The Sun captured by Cellulose

Here is something I wrote way back in 2002ish? Anyway Enjoy!

The sound of the sun captured by cellulose is popping and cracking behind the stoke door and though in the kiln it is nice and warm its minus 25 degrees Celsius outside. Firing only in the summer months is not an option for full time potters living in Canada and it is times like these when I reflect on how we have come to fire our work with wood.

It was in 1998 when Enzien and I partook in a kiln building/firing workshop with Fred Olsen in at that time our home town, Edmonton, Alberta. We had no previous wood fire experience, in fact the only exposure to wood fired pots was through pictures. After 7 days of building loading and firing the huge experimental kiln (which is featured in Fred’s latest edition of The Kiln Book) we knew, whether we liked it or not, major life changes were in order. Little did we realize the scope of the changes ahead of us in how we worked, lived and the enormity of the sacrifices we were about to take. “Thanks Fred… just ruined our lives….” Of course you can not create something with out first destroying something and we had found a way to finish our work, everything else just did not seem as important as it once did.

During that fortuitous workshop we meet many good people with many friendships forged and of those, Jeff Stewart an artist in residence at the Banff Center for the Arts, was the one that fanned flames of our spirit the most. We naïvely wanted to build a wood kiln right away and a kid at Christmas paled in comparison to our eagerness to fire with wood again. Jeff, though excited by our eagerness tempered it with a few pointed questions.

 “Maybe you might want to fire a few different types of kilns before you build one….just to see which one suits you and your work.”

“o.k….” we said. Our eagerness only slightly diminished. After a few moments of staring intently into space and a little refocusing we were back on track. “What kilns should we fire? Where can we go? Who do we talk to? Do you have a kiln at Banff? Can we fire it?….Can we?.”

So for the next couple of years we became a kind of wood fire nomad. Traveling from kiln to kiln sleeping in the back of our truck, taking in a workshop here and there and soaking up any information that the kilns, the pots and the people around them had to offer. In 2000 a friend of ours wanted to build a wood kiln on her farm just an hour and a half West from Edmonton and two and half hours from the rocky mountains. We had some experience and she would fund the building and so we set off to build our first wood kiln. We completed the kiln in the fall and fired it a few times but by the time spring came around we knew that we needed a kiln(s) of our own. We had ideas of our own and after firing different kilns we decided we needed more than one so we set off on a journey to find a place were we could build them and a place that we felt we belonged to, not an easy task to be sure.

We traveled the length a breadth of Alberta and even tip toed through Saskatchewan searching for a suitable spot that not only fell with in our budget but also felt right. You see people are amazingly adaptable creatures and can and do live just about anywhere but living and belonging to a place are two entirely different things and we needed a place where we could do both. After 8 months of searching we were about to pack up and head East to Saskatchewan ( Canada’s hidden treasure) when a small acreage became available right next door to the place were we built our first kiln. Rolling land, treed, close to a quiet lake and the sleepy town of Wildwood, far enough from a major city and only a couple of hours away from the majesty of the Rockies. Perfect! By the end of 2001 we counted and then parted with our beans and the search was over. We e-mailed our friends about the purchase and the best response back was from our friend Jack Troy, being the word smith that he is replied:

“I think you're on the verge of a satisfying habitat, where you'll merge your life and the work that rises out of the venture will be more nearly your own in the sense that there'll be an even stronger identity with it than with things you've done previously.”

In the summer of 2002 we started to build the shed for the first kiln (a Peg Udall variant). Just after we started we got notice that we were about to receive a $15,000 grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts for a proposed experimental kiln (which would require an article all unto its own to describe) that we applied for but expected not to receive. We wrote the grant application as though it were an exercise and with no expectations of getting it. Now two kilns were the order of the day….weeks…..months…..year……make that two and a half years later we now have two wood kilns complete with sheds.

During this time we were still able to travel and fire different kilns one being the Anagama at Juniata College were Jack Troy teaches. After spending 6 weeks with Jack, firing the kiln and examining the results we both knew, with out saying a word to one another that we need to have one of these kilns. So in searching out bricks for the two kilns we were able to obtain enough for a wood salt kiln and an Anagama. So when time and money permits two more kilns will be added to our chorus of kilns.

We are currently working on the gallery in amongst the occasional snow flurry trying to get it ready for the spring. The shell started out as a very modest 570 sq. ft older mobile home that will be converted into a two-story gallery surrounded by a covered deck as added display. Our priorities have always been kilns first, gallery second and living space as third. We would rather have a place that acts as a sounding board to our work than to have a comfy place where we can get away from it.

Since 1998 we have traveled down a most rewarding path were work and life merge into one. It is however a path riddled with uncertainty, hard work, sacrifice, more hard work, the ever present monetary woes,…did I mention the hard work?….well you get the idea. The last few years have been especially difficult with more building and hauling of materials then actually making work and firing it. Thinking of it as an investment in our future helps but there are times when we yearn for a good winter firing when snow is falling or when the moon and the northern lights dance behind the silhouette of the trees.


Christian D Barr

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