Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pottery News...

I've spent some time making a few modifications to the groundhog kiln and am ready to try it out. A bag wall or baffle was placed in the rear of the kiln, creating a small chamber. The idea is to cut down on the smoke a bit, maybe even out temperatures some. Also, a cast refractory damper was installed in the chimney for better control of firing conditions. I hope the Augusta Fire Dept. Station 2 appreciates the extra sleep they'll be getting now!

We've also laid in quite a bit of wood. Much of it is still green and needs to dry for another 5 months or so. We've been cutting and hauling lots of pine slabs from the local sawmill. Owner David Ennis also lined me up with a new 18 inch chainsaw. It cuts through the mountains of wood like they were butter! It means a lot to us to recycle or use waste in firing the kiln. I can honestly say that 99.99% of wood burned is scavenged from sources that would otherwise discard it into landfills or ignite it to no purpose.

Recently, I came upon a snake jug I'd made many years ago. It felt like running into an old friend. I forget the many pieces I've made through the years, but always enjoy coming across them and I enjoy the esteem the owner holds it in. I guess in a way, these pieces from the past serve as somewhat of a report card for me or a marker of progress on this pottery journey I travel. I sometimes blush at old handles or jug lips. Often, it's the sheer weight that causes a brief wince. But, hey, that's what self-taught is all about. I love each and every one of them for the joy they brought creating them and am honored they reside proudly on mantles, tables and prominent shelves in their owners house and in their hearts as well.

This method of pottery making is so labor intensive! All tasks are just as important to the final pot as is the actual turning on the potter's wheel. Digging and blending the proper clay or cutting and stacking seasoned wood of the correct size, both are just as important as skillfully turning the pot. As a matter of fact, I might have to say the firing process even out-ranks all of the others in importance, for a mistake here cancels out all other efforts at bringing the pot to life.

Again, I become irate when I see others calling or describing their work as "Old Edgefield" or "Old Edgefield-Style" when they simply make pots like they do anywhere and fire them in an electric or gas kiln. They compete directly with me but have only a fraction of the work and effort that I must put into my pottery in order for me to use the word "Edgefield" in describing my art. My past posts show I'm a tireless crusader against those who are being untruthful in the representation of their work. It's so easy to tack the Edgefield word on to your pottery description and deceive buyers. However, ceramic historians and market prices will eventually relegate them to their appropriate level of status. I do commend potter Gregg Patton for his eBay sales where he describes his work as "Edgefield-Inspired". I like that term for work made with modern methods.

I'm proud to now have my work available at two new locations. In addition to the Augusta Canal Authority Museum, it is available in downtown Edgefield, SC in the SC National Heritage Corridor Center and Museum and at the Morris Museum of Art giftshop in downtown Augusta, GA. Thanks again to all who've supported me through purchases or other means and enable me to continue this tradition and important part of southern heritage!

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Special Visit

I had a pleasant visit and discussion with a world renown ceramicist the other day. Her name is Tacy Apostolik. She is an exception in the Japanese ceramic tradition having served a two-year apprenticeship with Shigaraki Master Kiyotsuga Sawa in Japan. She spent around fourteen years over there learning the secrets and traditions involved in wood-firing in an anagama and a noborigama kiln using the rough, quartzey Shigaraki clay. She has shown in the finest galleries in Japan and the USA.
We talked at length about the wood-firing process she employs and the Old Edgefield pottery tradition. It seems we both pull stray roots from the walls of our pots as we are turning them on the wheel and often dig out the stray rock and patch the hole. Human involvement in the production of ceramic forms brings a certain amount of like experiences, regardless of vast oceans or land distance. It was great to hear some of her experiences and views, though I hogged most of the conversation. We toured the studio and then spent time looking over my groundhog kiln.

Tacy stokes kiln with wood from numerous bundles of pine she has prepared

Tacy came with supreme sculptor goddess and professor Priscilla Hollingsworth from Augusta State University. Thanks, Priscilla! It was a real treat comparing notes with Tacy. I often feel a little isolated since there are no wood-firers around here. This is the center for one of the most amazing wood-fired ceramics traditions in U.S. history and I'm the only one true to the process using original materials and methods. Here's a photo I found online of a piece of Tacy's art. Yum! She pre-stresses some of her work, often prying molten pieces in the kiln with long iron bars into unusual forms. Notice the effects of the wood ash on the pot below.

Tacy's magnificent pot

Other news...I recently participated in an annual Heritage Show at the State Museum in Columbia, SC. It was a treat to see some of my contemporaries and their pots at the show! The Chief Curator of Art seemed to bypass my booth every time he passed by....not sure why, maybe he's allergic to real Edgefield-style pottery or something.

Also, we are adding a bagwall about 2/3rds of the way back in the ware bed of the groundhog kiln. Our taller than normal flue draws a great deal of heat out and prolongs the firing time needed for a kiln of this size. We hope the bagwall might stop some of the rapid loss of heat as well as put us in a 24-30 hour firing time frame. The 40 hour firings are just a heap of stress and fatigue on bones over half a century old!

Our next firing should produce some really great items in time for you to buy yourself a Christmas present! We'll post notes and photos soon after we fire.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Super Hot Kiln Firing

The groundhog kiln was fired on the weekend of August 10, 11 and 12th and was it ever HOT! What is usually a very hot job no matter what time of year was almost unbearable due to the ongoing heatwave over much of the southern USA. Records are being shattered every day and we just passed 8 or so days in a row above 100f degrees. Friday, when the kiln was started, the temperature reached 107 followed by 105 on Saturday! At least I know I'll never experience a hotter firing and won't ever whine about temps in the 90's again.
My deepest thanks go out to Brian for his help throughout Saturday night at the peak of heat! He also supplied a large fan which kept us from visiting the ER or morgue while chunking wood into the flaming inferno called the firebox. We reached cone 11 fairly early compared to other firings. Of course we had the traditional visit from our friends at the fire department early Sunday morning. They were all bright-eyed and full of breakfast.

The kiln was opened on Wednesday and we went in for a quick look at managed to get some pieces out even though I melted the soles on my new shoes. The glaze looked great, although the glaze ran a bit on some pieces and will require some grinding on the bottoms where the glaze stuck to sand or brick.

I hauled a number of loads of pots back to the shop and will post some pics soon. Sony sent my beloved camera back after they replaced the faulty components, YEAAA! I'm back in the saddle with photos. I'd also like to welcome new intern Katie who will learn about Edgefield pottery as she works around the shop and learns the various aspects of making this unique style of stoneware pottery.

Another load of pots is almost ready, but will await cooler temperatures before loading the kiln.

I managed to locate the graves of a couple of important potters from this area, Willie Hahn and his son, Thomas Hahn. William operated a pottery in Trenton before moving to North Augusta, SC in the late 1800's where he was also associated with the Baynham pottery. They were a large part of the scene in the final years of the Old Edgefield pottery tradition. Tommy went on to become an attorney in Augusta, GA. What can I say, mud was in his blood!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Is it Old Edgefield or Just Modern Pottery?

Lately, it seems, I am having this discussion over and over with more and more people. It involves what exactly constitutes "Old Edgefield Pottery" or "Old Edgefield-style pottery". To start with, this refers to wood-fired, alkaline or ash glazed type of pottery made in the 19th and early 20th Centuries in what was known as the Old Edgefield District. This district is no more since it was divided into the modern day counties of Aiken and Edgefield. We all agree that the 20 or so old potteries located in the old district qualify as having had made Old Edgefield Pottery.

Now, let's get down to matters of present day. I was born and live in this same area of South Carolina in discussion. I produce wood-fired, ash-glazed pottery from the native clays of this area. It is very difficult to make pottery in this manner. I fire a groundhog kiln at my house and one at my studio in Augusta, GA. I describe my work as Edgefield-style, not Old Edgefield.

I see a lot of modern pottery for sale on ebay, in galleries, etc., describing it to be "authentic" Old Edgefield pottery or Old Edgefield-style pottery. Yet, it was fired in an electric or gas kiln, made with commercially bought, blended clays and may have been made in Montana. How is that even close to what the true old pottery is? It's NOT! The truth is, Old Edgefield pottery gains in popularity by the day. Each new auction of old pottery tops the previous auction. There are many out there who are capitalizing on this and misleading the public as well as their customers.

As I stated, it is hard work to produce pottery in the old manner. Often, the better part of a kiln load of pottery is lost or damaged due to events beyond control. The tasks of keeping good wood in supply and dealing with digging and processing the clay are endless, not to mention the hours spent making pots and glazing them. It can take the better part of a day just to load a groundhog kiln and up to 40 hours to fire it! There are excellent potters in my area who make good pots, but they don't have anything in common with the Old Edgefield pottery produced here or authentic reproductions of it. They have few failures in their electric kiln and really churn the pots out. And, for reasons I've yet to understand, charge outrageous prices for their work.

An Edgefield-style piece I made. This look cannot be duplicated in modern electric or gas kilns.

So, after my long rant, I propose a new title to apply to this modern work produced by modern methods, Edgefield-inspired pottery. Let's all work to honor the most significant pottery to ever be produced in the USA by not mudding the water and purposefully misleading the public. Let's use appropriate terms and descriptions when advertising our pots.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

June Firing

I'm posting some pics of a few of the pots from the most recent firing in June. The glazes turned out really nice! Very typical Old Edgefield or oriental-type glazes with lots of drips and runs from ash. The color of the glaze is a little darker than in the past. This is because I added a few cups of red, red earthenware from Martintown Rd. in North Augusta to my glaze batch. I wanted more runs and I got them! These are just a sample but typical of what we unloaded.

The kiln was fired on June 16-17. Though there was no rain forecast, it rained on and off throughout one night. We managed to stall the kiln at 15 hours, but eventually recovered and continued our climb up in temp. New apprentice Brian received his baptism by fire and sweat! I owe you! Sarah helped finish the firing when my legs and back started spasms at around 34 hours. She took the 9,10,11 cones down. Thanks, Sarah! Total firing time was 36 hours. Whew! I should say 36 HOT, HUMID hours. I'll post pics in a few days after the kiln cools and is unloaded.

Brian stands back while flames start burning out top of chimney.

Brian's legs are just visible in the firebox as he starts to unload a real hot kiln several days later.

This pot says " A good pot for stew-beef, chicken and rabbit, too

A nice jar 2 gallon jar

I'll post more photos later. All of the pieces are not yet out of the kiln.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Clay Prospecting

Recently, one of the last potteries from the Old Edgefield District has found itself in the way of progress. Baynham's pottery was relocated in the late 1800's to this location from Trenton, SC. They managed to keep production of utilitarian pottery into the 1930's. This site was the location for brickmaking, as well as garden-type earthenware production. The site is presently being cleared for a storm water retention pond.

The many sherds left scattered about the site show that Albany slip was the preferred glaze treatment. Jug handles were joined at and onto the necks. There was a small number of sherds that appeared to have a Bristol or whitish-gray glaze. The pottery site has the remains of at least 2 groundhog kilns visible and several waster piles.

Many of the remaining foundations of structures on the site were made from brick with the markings "PEERLESS/AUGUSTA. The large number of unmortared single bricks scattered about the site may indicate these were made here.

The pottery sat on top of a vein of blue-colored clay. This clay was layed down when an ancient sea covered this area and is a kaolinite high in alumina, which is great for stoneware pottery. While this clay by itself is somewhat short or non-plastic, it performs beautifully when blended with the buff stoneware clay veins that alternate with the blue clay at the site.

We have managed to procure a sizeable quantity of the clays from the site. Though Baynham's pottery site will cease to be, collectors of their pottery can take heart as Old Canal Pottery continues the tradition of southern alkaline-glazed, wood-fired stoneware pottery using clays from the old site. The clays fire to a light gray color.
Blue clay contrasted with red earthenware clay

A sample of the blue clay

Our kiln is filled and the wood is cut and stacked. We will be firing our latest work soon!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Weather Warms

I apologize for the length of time since my last post. I managed to get a firing inbetween some of the spring fronts that race through this time of year. I once lost the better part of 2 month's work when a storm came out of nowhere with high winds blowing down the chimney into the kiln. The pots were at about 2,000 degrees F and I heard much pinging and cracking as cold air met hot pots! I look forward to those long drawn out high pressure cells that linger over the southern USA and provide long periods of stable weather because that's the time for a wood-fired groundhog kiln.

This is a photo of some of the small-medium face jugs after dipping them in glaze and before they were fired. They turned out real sweet and sold real fast. My camera has not yet been repaired so I'm behind on photos and real lost without it.

I usually put 3-4 of these cone plaques around the inside of the kiln when I fire. They provide a record of the temperatures in various parts of the kiln. I do good to see one set when I fire due to the intensity of light, but I can see one set close to the front door. This helps guide me in determining when to halt firing. The cones are numbered, the higher the number the higher the temp it melts at. Here I wanted to get to 2,300 F (the middle cone 10) but waited until the 11 cone bent before stopping to insure the temp in the back had time to get high enough. Additionally, I go by color and I also hope to see what looks like shimmering drops of water on the outside of pots. This is the melted glaze and means I can stumble around like a real tired zombie and start closing the kiln up! Ya-hoo! Bed, sleep!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Bit of Pottery History

While the winter weather hasn't been very good for firing the groundhog kiln, I thought I'd add a brief post about the history of Edgefield pottery. I hope these weather systems with all of the rain and low pressure will let up soon! The drying racks are full of some nice pottery needing only fire to bring them to life. Keep your fingers crossed!

A beautiful pitcher with runs and a Bodie Pottery jug, early 1800's on right

As I've mentioned in previous posts, the pottery tradition that started here in the Old Edgefield District of South Carolina in the early 1800's was possibly the most important in the United States to date. Although this method of pottery making was originally pioneered by the Chinese a couple of thousand years ago, it did not make much of an appearance in Europe or elsewhere until a local physician started experimenting with it in the early Nineteenth Century.

A maker's mark from Hahn Pottery, approximately 1850. Most Edgefield ware was not marked or was marked by strange symbols such as dots, slashes or X's.

While early America slowly shifted away from the toxic lead-glazed earthenwares that were poisoning many there were few alternatives to replace it easily. The northern states had ample amounts of salt and good stoneware clays. The immigrants to these states brought the salt-glazing technique with them from many parts of Europe and produced vast quantities of utilitarian pottery. The southern states lacked the access to salt. Salt was a valuable commodity in the south and was much needed for preserving meats and vegetables, especially for the large plantations and the many slaves that had to be fed.

A large storage jar attributed to Thomas Chandler, about 1840

The local physician who ultimately founded this tradition was Abner Landrum. He was also a publisher of a small newspaper and a slave owner. He found that useable stoneware clays were found in this area around the fall line. He also discovered that the ash residue from the pottery kiln could be mixed with silica or sand and a bit of clay and water forming a slip to coat the raw pots with which would form a satisfactory glaze when fired to stoneware temeratures of around 2,300 degrees F. The aim was simply to form a sanitary surface on the pots which was easily cleaned. Aesthetics and glaze color was of no importance.
A kaolin slip-decorated jug from Colin Rhodes Pottery

Within a few years, others in the area emulated Landrum's success and started potteries of their own, often as a supplement to farming. The rounded, ovoid or bulbous oriental forms were produced in vast quantities at the 20 or so potteries in this area and sent by wagon and later by rail throughout the south. This pottery-making tradition also spread throughout the southern tier of states and as far west as Texas. Since these potteries were dependant on slave labor, they tended to decline after the Civil War and with the advent of glass and metal storage containers. The last of the old traditional potteries died out in the early Twentieth Century. Without this unique pottery, the settlers of the south would have found it very difficult, if not impossible, to preserve and store foodstuffs. We now appreciate the runny, drippy beauty of these ash or alkaline-glazed pots! More and more collectors are bidding on fewer pots, driving prices on these old beauties through the roof!
Slave-made face jugs

We at Old Canal Pottery are proud to revive this Southern tradition and artform using methods and materials that were used here almost 200 years ago. Our groundhog kiln produces the beautiful forms and glazes so sought after by collectors. We hope you will consider adding our wares to your collection. They will grow in value as years pass and represent a continuation of this most unique pottery tradition.

An inscribed South Carolina Dispensary jug made at the Hahn/Baynham pottery in present day North Augusta, SC. The governor of SC placed an order for many hundreds of these for the state run liquor dispensaries. Circa 1890