One of my ports of call while I was on my Baltimore research tour was a trip to the Baltimore Clayworks.
The Clayworks is made up of two buildings which sit across the road from one another; The Studio Building and the Gallery Building.
The Studio building was originally the Mt. Washington library and was purchased by the Clayworks when it was set up in 1980. The Gallery Building, which was formerly a convent, was gifted to the Clayworks in 1999.
The Gallery Building as well as having a shop where artists work can be purchased also has numerous different rooms where pieces are exhibited. I met the Gallery Manager there, Yoshi Fujji who is also a resident artist and an instructor. Yoshi was also preparing himself for his first appearance at the American Craft Council’s annual Craft Show in Baltimore.
I was given a guided tour of the Studio Building which, since it’s purchase, has been extended to create more space for artists. It houses a variety of kilns, including a wood fire kiln which is just outside in the grounds of the building. The kiln was being prepared ready for firing that weekend and I had the pleasure of being invited back on the Saturday evening to see it in action. I was assured that the best time to arrive was probably about midnight! So, on Saturday after a day of research and dinner down by the harbour, I got myself ready to head out on a midnight trip.
I arrived at about 11.15pm on what was a reasonably cold February evening and so I was delighted to see a fire on the go in an old metal dustbin...and a selection of both of beer and wine to fend off the cold! I was greeted by Jim Dugan, who manages and looks after the wood kiln, and a number of artists, most of who would be up through the night. The kiln had been fired up earlier that day and would be going until about 8am the following morning.
The kiln at the Clayworks is a Noborgima style kiln. This is a chambered kiln with each chamber situated slightly higher than the previous one. The Clayworks’ kiln has two large chambers where the pots are loaded. Salt is used in the second chamber to salt-glaze pots fired in there. The sodium in the salt reacts with the silica in the clay to give the pots a kind of translucent dull gloss.
As I was to find out, these types of kilns consume fuel at an incredible rate; for one firing they could use up to eight pallets of wood. The kiln needs to be manned and regularly stoked; about every 10-15 minutes or so to keep it at a consistent temperature. The signal to re-stoke appeared to be the when the flame coming through the top of the first chamber was almost no longer visible. Re-stoking was clearly a well practised and swift process, with three people being required each time; one to open and close the door and two people armed ready with wood to stoke the kiln.
Having watched this process many times, I was asked if I wanted a go. Donning a huge pair of industrial gloves, I was passed a pile of wood, complete with peat, to stoke the fire. I was poised ready to go when the door at the front of the kiln was opened, which was actually a large brick with a piece of metal sticking out of it. I slid the wood into the kiln at lightning speed so the door could be quickly closed to keep the temperature as consistent as possible. Thankfully I didn’t cause any kind of incident!
I left at about 3am and left the rest of them to it. The kiln would be going until about 8am the next morning after which it would be left to cool down so that it could be unloaded. It would take a good couple of days for the kiln to have cooled sufficiently for it to be emptied.
I left Baltimore the following day so unfortunately didn’t get chance to see the finished pots.Being involved was a great way to learn about the kiln and appreciate the skills and experience required not only to make the pots but to manage the kiln and the firing process. I’d like to say a huge thanks to Jim and the other artists there for what was a very unusual yet entertaining Saturday night.
See a slideshow of Jo's images from Baltimore:
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