I have postponed writing about the firing at the Flynn Creek pottery for almost a whole month now, not because I didn’t want to write, but only because its been an overwhelming experience and I truly don’t know where to begin.
So I will begin where it all began, three years back I got in touch with Tim Ayers through each other’s blogs, we had one common interest- woodfiring, that too anagama. We kept in touch exchanging notes on firings for a whole year. Tim later moved to the west coast and came in contact with Nick and Flynn creek and he wrote to me how beautiful Flynn creek was, and he felt somehow seeing my work, that I would really like Nick’s work. I looked into the Flynn creek pottery website and looked into Nick’s work all that was available on the net and I totally fell for the treatment of the surfaces of his pots and sculptures. I wrote to Nick whether it was possible to do an anagama firing at Flynn creek, he told me about the residency in April and I could try to come for that. This was end of 2011 and I tried for 2012 April. I couldn’t get my visa then, so missed that year’s firing. Later this year as I was going to show my work t NCECA in Houston in March I wrote to Nick again asking about the possibility of any firings. Nick wrote back saying it was the perfect timing, as John Dix was about to attend a workshop at Mendocino and he will later be joining the firing at Flynn creek. I started the year 2013, firing my teacher Ray’s kiln at GBP while opening my copy of the new issue of Logbook, reading the listings:
February: Jack Troy workshop at GBP
March: Traditions Evolving, ceramics from GBP at NCECA Houston
April: workshop with John Dix and Nick Schwartz at Mendocino
I was going to be a part of all three, I couldn’t think of a better way to begin the year!
After corresponding through email for two years I finally met Nick at NCECA, and immediately I knew I was going to have a good time in Flynn creek. Nick was so friendly, so full of good energy. I landed in Sanfransisco end of March, Nick sent Caleb and Shawn, two sweet young potters both from Alfred University, who have been working at Flynn creek for some time. Nick was busy with loading two different kilns :one anagama and one salt kiln as part of John Dix’s workshop at the Mendocino art center. Nick is director of the ceramic department at the center.
(It’s a lot of responsibility, later I learnt how wonderfully Nick does all the work there, constantly giving. Any center should be grateful to have a good artist as their department head, a job, which needs someone to be not just an artist, but also an administrator who is constantly running around fixing things! Watching Nick work there, I did realize one can’t consider these jobs as a 9-5 jobs, it never is. A studio always needs your attention, so many things to be constantly changed/ fixed. If you have a vision to make the department work the only way is to give your everything. One more reason why teachers/ artists should be well paid!!)
In between this entire running around Nick got me 150 kilos of clay, I had 6 days to make work. I looked into the Flynn creek anagama, discussed how Nick loads his kiln, and asked for a few examples form previous firings, before choosing what I wanted to make. The next day, I was still in my east coast time zone, I got up as early as 5 got into the studio, started the fire in the fireplace and started wedging all that clay. I spent the entire morning wedging clay, and getting ready to work. Based on what I saw and how there was so much firebox space in the kiln I decided to make my “one over two, two over one” series, but some largish pieces. Since I started working on this series, from January 2013, I have wanted to make them bigger. The big chunky rockfish pieces were just the perfect forms to be buried in the ash in the big fireboxes. I also noticed that, other than Nick and John Dix most of the others had made a lot of smaller, functional ware, which would go in the limited shelf space, and there was not enough robust sculptural ware, which could take on the direct stoking of big logs of wood. This was just perfect for me, just what I had hoped for! So I started making bigger pieces first so that they get one extra day to dry. The next three days, I got up really early and filled up a whole worktable with series of stone boxes, big medium and small. Nick gave me some feldspar chunks, and some broken shards of feldspar; the broken loose shards I mixed with Nick’s stoneware clay, wedged it well and made the bigger pieces and pushed in a feldspar chunk in one of the pieces and hammered it in. I wanted to see what would happen in the firing. I finished making most of the work in the first 3 or 4 days so I had at least another 4 days to dry them.
During the drying time, I mostly spent time reading books in Flynn creek, Nick has a really interesting collection of books and music records. And of course the evening Caleb, Shawn, Nicole and me spent time cooking and having long dinners, thanks to Mirta a lot of wine too. One of these days we went to Mendocino art center when they were firing the kilns. I came to discover John Dix’s basket form, in a book somewhere three years back, and since then I have been following his website. Beginning of this year I read his article in Logbook, explaining his long process of loading the kiln, I was so waiting to meet him in person. And what a wonderful person! It’s always such an added pleasure when you like someone ‘s work and they as human beings turn out to be wonderful too. We spent the evening, watching the firing at Mendocino, eating really yummy bacon wraps made by Nick on the grill, and that’s also the day when I first met Archie, happiest most joyous kid I have ever seen!!
John and Nick finished the Mendocino workshop and joined us in Flynn creek on Sunday, 7 april. We all worked in the studio for most of the day, and I put my pieces in the electric kiln and kept it at 100 degrees for about 12 hrs, hoping to dry the pieces a bit. The next morning, Monday 8th april, we brought all the pieces which would go in the firing in front of the kiln, just to get an idea about how to load the kiln. Most of the functional ware, which would go on the shelves, was separated from the chunky firebox-sculptural pieces. I started to clean the back of the kiln, the chimney flu hole and started loading the back most firebox. Mostly my big chunky guys there and Sonya’s beautiful bone piece and Susannah Israeli’s one big boot. Nick has a great trick figured out- he keeps a roller rolled into the kiln, as I was loading the back, one person from outside would send all the possible pieces on a wooden board and the board is rolled in on the roller. That way you don’t hv to move back and forth.
(When I looked around I could see that in every corner: Nick had a plan for everything, he even climbs the tall redwoods to trim them to let more light in to the place! Him and jess have built this wonderful space with so much possibility. For me a place is always people. Flynn creek has so much beauty, so much to offer, it’s almost an extension of Nick and jess, their personalities, their goodwill, generosity. )
I was in the kiln for about two hrs non-stop, it took me that long to clean up and load the back stack. It felt so good, it was after a long time I enjoyed loading an anagama. Everyone who wanted to load got the opportunity. Some people were loading an anagama for the first time. It takes so much trust in these community firings, but that’s the only way to work or let others learn. That’s another thing I observed in Flynn creek, usually when there are a lot of people coming together to fire/load or work together there can be all kinds of clashes with egos! Here everyone was having a good time, but everyone was focused too, and again I feel its because of Nick who can be so open with people. One of his rules before we started the work was “ don’t let anybody bully you. If someone is not letting you work, taking over stoking or playing power games, please don’t hesitate to speak up!!”
Caleb and Shawn prepared loads of wad clay, John Dix and Satako made tons of tripods with wad clay to load smaller pieces, tea bowls etc with sea shells, I took turns into loading the kiln and helping Nicole and Jess in the kitchen and all this while Archie was happily roaming around on Nick’s back while Nick is working around loading pots, stacking wood, cutting wood!!
We actually finished loading the entire kiln by Tuesday on the 9th. I made a Mojo cat for a kiln goddess. Jess did a beautiful drawing on the kiln door. John talked about Flynn creek, the spirit of community firing, and how happy he was to be part of the firing. Nick too talked about how we will all learn from each other, how its going to be a long process/ even tiring at times and how we will have to be patient with each other and be compassionate and opened a bottle of whisky poured into the sake cup which stays on top of the kiln and offered that to the kiln. Then Nick passed on the bottle to all the people surrounding the kiln, in a symbolic way we all were prepared to be part of this long firing as we passed on the bottle from hand to hand.
We started the fire around 6 pm on 9th, on the floor just outside floor mouth of the kiln. Just a few thin logs of pinewood, preparing ourselves for a slow-long pre heat. Till 10th evening we kept the rhythm, thin wood , fire on the floor, not straight into the kiln. On 10th evening, we started with slightly bigger logs of wood, still on pine.
Everything was planned real smooth. Nick kept a log of schedule /shifts and people put their names whenever they could do a full 6 hours shift. I took all the early morning shifts, but continued to stay by the kiln for the entire day. Hannah, Shawn and Caleb shared the graveyard shift. Nick mostly took all of the late evening shifts, but he was around all the time, he also announced to the firers that anyone needs him shouldn’t think twice before waking him up, if necessary. The noon to 6pm shifts were mostly covered by people who stayed far away, so they had enough time to travel back and forth. Unfortunately because of some personal reasons John had to leave on the second day of the firing, but till he was around he joined us in the early morning shifts. I loved my quiet morning shifts, mostly with Satako, John, Tim and Havanah. After a few days of the initial firing Nick also started the oven in the back of the kiln and we set up a kitchen by the kiln and Nick made his famous eggs and toasts!!
The most wonderful thing about this firing for me was Nick’s way of firing. No fuss, no panic, no trying to show off, and to add to it no pyrometer! I am so used to firing with pyrometer, Nick feels one looses the touch with the fire once you start panicking about the rise and fall in temperature. I have to say I totally agree with him. Not having the pyro I feel, put everyone at ease, even the ones who were firing for the first time. People for the longest time kind of forgotten about the rise and fall in temperature, especially in the initial days when anyway that’s not the focus of the firing, and everyone could concentrate on the behavior of the fire itself. For me, personally, it was an eye opening experience. I started to see the fire differently, being more tuned into the sound of the fire, the color, the smoke, by touching the outside of the kiln to see whether its heating up uniformly.
On the 12th almost 75 hrs into the pre heat, the grate was glowing, ready for more fire. By 9pm we put one small piece of wood on the grate, that’s all it took, it was like the kiln was waiting for the fuel, within a second there was fire on the grate. We were on the right path.
Nick discussed the plans for the later part of the night, the plan was to start the grate more actively by midnight, get color in the front of the kiln by early morning, still trying to get a nice slow ash deposit on the pots.
On the 13th, by 11.30 am the kiln looked at least 1500-1800 F . Nick pulled one brick from the passive damper (chimney) for more backpressure. By 4.30 pm that day cone 9 was half bent in the front. We opened up one more brick from the passive damper. I went up to the kitchen to fix some dinner and help the kitchen crew, by the time I returned, I missed out on a lot of action! One of Nick’s beautiful big jars, which was in the front top on a shelf, suddenly vanished from the shelf. It took a couple of stokes for Nick to realize it had happened. We guessed the afternoon crew might have pushed the wood a little too hard from the front which hit the post supporting the shelf, and it might have shook the piece. Nick discovered the piece, right in front in the firebox.
After the initial confusion, Nick immediately decided to try and stoke only on the right side in the front and avoid hitting the jar.
We continued the firing and started the side stoke, just the front side stoke by 7.15 pm. We did a small stoke on the front sides, 6 tiny pieces of Fur (Douglas Fur) alternating two side stokes with one center stoke.
Third brick was removed from the passive damper during the middle of the night.
On 14th by 9am, cone 10 was down in the front and 11 was soft. Cone 9 was soft in the back. The front side stoke was going really well, we did a great job of building up ash. 120 hours into the firing, by 11 am we started the back side stokes. It was slowly heating up. The mornings were no longer cold. You could smell the wood from a long distance. Everyday people came from all around, with lots of food and every evening was a celebration. I was very impressed how Nick could concentrate even when there were 20 people around: watching/talking/asking questions. Nick stayed cool and focused, him and Archie on his back!
(Whenever he peeped inside the kiln to see the ash build up he looked as happy and excited as Archie!!)
We kept stoking the back middle and front alternatively. In the process of getting the ash built up in the first firebox (middle) and trying to start stoking the second firebox (back) , the front center (front) was no longer too hot. We planned to re-heat the front. We increased the stoke in the front, started using more oak in the front, keep the ash building up in the back, but keep the middle moderate. We planned to keep to this cycle for the 14th night and decided that Nick would a call on what to do next, the next morning on 15th.
On 15th we repeated the whole cycle, three full ash build-ups and burn downs in the back and middle, while keeping the front hot. We had a great team, Hannah, Shawn, Caleb, Tim, Havanah, satako, Mossrock, Lynn and Sonya..
16th was Nick’s birthday. We were wondering whether to try and finish the firing on that night, or next day morning or next day evening. We were expecting a big group of friends turning up for the birthday party, with live music! We wanted to give at least 4-5 days for cooling, as we had to unload, clean up and pack for Nick’s show in Berkeley as well as our show at CCACA at Davis. But we were still unsure of when to close, so we decided to see what happens by the end of the day and then decide. On 16th, by 8 am, 158 hrs into the firing, we could really smell the reduction. We tried to get a rise in temperature, slowly start getting the cones down, we were happy with the ash build up so far. By noon cone 11 was flat in the front, 9 was down and 10 was soft at the back. We decided to maintain the heat for the day, did a small stoke in the back and middle and a moderate stoke in the front. Cones remained almost the same the whole day, till 9 pm. We discussed what to do next. We decided to get the cones the same night. We changed the wood. Just the apple wood in the back and middle, a mix of pine, apple and oak in the front. We also started using the Blue Oak. From 10pm to midnight, we just stoked two apple wood and two oak only in the front. By 1.40 am cone 10 was down in the back, 11 was soft and cone 12 was almost down in the front. (We didn’t want the cone 13 to become soft, Nick calls it the Oh Shit cone!) Nick moved one of John’s pieces, which was about to get stuck to the shelf to the amber. Also adjusted his own jar, which had fallen earlier so that it doesn’t get stuck to anything and moved it to the amber.
We did one last big stoke in the back, middle and front, and called it the last stoke by 2.15am.
Around 177 hours of firing.
The next two days we spent cleaning the kiln space, kitchen, spending the sunny afternoons out in the yard with Archie. The fourth day we were trying to peek into the kiln, it was hard to resist! We finally unloaded the kiln on 22 on the fifth day. Most of the people participated came back for the unloading.
It was the most wonderful firing experience I have ever had, both in terms of the process and the results. All my “one over two, two over one series” had come out just the way I wanted: rock-like, gritty, crusty, with oyster shell marks leaving a pattern which made the pieces look as if they were buried deep in the sea or in the ground. Some parts looked like moss, some like burnt ash, and that special deep purplish surface left by the blue oak. The feldspar chunk had created a crack in the big piece, but just enough to leave the piece intact, the crack becoming an organic part of the piece.
(oh we also thought of forming a club, “ Neolithic Chunk Makers “ , we added ourselves -that is me, Nick, John and Jess-in the club and few others whom we thought deserved to be in the club ! Scott Ross you were surely one of them!! Soon we will make a tshirt for the club!)
Thanks to Nick, I showed the best two pieces from the firing at the CCACA conference at Davis along with Nick and Jess’s work, as a part of Mendocino art center.
The last week I was there, I spent everyday dreading having to say bye! Especially to Archie. I do get attached to some people, but it doesn’t usually happen that I get so attached that I fear leaving them! I was crying saying bye to Archie at Davis.
A place is definitely people, and Flynn Creek is definitely a place inhabited by wonderful people.