Potters, Clay, and Kiln

I took the header photo for this website at Hambidge, an artists’ retreat center in north Georgia that has been temporary home and respite for me and for a large number of other writers, visual artists, potters, composers—artists across the spectrum of creativity.

During my first stay at Hambidge, there was a firing of the anagama kiln. I knew about kilns, of course, the ovens potters used, but I had never seen anything like this one. This kiln, shaped like a huge concrete igloo, sits halfway up the mountain on the Hambidge property. Over three days one weekend in April, potters came from all over and brought their wares to be glazed and fed to the rapacious, fire-breathing beast.

Once the pieces were loaded and the fire started, the potters took shifts around the clock at the kiln. They fed wood to the fire and kept watch all through the night on Saturday until, on Sunday morning, the kiln door was “bricked” shut, and the artists went back to their other lives. They would return the following weekend to see how the kiln had worked its magic—or its destructive, fiery force—on their works of art.

The following Saturday, mist shrouded the mountains when we walked up the long hill to the kiln. The potters—and others, like us, who were either curious or already knew what was about to happen—gathered on either side of several long tables lined up outside the kiln shelter. The bricks were removed from the kiln door, and someone brought out the first finished pieces (the last to go in—“the first shall be last”), dusted off the ash, examined them for flaws, and handed each one to the first person in line who placed it on the table in front of him. And so the pieces passed down that line from one pair of hands to another. The first table filled, and the next, while my husband and I waited far down the line until some of the last works out of the kiln finally made it to us. To hold someone’s unique work of art still warm from the kiln, to turn it in my hands and feel its heft, its curve, its texture, its smooth glaze before I placed it on the table was a remarkable experience. The tables filled to overflowing with these transformations of clay into finished work. Most were whole; some were not. They didn’t withstand the heat, or the clay was flawed or not worked correctly to begin with, and so the piece cracked or broke in that furnace. The potters, interestingly enough, philosophically accepted the broken with the whole. Both are part of their process.

I learned something about my own art that day. I need a fraction of the faith of the potter. My stories always go through the fire, an emotional, gut-wrenching process, before they’re anywhere near fully formed. Some of them come out whole and warm in my hands; others are irreparably flawed. Those may be the ones from which I learn the most.