Firing up the kiln at Featherstone

All ceramic kilns are not created equal. Frank Creney, who teaches ceramics at Featherstone Center for the Arts, is doing something a little different from using a typical electric kiln.

“In the downdraft wood fire kiln, you feed the fire in through four external fire boxes,” Creney explains. “The heat that enters the round interior gets pulled down through the ware, and exits the chimney at the other end.” And magic happens in that process, but we asked Featherstone executive director Ann Smith more about the process.

“This has been an annual event for decades, and is part and parcel of Featherstone’s history,” Smith told us. “Sharry Stevens-Grunden is a wonderful ceramics artist here on the Vineyard. It’s her family who owned the property prior to it becoming Featherstone Center for the Arts. She volunteered and then worked at Wetheriggs Pottery in England. When she returned, Sharry built the wood fire kiln on the Stevens property. It is loosely modeled after the famed English ceramicist and potter Michael Cardew’s wood-burning downdraft kiln.”

You can’t miss the structure as you drive into Featherstone, as it sits majestically overlooking the pasture.

The wood fire kiln process entails a lot of physical effort. First, Smith explained, they collect about four cords of wood — which is an awful lot of wood — splitting it, and stacking it in looming piles around the kiln. “Then we invite the community. We’ve had students from the high school in the past, and others who have been interested in bringing their pieces,” Smith said. “We can accommodate about 100. We will load the kiln Friday, Sept. 25, starting at 2:30 pm.” Creney and his team filled all the fireboxes with wood, brick and mud up the door with peepholes. They closed the kiln up to create a reduction atmosphere, in which the ash of the wood used to fuel and heat it naturally creates a glaze-like layer on all surfaces it touches. Once the kiln is ready, Creney and his students lit it on Saturday morning at first light, around 5:30 am. They fed the kiln with the wood through the various oven doors all day, and throughout Saturday night. The process of raising the kiln to the blazing hot 2,200° took 24 hours, and it required constant tending. On Sunday morning, the team cleaned up, and then started the long wait of a week to allow it to completely cool down. The big day will be on Saturday, Oct. 3, when the group will gather to open the kiln and unveil the pieces.

What will come out at the end of the process, in a way, is anyone’s guess, as there is a lot less control with wood-fired kilns than electric ones. Every firing is different, and there is only so much you can control. The wild and ever-changing fluidity of the fire itself causes the natural glaze to flash and blush in unique ways. Creney says, “What comes out is a mix of anticipation and dread.”

Creney’s students, who worked with him on Sept. 12 and 19 in the pottery studio, are thoroughly enthusiastic, whether they are returning or novices. Myron Garfinkle shared the allure of participating in the course: “My wife and I are both avid potters. While we have an electric kiln at home, the opportunity to use fire reduction with wood is one that intrigues me, as well as most potters. Firing in a wood-burning environment is unpredictable, due to the random ash and mineral deposits left as a byproduct of combustion. The results are unique, and can be dramatic and beautiful in an organic and somewhat random way.”

“Having no prior experience with wood firing, I’m excited to learn more about the process,” said novice Carol Arrowsmith. “I’m also hoping to satisfy my curiosity as to whether my own sculptural pottery style can work as wood-fired pieces.”

The allure for Amanda Saltzberg is not simply artistic. “I’m taking the course because Frank is offering it. He is a very cool teacher,” she said. “He teaches by example; I learn about both pottery and life hanging out with him. Also, it’s a way to build community and spend time with people around the fire. Especially right now during the pandemic, letting go of attachment to outcome is a big lesson this year as we fire up the kiln.”

The unveiling of the finished pieces at Featherstone on Oct. 3 at 2 pm is open to the public, with strict adherence to social distancing and mask wearing. For more information, call 508-693-1850.