In the potter’s life, one works for weeks on many pieces, sometimes making hundreds of pots, with each pot given the full attention of the maker. In the course of this process, there are so many considerations: form, function, clay body, firing temperature, wall thickness, rim weight, foot treatment, attachments, surface design and decoration, and then the glaze for each piece, just to name a few. As we work and make pots, reshaping the clay and seeing the work through the long process from start to finish, we ourselves are often refined in the process.
For potter and advanced studies student, Ingrid Jones Abrahamson, being intensely engaged in her process is just part of her makeup. When you hold one of Ingrid’s pots you immediately sense she has given thought to every part of her creative process keeping simplicity and purpose her standard, while celebrating all qualities of the clay.
“I want my pots to look as if they are stone,” she said. Getting the desired surface on pots in the glazing process is, in many ways, the hardest accomplishment for a potter and often take years of experimentation. Ingrid knew this but she still hoped. We loaded the Rolland downdraft prototype kiln together in anticipation – her pots were going into a kiln that had only been fired twice.
Ingrid is a calculated risk taker. “Oh Sarah, I am your perfect guinea pig.” Ingrid emphatically offered. And we were tested in this firing, so that statement proved to be true! She is perfectly wired for an exploratory firing. Ingrid expects the best and celebrates whatever happens, joyous in victory and appreciative of learning in failure.
Having glazed the pots late into the night, and then coming in before the sun to load the kiln, we closed the door in an exhausted anticipation. We turned the gas on mid morning, rested and watched the temperature climb. Everything was moving along smoothly. About four hours into the firing we set the kiln’s atmosphere in reduction at our strategic temperature of 1850 degrees F. Reduction is a condition where the atmosphere is starved of oxygen and it has glorious effects on the clay and glazes.
Then a mishap, as can so often happen derailed our smooth journey. I dropped a heavy kiln post that had been resting on the roof of our kiln. It fell, in what felt like slow motion, about 3 feet down onto one of our two gas burners. Suddenly that burner was off, no flame, and during a critical stage in the firing! We got the burner on again, but the pressure gauge was broken.
Now the firing became much more interesting! With everything at stake, I explained to Ingrid that all was not lost, but rather we would need to fire using our heightened senses of sight and sound. So, as we attempted to reset the burner, we used the sound of the burner with a gauge reading. We listened for the exact same sound, the volume and tenor of the roar, using the same ear at both burners. We quickly realized that, yes, this was going to work. Then we studied the reducing flame in the burner port with the gauge and adjusted the reducing flame in the other port to look the same, a warm orange color with flickers of bright yellow dancing erratically down the fire trough.
Ingrid was all in, in fact she was in her element. She was created for this. Ingrid is a professional Physician’s Assistant (PA) in the hospital emergency department by night, and balances her life in the quiet of her pottery studio, making pots and working in her vegetable garden.
She is accustomed to crisis and problem solving. In fact this is where she lives. “This kiln is just like one of my patients,” she said. “I watch every vital sign of my patient in specific timed intervals and everything is connected,” She got it!
This firing proved as exciting as any other part of the process of making pots. In this shared experience, Ingrid and I not only grew closer, but we also grew more intimate with this kiln and with the firing. The mishap became a wonderful journey. Ingrid was now even more affirmed as a potter, and using her intuitive nature built her confidence and set an even greater passion in her for pottery.
The process reshaped me, too! I’m always recharged by the energy of my students and this experience reminded me of the glorious journey we were sharing. As an instructor, I learned I should be teaching my students to be more intuitive and sensitive to their kilns and firings, and make sure they are not just watching pressure gauges, oxiprobes and pyrometers. What a wonderful mishap!
Ingrid, myself and her pots were all refined by fire.
As for the results of the firing. We had even temperature throughout the whole kiln and the pots are exquisite. Some of them looked just like “stone”.
In the photos above you see Ingrid and her husband Patrick with her pots.
Sarah Wells Rolland
The Village Potters Clay Center
Owner and Founder