Micah Thanhauser of Merry Farm Pottery recently saw a longtime dream come true when he was finally, after five years of planning, able to install a wood-fired kiln. Previously Merry Farm pieces were all made using a gas-fired kiln. Potter purists, like Thanhauser, like using the more traditional type of kiln for a number of reasons.
“Aesthetically, I value the wood-fired kiln because it adds a layer of depth to the pottery surfaces,” says the artist. “The flame leaves its mark on the pots as it moves through the kiln, unpredictable and full of grace. Collaborating with the fire in this way adds an exciting dimension of randomness and unpredictability, and the result is better than anything I can do on my own.”
Merry Farm’s new kiln was fired up in September, and this weekend the studio and shop will be debuting work from the first firing. Along with new pottery, the shop will now offer unique quilted art pieces by Thanhauser’s mother-in-law, Pam Flam. The wallhanging works feature geometric or abstract designs in a Vineyard palette — lots of blues, gray, white, and earth tones. Flam rarely shows her work, so this will provide a rare opportunity to purchase art by the Ag Fair multiple-blue-ribbon winner.
Thanhauser explains the appeal of wood firing, saying, “I first got really hooked on pottery when I helped fire the wood kiln at Featherstone when I was in high school. I spent years apprenticing in North Carolina with potters who fire with wood, getting deeper into the process. Now to be able to have my own kiln, and share it with other potters, and share the results with my customers, that is really amazing for me.”
Thanhauser’s approach to his craft involves following sustainable practices and using materials in as organic a state as possible, along with keeping his designs simple, yet individual, and his palette earthbound. The artist, who was raised on the Vineyard, spent time in Japan exploring Zen and the country’s artistic traditions.
“The underlying philosophy in Japanese pottery is using materials that are unique to a region,” says Thanhauser. In accordance with that philosophy, the artist sometimes uses local clay gathered from construction sites in his work. The wood firing has offered another opportunity to add a local element to the pieces.
“Along with pine offcuts, we used old dock pilings for our fuel, wood retired after decades in the ocean, saturated with salt,” he writes in a press release. “The minerals in the wood, as well as the movement of flame through the kiln, created many beautiful patterns and effects on the pottery.”
“The work is all designed around food and use,” says Thanhauser, describing his aesthetic goal.
“My work lies in learning to see and touch the beauty and aliveness inherent in clay,” he says. “It is a practice of being still … When the clay, my shaping hands, and the fire all work in harmony, it is a form of alchemy. These objects are sent into the world as ambassadors of beauty and usefulness. They find their completeness in use — holding a cup of tea, a bowl of food, or a stick of incense.”
Of his designs, Thanhauser says, “I try to keep it simple, but at the same time I want the pieces to be lively,” he adds. “I’m always struggling with that balance. I think about how a piece is going to look with food or flowers. It shouldn’t look totally complete on its own. It should only look complete when there’s this other element.”
The new kiln offers a further effort to keep his pottery practices as sustainable as possible, not relying on fossil fuels. Thanhauser is happy to share his new kiln with other local artisans. “In addition to loving the look of wood-fired pottery, I value the process because it brings people together,” he says. “This kiln fit about 500 pieces in it; 300 or so were mine, and the remainder were by other potters who earned kiln space by helping with all aspects of the firing. There is keeping the fire burning for 40 straight hours, but there is also a ton of wood prep and cleanup involved, so it is important for me to have help with it all to make it possible. In my experience, there is nothing better for building community than a big group effort and a large fire. We had a great crew for this first firing, and we got great results, so hopefully most of the team will want to keep firing together, and we’ll just get better and better at it.”
Visit Merry Farm Pottery, 79 Merry Farm Road, West Tisbury, on Saturday, Nov. 18, from 10 am to 5 pm, for the kiln-opening sale. Go to merryfarmpottery.com for more information.