While I was sanding and finishing our kitchen shelves ( see my post Turning Tree Trunks into Kitchen Shelves ) that were cut from thick slabs of cherry wood harvested on our land and then fitted against our rough-troweled plaster walls, I realized that sooner or later I was going to have to replace my cracked and chipped mass-manufactured dinnerware with solid, earthy dishes made by area potters.
Wherever possible, we have tried to use local material and workmanship in Underhill House. There are hidden costs in the deceptively cheap, mass-manufactured products made under well-documented sweatshop conditions on the far side of the world. For us, the next step is to apply that local emphasis to our plates and bowls.
Joe and his wife Christy operate the Windy Ridge Pottery outside Mineral Point WI, about a 20-minute drive from us. Their walk-in kiln is shaped like a sleeping dragon. Joe says it is loosely based on traditional Japaneze Bizen noborigamas, a multi-chamber, climbing kiln. Its wide-winged roof rides the top of a ridge as if it were poised to catch the wind and take to the air. It is as amazing a creation as anything fired within it.
Years ago, Joe was most of the way through a double major in computer science and art when he watched someone throwing pots. “It looked like magic,” he remembers. Once he got his hands into clay and began to master the many tasks involved in turning earth into earthenware he realized he did not want to sit at a computer all day, and instead apprenticed himself to Mark Hewitt in North Carolina.
After his apprenticeship, Joe worked as a journeyman potter for Dover Pottery and King’s Pottery in the historic pottery community of Seagrove, NC. He also worked in local materials development at STARworks Ceramics, Materials, and Research, and taught wood-firing and kiln building at Central Carolina Community College. Christy ran a small organic CSA farm in the summertime and worked for a number of potteries during the wintertime.
Joe had a chance to build six kilns before he and Christy moved to Windy Ridge, and he arrived in the Driftless Area with carefully-planned drawings for his dream kiln. “Building the kiln was the first thing we did after we moved here in 2008,” says Joe. “It took us two months to build it – two really long months of seven days a week, morning to night.”
The dragon-evoking shape of their three-chambered, wood-fired kiln was built of bricks reclaimed from several defunct pipe factories then coated with clay, sand and straw for insulation. The kiln is dug into the side of a hill to create the rising chambers, covered with the wide-winged metal roof and surrounded by stacks of the wood it devours during its three firings each year.
I decided to ask Joe to replace our basic bowls. They might be called pasta bowls – with a wide, open shape that Doug and I use for salads and soups and vegetable stir-fries and also pasta. They are taken down from the shelf almost daily, and (probably no coincidence) are in the worst shape of our dinnerware.
Joe made a few prototypes, and Doug and I went over to choose one. I liked the one with the heaviest rim – perhaps in reaction to all the chips and cracks on our old bowls’ rims. We decided on two different glazes for the interior of the bowls: one deep brown and one a little lighter earth tone. They use a variety of hand-processed local materials, including wood ash from their fireplace, corn ash, and limestone, dolomite, and and red clay from a local quarry to create their glazes, which take on a deep and varied luster from the long firing.
The outside of the bowls was left unglazed. Joe fired them in the first chamber of the kiln — the one where the wood is burned, and wood ash creates a mottled color on pieces nearby depending on the whim of the flame and swirling currents of super-heated air.
Joe and Christy fire up their kiln three times a year: in May, midsummer and September. When they do, they are setting themselves up for three days of non-stop, slow and steady fire feeding with friends and fellow potters. The wood for this firing came from the outside edges that are left over from milling round logs into flat boards by Dean Swenson, a local saw miller. Dean is a retired organic dairy farmer, and he helped us mill some recycled timbers into floor boards when we were making our barn.
The firing commenced on a cold and windy Friday, April 25. Joe and Christy always “throw” a firing party on the Saturday of their three-day burn. We’ve been to several, and they are a great way to connect and reconnect with people in the area. This time I had great conversations with, among others, the publisher of Voice of the River Valley and the new director of the Driftless Area Film Festival . As usual, I left the firing party with a head full of new ideas.
This particular firing took a little grit to enjoy. The temperature approached the freezing point and the wind was fierce. Even with all the insulation, the kiln temperature (climbing above 2,000 degrees F) was warming the exterior, and it made huddling close to the kiln the best place to hang out.
When Joe opened the kiln to add more wood every few minutes, the light pouring out seemed as bright as the sun and it was hard to look at, but Joe pointed out our bowls, arrayed in the dragon’s mouth, and I was able to catch momentary glimpses of them. They were glowing brilliant white and seemed almost iridescent in the heat. I loved seeing them in the moment of their chemical transformation.
A lot is going on in that intense heat as the fragile clay turns into something incredibly hard and durable.
The actual drying of the pottery is completed in the kiln. Though pots look dry before they go in, the heat drives out every bit of moisture from the clay. Only at these extreme temperatures is the chemically-bound water between the clay particles driven off. In the final stage the feldspar in the clay melts into a glass and binds the crystals permanently. This accounts for the greater hardness and strength of stoneware.
The fire that Joe and Christy stoked burned for three days and then cooled for two more.
Christy was kind enough to call me as the kiln was being unloaded so I could zip over and see our bowls as soon as they emerged.
As I watched Joe and Christy lift out the finished bowls, plates and pots, it seemed like uncovering an archeological dig. The magic that happens in that intense heat makes every piece like something newly discovered as they emerge into daylight.
Clay bowls and so elemental. While wandering through the ceramic exhibits at the Chicago Art Institute in April, my respect for the usefulness, beauty and durability of objects made of fired clay was renewed. Whenever we hold a hand-made pot we are connecting to humans who have held similar pots through thousands of years.
I gathered my bowls, took them home and set them out on the table to examine and appreciate one by one. Then I washed them all and found (bonus) that they fit perfectly in my dish drainer, and they looked very much at home on the kitchen shelf.
I hope these bowls will hold countless green salads, whole-grain porridges, hearty soups and every good thing. I hope they will grace our shelves for many years, and someday fit into other owners’ shelves and lives.
With luck, these bowls will last so much longer than we will and pass through many hands. I feel lucky to be a part of their tale.