The God in the Kiln

I miss the fire.

There is something ritualistic about working feverishly on a project, pushing and pulling the resistant clay into the shape you envisioned, fighting against time and relative humidity to dry it gently enough to do no harm, yet quickly enough to load it into the kiln and surrender it into the fires of creation where almost anything can (and will) happen.

I used to think of myself as an artist.  Maybe I still am, I don’t know.

Can you be an artist if you don’t produce art?

If we live our lives by the lessons we learned at the easel, the press and the kiln, do we hold on to our membership in that special community?  Is it enough to see, in the world around us, those shapes and colors and spirits we wish to capture and shape and share with our fellows?

Or does the true power of the artist rest entirely within the act of creation?

Over the years, I have worked to make art with a wide array of materials and techniques.  I have experimented with Pen & Ink, Watercolor, Oils, Enameling, Printmaking, Photography and Digital Media, but by far my favorite experiences were back in my college days, working in the University Ceramics Lab.

Living in the Kiln

Unlike the other departments (say Painting or Printmaking), there was an almost religious feel within our Ceramics Department.  The studio itself was cool and quiet, with that resonant echo one expects to find in a church and a deep, earthy smell evoking nothing less than a field after a light rain.  The folks working there (the long-time clay students), were like the closest of families.  They laughed, teased, wept and consoled one another as if they had known each other, not for a few semesters, but for the whole of their lives.

I came into the studio with the simple intent to work off the required hours in a 3D-Medium called for by my degree plan.  That first semester of my sophomore year was all it took to change everything for me.  I shifted from a concentration in Graphic Design to a purely Fine Arts curriculum with a focus on Ceramic Arts.

I was hooked!

I was drawn to those people and welcomed eagerly into their family.  We shared an addiction to the feel of wet clay beneath our fingers, to the power of moulding and shaping it, of transforming course material into the stuff of imagination.

As I came to spend more and more of my free time in that studio, to learn its ways and secrets, I was bewitched by the ritual of it all.

Ceramics will always feel, to me, like the perfect blending of science and religion.

There is a lot of chemistry involved in the mixing and application of glazes and knowing to exactly what temperature you must reach in the kiln and for how long, to achieve the desired results.  There are charts and graphs to consult and constant experimentation through successive test firings to refine processes and perfect recipes and application methods.

But hiding underneath all the numerical data, there is intuition, passion, magic and the ritual of flame and sacrifice.

And there are the Kiln Gods.

If our ceramics studio was like a temple, then the three old gas kilns we kept there must have been the vessels of our sacred and sacrificial fire.

Bébinn (melodious lady)

Bébinn (melodious lady) – the first in my series of three terra-cotta figures depicting Celtic musicians.

However much you work and slave, building your sculpture (or over the wheel, if you are a potter) there comes that moment when you must load your creation into the heart of the kiln and surrender it at last, to the flame.

In our studio we tended that flame ourselves, volunteering in shifts to see the firing through into the wee hours of the morning.  I remember spending so many late nights listening to the metal outer layers of those old kilns creak as we brought them slowly up to temperature, gazing carefully through the peepholes to see if we had achieved ‘atmosphere’ – that rarified state where the amount of oxygen within the kiln is ‘reduced’ by the consuming flame to the extent that the ‘air’ takes on a seeming liquid quality and the chemical composition within the clay and glazes, begin to change.

I quickly learned that the flame has moods.  No two firings ever went exactly the same and while one might pass with no trouble whatsoever, the next might find you fighting tooth and nail against a kiln that does not want to cooperate.

Adjust the opening at the top of the kiln.  What color is the flame that comes out?  How far above the top of the kiln does it reach?  Adjust the air intake at the base.  Add a little more gas.  Check again.  What does it look like inside?  What do the temperature gauges say?  Damn.  Adjust again.  Back the gas off a little.  Leave the air intake where it is and check again.  Damn!

Sometimes, after a long sweaty night spent climbing up and down a step ladder, making infinitesimal adjustments on a giant metal box that will happily sear inattentive flesh, all you can do is step out into the cool night air for a moment, gaze up at the stars and hope that the Kiln God is doing it’s job.

Ah yes, the Kiln Gods, I have been coming to them, by and by.

This was one of the mysteries which I learned early on, during my time in the Ceramics Studio.  I thought, at first, that this was something particular to our studio, but later learned that the tradition of the Kiln Gods goes all the way back to ancient China, and possibly to the very beginnings of the ceramic arts.

The Kiln Gods are small little figures that you make from the scraps of spare clay, left over from whatever you are working on.  In our studio, they were usually fairly humanoid  but with exaggerated features, maybe a vaguely aztec looking block-head on a tiny body, or just a cone with a sphere on top and the barest indication of a face.  Mine always looked somewhat goblin-like with long hook noses and wide, leering grins.

The exact form wasn’t really important.  In fact, there was an unspoken rule that they shouldn’t be too polished or detailed.  Better they have a rough, unfinished look about them, to distinguish them from the real work.  We really didn’t talk about them much – unless, of course, someone forgot to put one in the kiln before the door was closed and the firing begun.

That’s when things would really go wrong.

Sometimes things explode in the kiln.  Sometimes poorly applied glaze will run and pool or even spit, damaging the pieces surrounding them and resting on the shelves underneath.  There is a lot that can happen in a working kiln, and I’ve seen most of it occur during those firings with an absent Kiln God.

Usually, it was just an honest mistake.  The tradition in our studio was for the God to be the last thing loaded before the heavy metal and brick door was bolted tight.  Yet, on a busy day with five or six people trying to carefully load the maximum amount of work into three kilns as quickly as possible, it could be an easy detail to overlook.

And then there were those who did not like the Gods.  These were usually folks who were new to the department and for whom the Gods reeked of either ignorant superstition or pagan idolatry.  These folks usually learned a hard lesson, often at the expense of their fellow students.

Like it or not, a little idolatry can go a long way.

I’m not sure who makes the rules about these things.  In later years, I have visited studios that do not fire their Gods at all, but place them atop the kilns during firings.  Still others fire and even glaze their gods and then keep them around to decorate their studios.  Our tradition was to smash them when the firing was done.  They had done their job and whatever magic had been in them was now spent.  By dashing them to bits we completed the cycle of their existence and released them from stoney bondage with our gratitude.

I have not been part of a firing, have not participated in that holy ritual of creation through earth and water and fire, for many long years now.

Or have I?

When I think back on those times, when I look at the directions my life has taken me, and the things I have learned and continue to learn, I feel a deep pressure building in my chest.  Sometimes it feels as if an incredible fire is burning there, drawing all the oxygen away from my lungs, and creating something new in the process.

I know what I would like to see in there when the time comes to open that door, but experience has taught me that one can never be sure what one will find inside a kiln once it has cooled down.

I can only watch the stars and hope that the God in the Kiln is doing his job.

Maybe someday I will find the fire again.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Magic, Religion, Spiritual Journey

One response to “The God in the Kiln

  1. thelettuceman

    I know the feeling, truly. I experienced a ceramics course when I was in high school, and later a bronze casting art course at my undergraduate university. While I’ve always been on an academic track for education, I come from artist background: Both of my parents have art degrees, although geared less towards the fine arts. There is something innately spiritual about the act of artwork, and human history shows this, and I most definitely believe that there is something deeper at work in the process of creation – and I don’t think that spark ever leaves you, even if you’ve been many years away from the art itself. It marks you in ways that only other people who have been through the same experiences can claim. I think once being an artist becomes something you’ve done, you never really “stop”, just go through lulls. That creativity doesn’t diminish, it just gets redirected.

    Thanks for this.

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