Ceramics Studio Exercises Its License to Kiln

The shelves at the Office for the Arts Ceramics Program’s studio hold many works in progress—ceramics of all shapes, sizes, and purposes, some beautifully smooth and finished, plenty waiting to be glazed and fired. But last week, the studio was nearing completion on its most significant recent project, one that does not fit on a shelf: a new kiln.

It is Monday, March 12, and for the last three days I have participated in a kiln-building master class organized by the Ceramics Program. Led by two professional kiln builders and potters from Minnesota, the sage and cheery Donovan K. Palmquist and his genial assistant Judah J. Birkeland, we’ve learned the process of kiln construction and laid layer after layer of bricks. Palmquist particularly enjoys building kilns in a workshop context. “I like to see people learning, getting enthusiastic, and getting involved,” he says.

The other workshop participants, all ceramics afficionados, come from all over the world and from a variety of backgrounds. Shamai “Sam” Gibsh came all the way from Tel Aviv, Israel; Darcie Flanigan used to work in ceramic archeology; and Klaudia M. Levin was once a dental technician. “[The class] was an interesting exposure to a whole different craft that changed the way I think about my own craft,” ceramics artist Alex T. Brizicky says. Brizicky received this year’s Mima Weissmann scholarship, which pays for young artists to spend a year studying with the Ceramics Program. “There’s this whole part of the ceramics world that I never thought about,” she says of kiln construction.

This kiln, called a soda kiln because of the sodium carbonate solution sprayed into the kiln during firing to create a unique texture on the clay, is approaching completion when I arrive on Monday. Birkeland puts the final touches on the kiln walls while Flanigan sponges excess adhesive mud off the bricks in the chimney. Today we will build the arched roof of the kiln, but the kiln is not quite ready. I go outside with Flanigan and Brizicky to spray-paint fuel pipes to keep them from corroding. Though we must wear gas masks to protect ourselves from the fumes, it is a lovely day to be outside.

After we finish the pipes, the class gathers for lunch. Palmquist describes the ceramics community as “a pretty gregarious, fun group of people—like a big family.” I feel that camaraderie at today’s lunch. We have gone out to eat the past two days, but today we stay in for an impromptu potluck with some women who work in the studio. Though I have nothing to contribute, everyone shares the salad, hummus, pumpkin bread, pizza, pad thai, peanuts, and cookies with friendly insistence.

After lunch, we watch a slideshow of Palmquist’s past kilns and pottery pieces and of pottery works that he finds inspirational. In more than a decade, Palmquist has built upward of 350 kilns with his company, and he has worked with Birkeland for the past four years. They both say they love their jobs. “I like travelling around the country and seeing different art programs, meeting different people and seeing their different approaches to clay,” Birkeland says. They have produced a strikingly diverse array of kilns, which look like works of art in themselves—some big, some small; some clean and modern, others rustic with different colored bricks.

Finally, the time has come to build the arch—the roof of the kiln and a major component of its structure. With an audience of others from the studio who wish to see the climactic moment, we head into the kiln room. Palmquist sets up a wooden structure we built two days before to support the arch during its construction. He jokes that we’d forgotten to account for the curvature of the earth when building it. Then we take turns placing the bricks on. I am too short to reach very well, so I strain to drop the bricks into place and cannot reach the back rows at all. We make what is called a braided arch, with the bricks’ placement staggered. No cement is needed; the structure will stay together due to tension and gravity alone. Ceramics Program instructor Crystal Ribich puts in the keystone to complete the arch. Palmquist removes the wooden support, and the crowd erupts in applause. The day’s work is almost done, though Birkeland has already set about cutting metal framing for the chimney and welding it in place.

The kiln is completed the next day—Tuesday, March 13—and used for the first time on Friday. “I’ve been involved in four or five of these master classes, and this is probably my favorite group so far,” Birkeland says. And Ribich says that due to the quality of the materials and the construction, the kiln may serve the studio for the next fifteen years. Building it was a rare experience, and if it endures as Ribich hopes, the opportunity will be as unique for the next kiln builders.

Staff writer Rebecca J. Mazur can be reached at rmazur@college.harvard.edu.

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