Pottery project

Potters from miles away gather in Doyle, Calif., several times a year for a massive wood-firing effort

Joe Winter stokes the fire.

Joe Winter stokes the fire.

Photo by David Robert

Great Basin Pottery is located on Scott Road, 36 miles north of Reno off U.S. Highway 395. Paul Herman holds annual spring and holiday pottery sales on site. For information, call (530) 827-2706.

Being your slave, what should I do,
but wait upon the hours and times of your desire.
I have no precious time at all to spend
nor services to do till you require.

—Michael Cardew

Paul Herman pasted this verse to his refrigerator door because it so succinctly describes his latest artistic endeavor: firing a brick wood kiln he and his business partner, Joe Winter of Red Rock, designed and built over the last three years near Doyle, Calif.

Wood firing is an enormous effort, requiring the labor of many; five cords of firewood, cut or scrounged (potters are very resourceful at finding free wood) and stacked around the kiln; the crafting of 1,000 pieces of pottery and sculpture to go into the kiln; the careful loading of the work into the kiln. Only then does firing commence—volunteers in shifts feed the kiln for three days and nights, until the temperature inside reaches a withering 2,450 degrees Fahrenheit. Only then can exhausted participants collapse for a well-deserved rest.

Then, after everything is cooled, Herman and Winter climb into the kiln to get the bounty. The pots will be beautiful. Maybe.

As Herman describes it, the “agonizing combination of good and evil” of wood firing is in its unpredictable results—pottery can either come out fantastic, recording flashes of flame, or ugly, showing a uniform shade of boring rust-red.

Why do they do all this work when ceramics manufacturers have designed tools that can make the craft easier and the results more predictable?

“The electric- and gas-fired stuff is a little sterile compared to wood-fired pottery,” Herman said. “Wood-fired is richer. I want excitement, not just dependable results. Sometimes, objects of great mystery come out of there, because we don’t have complete control over it, and the flame has kind of a mind of its own.”

An example of the pottery taken from the kiln.

Photo by David Robert

The two-chambered kiln, modeled after traditional anagama kilns of Japan, is an arched edifice: 25 feet long, 6 feet wide and 5 feet high, with a 15-foot chimney that sends flames into the sky. When the kiln roars, travelers on nearby Highway U.S. 395 call local fire departments, reporting a potential “chimney fire.”

The departments responded during the inaugural firing last spring. But now, Herman knows better—and he makes sure the fire departments do, too. Each local fire department’s number is prominently placed near his telephone, and he gives them advance warning of the event.

When stokers pitch logs into the firebox, flames and black smoke belch through vents atop the beast. After stoking, the kiln rumbles like a freight train in the distance. Stokers appear as dragon slayers, donning welding masks, long leather gloves and flame-retardant clothing.

“She’s a task-master, that dragon,” Herman said.

March 6-9 was the third time that Herman and his crew have fired the kiln. He has assembled a team of wood-fire faithful who are beginning to understand the rhythm required for the week-long endeavor that makes the greenware into finished work. Volunteers sign up for stoking shifts; extra hands split wood, make meals and keep the weary fire-managers awake for the final push of the 60-hour firing.

The participating potters hail from California and Nevada: John Bogard of Planet X Pottery in Gerlach; John Manley and Dale Pappas of Reno; Julie LaCroix of Silver City; Isabel Perez Judge of Janesville; and Kenji Tokioka of Time Hill Pottery in Yankee Hill, Calif.

Unlike the first two firings, the latest effort ran like a finely-tuned machine.

“Sometimes I think this is better than sex,” Pappas remarked as he glazed his pots.

He then reconsidered his statement.

“Well, maybe not,” he said, with a smirk on his face and gleam in his eye.

The former Marine Corpsman made quite a career switch recently, retiring as a detective from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office to pursue pottery full-time.

“And I tell you, making pottery is a lot better,” he said.

The temperature on this digital thermometer reads 1,530 degrees Fahrenheit, way below the nearly 2,500 degrees needed to heat the pottery.

Photo by David Robert

Planet X Potter John Bogard said he attends the wood firing for its “entertainment value.” His clientele probably would dislike the earthy colors and crusty glazes that emerge from this firing technique, he said.

“I have a whole range of shades of blue and lavender for my pots,” he explained. “A first-time pottery buyer is going to buy a blue pot.”

The general public has only recently begun to appreciate the look of wood-fired pottery. For years, it remained the obscure pleasure of pottery junkies.

“People who buy pottery like blue pots, but potters like brown pots,” Herman said. “We have to educate our customers that this natural effect is something to be valued and esteemed.”

Perhaps Bogard’s greatest contribution to the most recent wood firing was his tireless enthusiasm for the process and his bawdy sense of humor, which kept the crew going during the final long day of stoking the fire. He nicknamed Joe Winter “Cover Boy.”

The name is apt for Winter, whose architecturally-sized vessels are the center of attention during unloading. Spectators oohed and aahed over his huge, covered jars that dominated the space in the kiln. His expertly thrown pots retail for $800 in galleries up and down both coasts. Clearly the veteran wood firer in spite of his youth, Winter was unable to wipe the smile from his face during the entire week of intense and constant labor it took to make the firing a success.

“It’s a love of work and a love of firing,” Winter said. “I’ve been doing this for 14 years now. From the beginning, I loved watching the fire dance and move through the kiln. Also, it’s a huge challenge. I’m not afraid of a good challenge. Wood firing is definitely that—controlling the beast.”

The kiln is so sensitive to wood and air quantities entering its cavity that Herman and Winter decided that at least one of them had to be present during the whole firing; disastrous results can and have occurred when the sleep-desperate fire managers entrusted the kiln to a novice. As kiln temperature climbs, the beast becomes an increasingly demanding mistress, and both Herman and Winter suffered from sleep deprivation during the firing’s last 12 hours.

That final day was a busy one, with phone calls from people wanting updates, a constant stream of visitors arriving to check the progress and endless, endless stoking.

The day the kiln was unloaded, after cooling for four days, was an even busier one. Many potters—and even more pottery aficionados—arrived at the appointed hour to admire, ogle and caress each pot as it was pulled from the kiln. Some aggressive gallery owners snatched prized pots for their stocks while the work was still oven-warm. Video cameras recorded and flashbulbs popped, paparazzi-style, as if it were the Academy Awards.

For one day, the potters who labored so hard to complete the project are famous. Herman built the wood kiln for this very purpose: to attract potters and pottery lovers to his rural outpost 36 miles north of Reno.

“I wanted to have a community of people involved in this project, and so far that is how is has turned out,” he said.

After the thousands of pots were unloaded, potters packed their wares and the kiln stood an empty skeleton—not the fire-breathing dragon full of treasure it seemed just one week ago. Time now for the fire-born vessels, so lovingly coddled through the process by their makers, to make their way alone into the world, a world made more beautiful through mud, fire and honest hard labor.

Herman, sitting in a chair by his kiln, exhibited a melancholy that is a combination of both satisfaction and humility. But not for long.

“Well, just a couple more days, and I’ll get back to work."