I had my first experience with the wood-firing process in 2015, and I immediately fell in love with it. It is an extremely labour-intensive process. It takes five to seven hours to load the kiln, depending on how organized we are as a group. It is important to be mindful of the placement of the pots when loading the kiln. The firebox, our heat source, is located at the front of the kiln and the chimney is at the back. We want the flames to travel from the front of the kiln all the way to the back and up the chimney. When we load the kiln, we place our pots in a way that creates various paths for the flames to dance through and around each ware, leaving 'flash' (flame) marks on our pots and creating pleasing visual effects. Once the kiln is loaded, we have to close the kiln by building the door. Brick by brick, we create a door and wish our pots good luck!
We fire the kiln the day after it has been loaded. Firing a wood kiln is a group effort, and every firing has a leader. The leader is responsible for controlling how quickly the kiln is heated and when to put the kiln into reduction. Reduction is when the kiln is starved of oxygen, thus forcing the flames to look for another fuel source; this is when the flames pull carbon to the clay's surface. This process changes the surface of the clay and creates interesting colours on our pots, typically muted grey colours. The leader is our guide and our captain. He or she sets the stoking rhythm of the fire, listens to the kiln, and guides our group from beginning to end.
My first experience firing a wood kiln was with the Manabigama kiln, which in Japanese translates to, educational (“mana”) thing of beauty (“bi”) kiln (“gama”). It's a little kiln in comparison to other wood kilns. While most wood kilns take two to three days to fire, the Manabigama kiln takes only 20-24 hours. There was an opportunity to train to be a leader of the Manabigama, which I quickly jumped on. After shadowing some of the best wood-firing potters in the Greenbelt of Ontario, I became an official leader. In the spring of 2016, I led my first group of potters through our firing of the Manabigama, and the results were fantastic! Although I was responsible for determining when we stoked the fire and when and how we put the kiln into reduction, I can't take full credit. That's the magic of the wood-firing process: the atmosphere in the kiln is what creates the unique surface patterns and textures on the pots. Results are determined by where the pot is located in the kiln and how much exposure to ash, flame and heat it receives. The results of a wood firing cannot be repeated; therefore, every pot is unique.
For my first firing as leader, I couldn't have asked for a better group of potters. There was the feisty and fiery, Beryl Budnark, former Ceramic Instructor at Mohawk College; Roberta Schmidt, the ever kind and wonderful Ceramic Instructor at the Boys and Girls Club of Niagara; Eveleyn Kelch, the gifted artist and the best chocolate chip cookie-maker; and Donn Zver, the Troy potter who was “just happy to be here."
We had a great time together! Often full-time potters have somewhat isolated lifestyles as they’re busy creating and working alone for long hours in their studios. While this quiet time is part of the charm of being a potter, when we step out of our studio to work with others, we can join our community of kindred spirits. We spend the day talking about the potter lifestyle: the struggles, joys, inspirations, and lessons that only other potters can fully appreciate. We share a passion for clay and creation, and that passion creates an instant and undeniable bond and kinship.
As leader, I was responsible for overseeing the full duration of the firing. I lit the fire at 6 a.m. and closed the last damper on the chimney by midnight. After an 18-hour firing, we had reached the required temperature and we all went home satisfied and exhausted. The most agonizing part of being a potter, no matter the firing technique, is waiting for the kiln to cool so we can see the results on our pots. We fired on a Sunday and came back on the Thursday to tear down the door. The kiln was still warm four days later. After a six-hour unload and cleanup, our time as a group and with the Manabigama was over, until hopefully we gather and fire again in 2017.