, picking out chords as he talks. “We’re out here all night having this great conversation, with this sense of nature and the roar of the kiln, its power. Where else can you take a chance and say something or ask a question that’s what you really mean and not something well-rehearsed and practical. It’s not gonna happen in critiques, and it’s not gonna happen in a bar. You know where it’s gonna happen? It’s gonna happen right here.”

Kremer, as he sees it, was building more than just a kiln when he assembled that mass of plywood and brick in his backyard. He was really laying the foundation for a kind of community. “You feel you are part of a circle here,” Kremer says. “And in the center of the circle is the kiln.”

***

Sculpture photoThe temperature inside the kiln reached 2,400 degrees before they stopped feeding the fire. It was the hottest the kiln had ever been. It sat idle and untouched for a week while it cooled. Every so often, Kremer would pad out and peer inside one of the stoke holes and try to get a peek at the pots and vases and sculptures, but there was only so much to be seen from outside. What he really wanted was to get in there and handle the work cooling on the shelves, see how it had been transformed by fire during its term in the kiln. It was as if he was a kid before Christmas, boiling over with impatience to open his gifts.

Finally, on a Sunday morning, the group gathers to open the kiln. About two weeks have passed since they loaded it with their raw clay works. Now they pull apart the doorway to the kiln, brick by brick. Inside, the ash is about ankle deep, all that’s left of the 10 cords or so of firewood that the kiln had consumed.

Walking inside is like entering a tomb. The pieces, wearing their new natural glaze, look ancient and weathered, as if they could have been left in this dark place by some long-absent tribe. “The kiln worked!” Kremer shouts.

There are casualties. One shelf has fallen, and most of the work sitting on it has been damaged. A few other pieces have been plunked by firewood during the stoking. And some pieces placed too close together melted into one, posing a Solomonic problem: If two pots made by two potters fuse together in the kiln, to whom does the new amalgamation belong?

“What we do is we get a couple beers and start banging away, and we’ll see what survives,” Jay Dougan ’02MFA answers.

Unloading the kiln looks like moving day in any American college town: a bustle of young men in ratty work clothes pushing handcarts back and forth and teaming up on the heavy things. They pull from the interior several hundred ceramic pieces. There are tiny golf-ball sized clay truffles and vases as tall as a man. There are elegant bowls and shapeless abstract masses. There are figurines and sculptures and plates and pots. Dougan is looking over one of his stoneware pieces, formed with a mold made from a bisected plastic utility jug. It looks at once pre-fab and utterly organic. “I think I need to sit with it for a while,” he comments.

When one of Steve Karla’s sculptures is produced from the kiln, borne by two attendants, just about everybody stops to check it out. “Whoa, look at this, it’s beautiful,” someone says. A dense mass of clay tubes, gears and wheels, the piece weighs about 200 pounds. “I call it an organic war machine,” Karla explains. The other potters come by and heap congratulations on him, but mostly Karla looks pleased that the thing is holding together.

Kremer has been eyeing the harvest and says the firing has produced a number of “museum-quality” pieces. A valedictory tone has crept into his voice, as if he wants to do justice to what has been another intense and emotional and just plain exhausting experience. Most of the work has been pulled from the kiln and is being loaded into pickups and SUVs backed up to the work site.

“This experience, it’s an end in itself, and it’s almost too much sometimes,” he says. He looks at his hands. “My fingers are starting to split. The bricks are heavy. It’s dusty, noisy work. But it has to be done.”

A group has moved into the kiln to sit on the floor and talk among the ash and shards. Their laughter echoes in the low-ceilinged brick room.

“Do you know what the best part of making pots is?” Kremer asks. “The best part of making pots is making pots.”


Andrew Santella (www.andrewsantella.com) writes for The New York Times Book Review, GQ and other publications.

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