License to kiln

I wish I had come up with that phrase myself, but you can’t always complain that other people got there before you did. My desire for authorship, originality, and uniqueness is tempered by the sense of belonging, of shared experiences, and by standing on the inside of inside jokes that only other potters would get. Sometimes its what we share that matters more than what sets us apart. Sometimes the joy in being a potter is that I too belong to this intelligent and caring community.

So yesterday was one of those sublime days that only other potters can really relate to. Tony Clennell is in town to help fire Ron Meyers’ woodkiln, and I had been looking forward to catching up with him again. As usual, Ron was hosting a number of fellow potters for the event, and it was my good fortune to be there when Judith Duff and Steve Driver were on shift stoking the kiln. Fellow Athens potter Kyle Jones and I made the trip out there and spent the chilly afternoon with Ron and Tony watching Judith and Steve add wood to the firebox, talking pots, local pottery history, online pottery and sales, new kiln technology, and any number of other topics that sprang to mind.

Tony Clennell's picture of me, Kyle Jones, and Ron Meyers checking cones and watching Judith Duff and Steve Driver stoke the kiln.

Tony Clennell’s picture of me, Kyle Jones, and Ron Meyers checking cones and watching Judith Duff and Steve Driver stoke the kiln.

To an outsider I can only imagine that the afternoon was wasted on the potters’ equivalent of watching paint dry. I’m pretty sure the kiln only climbed a bit less than 100 degrees in the 4+ hours we were out there. Nothing spectacular. Just steady service to the kiln and the craftsmanship of woodfiring.

20 odd years ago I would have been bored to tears. Anyone not a potter undoubtedly would. But, you see, these days I find myself on the inside of this quaint ritual, and standing around a smoke belching, wood consuming stack of bricks is actually my bread and butter. Its the cake and the icing. I understand the world from a potter’s perspective. And I am grateful to be a part of this oddball community that shamelessly walks the streets in clay spattered clothes, gets excited about the esoteric interest of melted wood ash, and can spend solid minutes searching for the tip of flame that occasionally licks above the chimney stack.

To see the world through an artist’s eyes means you notice and find interest in small details that others overlook. The world marches on, and the artists stop to see the wonders. Artists pause to uncover the mysteries that continually unfold. Artist pay attention. What we find interesting will often seem quite silly to outsiders. In their world it probably is. But the job of artists is to notice the difference of things, to pick small unassuming details out of the chaos and build new values from them. Its what artists are trained to do. We teach each other about the possibility the world contains. We are explorers.

Painters use pigment to capture light and distance (among other things). Sculptors use materials, surface and shape to constitute ideas and make comments. Musicians turn sound into an expression of emotion and imagery. We all tell stories with our unique gifts. Ceramic artists tease new meaning from the fire hardened raw earth. For potters, it means we have a license to kiln……

Happy potting, all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Ceramics, Clay, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to License to kiln

  1. Scott Cooper says:


  2. Linda says:

    Carter — we have a sayin’ around the studio…. “You’re kiln me”

    Oh , potters! 🙂

  3. meg says:

    nice Carter, the icing and the cake, I like that. Must have been an inspiring day.

  4. Susan Whelan says:

    Carter! I love your blog. I’m admin on Bailey Pottery Equipment’s FB page (and part-time sales associate/ workshop coordinator/etc…) I’d like to quote part of this blog with attribution, of course, and a link. What say?

    • Sure thing, Susan. And thanks for the kind words. I’m glad some of this resonates with folks out there. I’m happy to share my thoughts, and overjoyed that others feel they make a difference.

  5. That sounds like it would have been a lot of fun to be a part of! I think the being on the outside looking in goes several ways. I often wonder about how enthralled non-potters can be when watching a potter work. Not that I am not interested in watching a potter work, but I am much more enticed by a wood-firing than watching someone throw for hours on end. So I suppose it is what you are interested in (for any topic really) that makes you more keen to stand around for hours on end and watch paint dry! Great post, good perspective as usual.

    • Thanks Brenda! You are absolutely right: To each their own. And its true that the mystery of process is sometimes exactly what draws outsiders in. I can remember watching a glass blowing demonstration as a kid and being so taken with it that I’m sure that twenty odd years later when I was told I needed to take a clay class I was already primed to do something creative with my hands. We can’t underestimate the power that novelty has in people’s lives. The obvious eye catching stuff is always accessible.

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