Potters can’t finish their work without firing to high temperatures. For that you need a kiln. Some potters have just one kiln, and everything happens there or it doesn’t happen at all. Other potters have multiple kilns that they switch between as part of a cycle or as the whim takes them. Some potters don’t even have their own kilns but have to make do with whatever comes available at community studios, at school, at their friends and neighbors…..
But once you settle into your own rhythm, having a kiln to rely on is both a blessing and a curse. When things are going well its all strawberries and cream. Its all wine and roses. A kiln in the right situation can be your best friend. Its like the steady partner in your process that brings it all home. It completes you, as a potter. You figure out the kinks and you come to an accommodation. Hotter in the middle? That’s where these glazes go. Cooler in the bottom? Put only these other glazes there….. As in any relationship there is both give and take. You work with what you’ve got to make things as satisfying as possible.
When things go poorly it can get ugly in a hurry. We can lose the blush of romance. We can start to question whether these particular results are just what we want. They may not be worth the trouble. We may decide that we like something different better. Its not like we need to have an exclusive relationship, is it? Are we married to our kilns?
Well, sometimes it seems we are, and our own identity as potters can be wrapped up in that relationship. Its as if we are a sort of ‘odd couple’ with our kilns, part machine part human: Bricks, mud, gas, wood, bones, flesh, and blood. Our lives as potters often seem committed to the results we get from particular kinds of kilns or ways of firing. We just wouldn’t be the same in different firing circumstances. We’ve taught ourselves to explore the benefits and nuance of doing it just this way, and almost all our marbles are in this one basket. We become masters of our craft as we also master our firing environments. The results are a harmony of purpose and opportunity.
Which is why when potters break up with their kilns its often a time for mourning. Sometimes they will have found a new love to replace the old. At other times they just come to realize that its no longer working, that a change is needed. Sometimes you just get sick and tired of having to listen to the same old crap, “Blah, blah, blah”, having to deal with all those annoying idiosyncrasies, petty foibles, glaring quirks, all those defects that at one time were vaguely charming, but as you look at them day after day after day after day you end up feeling trapped and you simply can’t take it anymore….. Sometimes its enough to drive you crazy.
Sometimes you just hope that there is more to life as a potter than this one kiln. Sometimes you need to get out. The relationship no longer has that purpose that first drew you together. The meaning has changed. You’ve grown apart. Sometimes you just need to break free from the constraining limitations and the sad monotony of doing things only for the sake of how much time you’ve already invested in that direction. You stuck with it for longer than you thought possible. You did it ‘for the kids’, the pots that came out of this union. But if its not working, sometimes it takes radical surgery to fix the problem. Sometimes we need a divorce from our kilns. Or, at least a trial separation. To see how things go…..
Brandon Phillips, the fabulous potter in Abilene Texas, just wrote on his blog that his days of woodfiring his pots have perhaps come to an end. At least for the time being. That’s mostly what got me thinking this morning. Here’s how he put it in his blog:
“As potters sometimes our identities can become wrapped up in the way we work. I’m not just Brandon the potter, I’m Brandon the woodfire potter. I think it’s fairly safe to say that people identify me with a specific type of work. We could argue ad nauseum whether or not it’s healthy to be synonymous with your job, but regardless, it’s the way it is. I think most potters might understand where I’m coming from. I’ve spent a third of my life so far completely immersed, in love, first thought in the morning, last thought at night kind of obsessed with this process and it’s hard to wake up one day and not feel that passion anymore. I may sound a little melodramatic but as a craftsman there’s a bit of my soul tied up in that kiln and it’s hard to let it go even when you know it’s the right thing to do. I’m trying not to make this sound too analogous to a relationship but really, that’s what it is. We’re not happy together anymore and it’s time for us to go our separate ways, maybe a short break is all that’s needed, or maybe it’s farewell for good, time will tell. But it sure is fucking sad….”
My heart goes out to Brandon (and his kiln), and to all other potters facing this reality. I can relate to it a bit, but my relationship to my kilns has been more like dating than a committed monogamy. At times I’ve been serious. In grad school I was a soda kiln guy. Boy was I in love! But, as so often happens, school ended and I had to leave. The kiln decided to stay, and so we parted ways. Regretfully, but remembering the happy times together.
Out on my own for the first time I had dalliances with the local woodkiln. That kiln was very generous with its charms, and many of the local potters found comfort in its arms. I have no regrets. I liked most of my pots that got fired there. It was a bit risky. There was always that sense of danger. Plenty of things went spectacularly wrong. But when it was good, it was amazing! I didn’t really have much control or input into how things were done. Mostly I just was happy to receive what the kiln gave me. But for a few years it was enough to help me get past my soda kiln.
That too came to an end. I hurt my hip biking out to do my shift stoking the kiln one day, and the damage has been longterm. I can’t make that trip any longer. I can barely reach down to tie my shoe lace. Its been six years now, going on seven, and I really miss being out there. I miss my pots getting fired there. I miss who I was as a potter firing in that kiln. In certain ways, that kiln brought the best out in me. I was a better potter having had access to that kiln. Part of me still wishes I could be there. I wasn’t ready to quit when the time came…..
So, my days in the aftermath of woodfiring were some few pots fired in the reduction kiln where I teach, and the majority fired to midrange temps in my electric kiln. It took probably 3 solid years to figure myself out in these changed circumstances. But even so, part of me feels like I’m settling. The results are mostly ‘okay’. I’m actually doing my best work as a potter these days. But I still can’t help feeling that this is not all I’m meant to be doing….
And so when my kiln became inoperable last June, I was faced with a decision. Repair the damage or move on. Things had gotten ugly towards the end. It was an old 1983 model kiln that had been salvaged from sitting out in the weather for a few months back before I claimed it. And I made it work again. We made things work together. Sure, there were ups and downs, like in any relationship, but we hung in there. We made the best of every bad situation.
But finally in June things came to an end. The kiln was no longer cooperating. That tiny retrograde control panel was so confining and poorly constructed that no matter how many parts I replaced something else always crapped out on me. Finally, enough was enough, and I realized I was simply throwing good money after bad. Sure, I could have started from scratch and replaced every wire, every component, but the box itself was a nightmare. My dumb big potter’s hands simply didn’t fit in there to do all that tinkering.
So, at my wits end in June I gave up on it. I didn’t know what the future held, but it would have to be different. I couldn’t keep going like that. No more…..
Luckily, a friend of mine is an electrical engineer, and he thought it would be a “Fun Summer Project” to build an entirely new control panel for my kiln. Hallelujah! Well, its not done yet, but it looks like a complete upgrade. Its so much more roomy, and the parts are all industry standard. It looks like I will be driving a Cadillac of electric kilns. I can’t wait! And check out that solid steel chassis! Hubba hubba!
Here’s what the progress looked like a few weeks ago: