Art from the fire

fire pottery
It takes a lot of wood to get the kiln hot enough to fire pottery. This year, the kiln will be lit on May 25. File photo by Kathy Rose

By Scott Campbell - May 17, 2007

Memorial Day weekend visitors who pass by Featherstone Center for the Arts may see the sky filled with smoke from the annual wood kiln firing, sponsored this year by the Martha's Vineyard Cultural Commission. A group of Island art students will host the kiln firing on the Barnes Road site in Oak Bluffs. This month-long project includes students from many of the Island's schools: Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, the Public Charter School, Elementary schools and Featherstone Center for the Arts.

Just before Memorial Day, on Thursday, May 24, the students will begin to load the kiln. Wood has been stacked by the four fire ports, and the flame will be lit.

Each day the kiln burns the work will continue: stacking more wood, splitting the pieces smaller when needed, and raking out the coals to keep the fire even and hot. When the flame jumps from the 20-foot chimney and the temperature nears its peak, the next phase will begin. Two days later the kiln will have consumed the better part of three tons of wood and the fire can be left to die out. The slow cool keeps the kiln hot enough over the next two days to anneal the pottery.

All clay has a final melting point. The Island clay mixture has a vitrification temperature (the temperature just before the clay melts into a glassy iron cinder) around 2,300 degrees F. When the kiln gets hot enough, it is called "reaching temperature." This firing will reach a glaze melt of anywhere from 1,850 to 2,000 degrees.

"For these bowls and pots, all we want is for the glaze to fuse to the surface of the pottery, not for the clay to melt," says Jeffery McIssacs, one of the returning firemen from last year's effort. "We work for days making the pots, then days firing the kiln. But it's worth it. You learn so much!" He adds, "You've got to be there all three days."

This year the doors made of metal had to be replaced, and with the help of my father, who just turned 90, new doors were fabricated, and donated the cost to the project! The works, or pieces of pottery, have the added fluxing help of the flying ash and charcoal from the fire burning below. The ash glaze combined with the borax glazes gives an ancient patina to the surface of the clay pots. These works have become quite desirable. This kiln was built out of hard boiler bricks after an old world design by Michael Cardew, an English potter.

This is the 12th firing of this old kiln and there is a limited number of years a kiln will withstand the weather here. Ice, heat, repeated expansion and contraction from the firings and from the climate will do some damage to the structure, but each spring, repairs to the doors and the brick arches prepares the old kiln for one more firing.

Francine Kelly, Executive Director of Featherstone, says, "The best part of the whole process is to see the young people working together for the greater good." When the cooling is complete, the kiln is unloaded and a celebration will unfold. This year there will be an Opening and Sale of all the crockery in the kiln. Items include early examples of coil pottery, bowls, planters, candlesticks, and mugs, as well as small figurines and various examples of student work. Proceeds from the sale will go toward a scholarship for a deserving Island senior.

Kiln firing, Thursday, May 24 to Thursday, May 31, Featherstone Center for the Arts, Barnes Road, Oak Bluffs. Kiln opening and sale, Thursday, May 31, 4 pm. For more information, call 508-693-1850.

Scott Campbell is an art teacher at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.