See You At The Kiln

Wood-fired pottery is introduced to Pacific

Fire crackles, and its warmth escapes, offering protection from Oregon’s frigid late autumn air. Several people gather around, holding cups of tea or coffee, and keep watch over the dancing flames. 

   However, this isn’t your average campfire, and the flames aren’t there for their own sake. The fire is a part of an age-old pottery-making technique called wood-fired pottery. 

   Through this method, ceramicists have the freedom to shape their clay into virtually anything, from plates, pots, and mugs to globes and figurines. Each piece is then stacked into a kiln, a large oven built to withstand extremely high temperatures. Once the pottery is settled into the kiln, the chamber is stoked and fired, starting off slowly but gradually reaching its peak temperature at a molten melting 2400 degrees Fahrenheit.

   The wood-firing process takes several days, as the fire is carefully stoked to avoid drastic temperature changes that cause the pottery to crack and break. During this time, the fire glides over the clay, decorating the pottery and re-forming their colors and designs so that each item differs from what it entered the kiln. Once the kiln has thoroughly cooled down (a process requiring a few more days and much more patience), the pottery can be removed from the kiln. 

   As the Fall term ended, Pacific students had the opportunity to experience this 10,000-year-old tradition for themselves. Led by Jim Busby, a ceramicist at Pacific, students and faculty at Pacific (including President Jenny Coyle) and other volunteers traveled to a kiln in Forest Grove that Busby helped build about ten years ago. Busby and the volunteers fired for about 92 hours, or nearly four days straight, working in 6-hour shifts to keep a constant watch over the fire. 

   During this time, Busby likes to encourage volunteers to stay attuned to their surroundings, from the goings on of the kiln to the setting beyond. 

   “Take in the sound of the inlet flues, the roar of the chimney–engage your senses,” Busby urges. “The flame from the fire pulsing shadows on the fir trees. The fire is visible through the cracks in the chimney.” 

   In this way, Busby aspires not only to teach the volunteers how to read and react to the kiln but to stay in the moment and learn to enjoy the long hours spent watching the fire. 

   The volunteers’ time overseeing the wood-firing process proved worth it when they unloaded the kiln. The volunteers took turns unloading, removing the pottery shelves deep into the structure’s walls. With each plate, mug, shot glass, and pot removed from the kiln, the volunteers took the time to admire the wood-firing process’s effect on the clay. As Busby muses, the flames create a “river of fire” over the clay, and melted ash makes its way onto the pots, morphing its colors into deeper hues of orange-ish red and creating patterns on the pieces. 

   “Because of the time commitment and labor involved, the kiln is deserving of your best, and your “best” is tested by fire,” Busby acknowledges. “There are ups and downs; emotionally and in literal temperature. . . It’s an all-hands-on-deck experience, not an observation of discovery, but a journey of self-discovery.” 

   Busby is optimistic that this wood-firing event will get students away from classrooms and study rooms and “into the real world,” in a way that engages people not only with nature but builds community with their fellow artists. “Wood-firing is very much about community,” Busby explains. “Every person has a voice and a part in contributing to the whole. It is something that we are involved in, but in no way can take sole credit for the outcome.” 

   Looking ahead, another wood-firing event is scheduled to take place this Spring. However, Busby hopes that the future of Pacific wood firings can become more than a one-time event. Busby mentions the idea of teaching a class on wood firings and even suggests building a few kilns on campus to share his passion for wood firing with Pacific students. 

   “I believe it is important because it teaches what community really is and is imbued with a sense of belonging.” Busby reflects. “You might show up as faces, but you leave as family.”

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