May 11 2011 12:00 AM

For these ceramicists, a Grand Ledge kiln is a ‘primal experience’


Monday afternoon, just before 3, a crowd of people
gathered in front of an ancient-looking tunnel of bricks and mud behind
the Clayworks pottery shop on Wacousta Road in Grand Ledge, craning
their necks for a better look.

Wabi-sabi-gama, the 12-foot-long beast with a belly of fire, had finally cooled.

Jim Reinert, a potter from Owosso, was about to open the monster’s mouth and climb inside.

“Let’s take a peek,” Reinert said.

“Wheee-ha!” came a shout from the crowd.

The rustic wood-fired kiln, one of only a handful in
Michigan, was full of vases, pots, cups and assorted whutizzits,
carefully crafted and bravely turned over to the whims of the fire god.

When ceramics are fired by wood, instead
of electricity or gas, the results are unpredictable, but that’s how
these thrill-seekers like it. After two years of planning, hundreds of
hours of volunteer work and a $10,000 investment, the Grand Ledge
Clayworks co-operative and its friends from other groups were as excited
as skydivers.

“You have no idea what you’re going to
get,” Clayworks member Liz Meyer said. “They have cracks, warts and ash
dripping off of them, and they’re fabulous.”

That’s where wabi-sabi, a Japanese
concept, comes in handy. The Clayworks kiln is built on principles that
go back to the Pleistocene, but were brought to a fine art in ancient

“Wabi-sabi means appreciating what life
gives you, appreciating things that are old and have integrity, and
accepting that everything changes,” Meyers said.

The “gama” part of “Wabi-sabi-gama” comes
from Anagama, the traditional form of Japanese kiln — a tunnel of
bricks with a wood-fired furnace at one end and a vent at the other.

“You’re using wood to fire pots, which is earth,” Reinert said. “It’s pretty basic, primal experience.”

The kiln was built with two layers of hard brick, mudded over with a mixture of clay, silica and straw.

The materials are primitive, but the math
is elegant. While Reinert talked to the waiting crowd, retired
mathematician John Masterson took me behind the woodpile, as if to share
a bawdy story.

Masterson, one of the kiln’s masterminds, showed me one of the wooden forms that supported the bricks during construction.

“It’s a gorgeous curve,” Masterson said. “The St. Louis (Gateway) Arch is based on it.”

A catenary arch is one of the strongest
and most elegant forms in architecture. You get one by letting a chain
hang freely, tracing the curve it makes and turning the tracing upside

“When I told them it was 4.811 minus the
hyperbolic cosine of x over 0.881, they told me to shut my mouth,”
Masterson said. “Nobody here wants to hear it. They’re artists.”

The builders used three wooden forms, but
only one is left on the site. Members snagged the other two and turned
them into hyperbolic doghouses.

Reinert, who runs a ceramics shop in
Laingsburg, built a small wood-fired kiln in his backyard six years ago.
He helped design and build this bigger one to give Clayworks, other
mid-Michigan groups and lone-wolf potters a communal place to experience
the controlled chaos of wood firing.

The first firing started April 30, after a kiln god ceremony.

“We walked around the kiln, drank sake and threw it on the kiln,” Meyers said.

Another ceremony honored Paulette Harris, a member of the co-op who helped plan the kiln. Harris died last winter.

“People wrote notes to Paulette, or prayers or poems about her,” Meyers said. “We used it as the kindling for the first flame.”

Volunteers worked at the firing for
six-hour shifts, monitoring the temperature and feeding Wabi-sami-gama a
steady diet of oak, maple and cherry wood. There was no drinking for
safety reasons, but a steady potluck feast kept the mood merry.

Every half-hour, the temperature rose in
pre-planned increments, to a peak of 2,400 degrees. If a kiln gets too
hot too fast, the pieces crack and break. If the temperature rises above
2,700 degrees, they could crumble or melt.

The first part of the firing was fairly routine — “like tending a campfire,” Reinert said. 

But there were tense moments.

Bill Guerin, one of two members of the Lansing Potters Guild with pieces inside the kiln, was on hand for a few shifts.

“Everything shrunk and formed some cracks,” Guerin said.
“We were frantically trying to patch up the cracks while we were firing
it up.”

As the kiln got hotter, the job got more interesting.

“There was flame in every orifice — the chimney, the top of the kiln, the door,” Guerin said.

Clayworks member Diane Postema camped out for the whole 72-hour firing.

“You could see the glow of the entire inside of the kiln
coming out between the bricks in the night sky,” said. “That was

In the light of day Monday, it was clear
the firing was a big success. Little by little, Reinert burrowed further
into the kiln, digging out the treasure. There was a new round of
“wows” every time he handed work to Masterson or another member.

Members set the pieces on the lawn nearby, preserving their arrangement in the kiln.

Later, the potters would analyze the effects created at
the front, middle and rear of the kiln and tweak the next firing

Reinert predicted the effects of wood firing would be “rustic.” 

“Our kiln is designed to create a lot of wood ash,”
Reinert said. “As it does that, the minerals in the wood melt into the
surface of the pot, into the clay and the glazes, and create special
effects you only get with wood ash.”

As more pieces came out of the kiln, dozens of funky
ceramic blobs seemed to bubble up from the lawn. There were about 300
pieces in all.

Guerin stood among the rows of pieces with a multi-colored pot in his upraised hand, like Hamlet regarding a skull.

“That’s quite variegated,” he said.

Guerin didn’t know what to expect, but said he was thrilled by the results.

“I like the randomness of it,” he said. “That’s half the fun.”

A few yards away, Steve Beck of Lansing, recently retired
from teaching photography at LCC, examined his own little vase, which
was blue at the neck and golden below, with thick green drips.

“This is fun, it’s just a lark,” he said.

Ginny Baxter of Charlotte was unruffled by minor failure.

“My sushi dish got kind of warped,” she shrugged. “I don’t think it will be very useful.” 

But as more new stuff came out of the kiln, Baxter forgot
her own work and fixated on a vase with barnacles of gray stuff clinging
to the bottom. She took out her camera and snapped away.

“Now that’s organic,” she said.