July 31, 2009

A Tewa Pottery Pit Firing

As our course in the art of Tewa pottery drew to a close at the end of our week-long seminar at Common Ground on the Hill, I became increasingly excited about the pit firing. Would we actually dig a pit? And where would we do this on school property? To my amazement, our "pit" turned out to be a makeshift kiln constructed directly on top of the asphalt parking lot behind the studio. Kathy and Gilbert Sanchez began laying down metal strips directly on the asphalt, then placed what looked like an extra large metal cookie sheet on top of that. Tin can were placed upside down on top of that and the sheet was loaded up with cedar kindling. The empty spaces were filled up with cedar chips. A grate was put on top of that and then lined with more metal sheets. All the old metal and tin surprised me. I was expecting something much more earthy. The burnished pots were placed upside down on the metal sheets. Then a second tier was placed on top of that and the rest of the pottery was stacked one on top of the other on level two. The pots were quite small so a number of them fit into this box of metal stoked with cedar chips. There were some tall corner pieces of metal that held side pieces of metal to make a small rectangular kiln. I asked if they built larger kilns in New Mexico and I was surprised when they said that they did not. Kathy and Gilbert explained that because of the risk of loss only small amounts of pots were fired at a time.
When the pots were all in the makeshift kiln box we lined the sides with locally obtained buffalo chips. They came in handy small pizza-sized pieces that were good for stacking.
After a charming ritual consisting of tossing corn meal onto the kiln and wishing for good luck, the fire was lit. Between the wish for good luck and the burning of the fire, Kathy and Gilbert prepared us for accepting whatever the fire might bring our way. So much is beyond the artist’s control in this type of firing. A pot could explode. The flames lick their own design on a pot. We had an object lesson here is relinquishing desire to fate and to accept whatever the fire gives us.
The fire was very good to us - in large part of course because of the skills of teachers - who knew exactly when to smother the flames with the dung. Since this was a reduction firing, the dried dung took the oxygen out of the kiln atmosphere, turning the red pottery black. There were no breakages from the firing process and everyone had beautiful glossy vessels. I had to teach when the fire was cooled down and the pots removed but one of my fellow students kept coming into my classroom to report on the vessels as they were removed from the ash. Her excitement as she described each one was practically infectious. It was almost like a report on multiple births.
What was particularly interesting about the result of the firing is that some pots had flashpoints on them from areas where air got into the kiln and reoxidized the vessels. In these areas the pots became red again. I made a functioning clay whistle which came out from the ashes with a red spot at the tip where a design in slip radiated out. I could not have asked for a better gift from the fire.

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