Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Time for Everything

I'm amazed as I look at my little counter at the bottom of this blog and see around 9,000 visits. I often wonder how the reader leaves this page.... Did you learn anything? Was it a useful tool in the search for knowledge about Edgefield pottery? Am I still true in my heart to my obsessive addiction and love of southern pottery? Ah, the years roll by so fast. It seems they now follow Star Trek time screaming by at warp speed. Christmas and the Holidays were just here, how can it be? A few pots, a few kiln firings.... Wow! This past year has been fast-paced! I've had my work exhibited at the South Carolina State Museum in a couple of venues, and did a real classy show at Augusta State University. Several mentions in newspapers and magazines. Pots shipped all over and even overseas. And a really fine exposition in my hometown Aiken County Historical Museum! Thanks! It's all good! It means so much when struggling with the endless, lonely hours of labor involved with carrying on this special pottery tradition. I'm real happy to be climbing up, up, up and sharing my skills and art with others. I've had great pleasure spreading the word about this pottery to the groups and organizations which I've given talks and presentations to this past year. Thanks for allowing me to educate and give my perspective.

I've met many, many people this past year with deep passions and interests in southern pottery. I'm getting a comprehensive list together of emails and addresses for those who wish to come to kiln openings. I really hope to notify you of the exact time you might walk up and stroll about the grounds around the kiln and make your selection of the prized pot that speaks to you.But, you know, I'm so particular. I've got to check my babies for cracks and other imperfections and clean them, which usually takes me a day or two. I also love to just study them a bit before they leave.

Understand, I'd die if I sold a friend and patron a bad pot. Many defects can happen with this method of pottery making. Honest! Eventually, maybe I can get to some Zen-like level of master potter where such worries are like ripples fading across the surface of a glassy pond.

Until then, I'll promise to try to notify you soon after I've sorted the bad guys out. And hey, I'll keep those bad guys with their imperfections on hand because a lot of you like and appreciate them and want to give them room in your homes. I like that!

I had hoped to fire the kiln up before Christmas, but the weather decided we might wait a bit. It is hard to find a window of 3 calm days of high pressure in the winter. I have some wonderful pieces ready to load in as soon as it comes. I'm so thankful for the support of many, especially those who have helped with the task of kiln firing this past year and to those who express their desire to help in the future. Generosity from so many in countless forms allow me to go forward on my grand adventure and experiment.

The southern pottery tradition is an amazing chunk of history. It is a long list of superlatives. Dave, Chandler, Rhodes, Seigler, Landrum and Baynham to name a few. I promise to honor their labors and to faithfully keep as much of the Edgefield Tradition alive as I am able. I hope others might come to know and love how our very earth is transformed by fire, water and human hands into these wonderful, timeless, earthy vessels which speak so loudly to our senses. Pray for peace for all of those who are too persecuted and suffering to sit back and contimplate pottery. Around and around it goes. Will it ever stop? I don't knows.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

October Kiln Firing

Brian crams fuel in blasting off the kiln. Flames travel over 32 feet,
shooting out of the flue pipes almost 5 feet in the air!

The groundhog kiln was fired over October 18-20. As firings go, it was a bit shorter, but always just as grueling. In order to have a successful firing, dry wood is of paramount importance. Even slightly damp wood will cause failure to reach the required 2,300 F degrees and the kiln will hover endlessly at about 2,000 F.

A low pressure system was still over the area as I started the kiln in the afternoon. The weather forecast called for it to be pushed out by a high by evening. The winds were to be around 5-10 mph, which is more than ideal, but I hoped they would die down at dark. Some of the wood was slightly damp feeling and we spread it out in the sunshine to dry completely. I wasn't used to the chilly temps the first evening and wound up pulling my truck up in front of the kiln and ducking in between stokings to warm up.

Near the end of firing a groundhog kiln, a large amount of fuel must be crammed in the firebox to push the temps over the top to shine the glaze and fully mature the clay body. This is called "blasting off" the kiln. Brian is the king of blasting off, a true pyromaniac! He showed up the final few hours of firing to help Sarah and me finish it off.

It will take 4-5 days for the kiln to cool enough to unload. We took the front temps up to cone #12 in hopes of ensuring the back reached required temps. Sometimes, this results in over-firing and some of the pots in front will melt to the kiln floor. An unpleasant mess! We hope this didn't happen. I will post photos of some of the pots when they come out shortly.

Glowing red flue pipes attest to the incredible heat during the final hour or so

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hot Time in the Old Town!

photo courtesy of Reggie Fraser

The August firing of the groundhog kiln went really well, inspite of the brutal upper 90 degree weather. Oh well, it was typical southern USA August weather. It took us around 38 hours from start to finish. I had tears in my eyes and was contemplating giving pottery up forever at about hour # 30! I'd just had it, my feet were killing me and was feeling real sorry about ever striking that match.

Fortunately, Sarah fixed me a nice bench with a cushion where I could sniffle, whine and doze off for 40 minutes or so. That helped! When I awoke, Sarah had the kiln ramped up to about 2,000 degrees. Soon, our good friend Dean showed up and did some serious wood-chucking. Thanks, Buddy! It was a great sight to see all of our combined efforts send the flames shooting about 3 feet out of the chimney and to know bed was getting real close! Bryan showed up the final hour to relieve all of us and get it to the finish line. I'm posting photos of a few pieces.

It was a treat to unload it 4 days latter and see the results of a lot of hard work and many hours of labor. I am constantly agitated as I look at eBay auctions and see the same people tagging "Old Edgefield" on to their pottery and deceiving the buyer over and over. Once again, when you fire your pots in an electric or gas kiln using fake ash glazes, it has nothing to do with wood-fired Old Edgefield-style pottery. The Pattons of Travelers Rest, SC have it right when they describe their great work as "Edgefield inspired" and others should follow their lead.

I'm looking forward to the several shows coming up in the next 2 months and to the next firing in September. Thanks to all who help and support me in my efforts to keep alive the Old Edgefield pottery making tradition!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Good June firing

We fired up the kiln on a hot day. It was 102 degrees F both days the kiln was fired. It took us about 40 hrs. to bring it up to around a cone#11. Thank god Brian showed up at about hour 37 because I was suffering from extreme heat exhaustion, having got chills and all of that scary stuff earlier. Brian represented a pure, rested, air-conditioned hunk-o-meat and promptly jumped on that fire and set it to blasting! I think the kiln was sick of me and my whining. Brian brought it home with the front screaming hot at about a cone #11 in two short hours. I don't think Sarah and I could have done it without his fresh body there those last 2 hours! I owe you big time, Brian!

The past couple of firings had been problematic due to some of the old heart pine wood on hand had lots of white-wash on it. Now, who'd have ever thought that stuff could cause so many problems? I guess white-wash is made from seashells and who knows what else. Calcium Carbonate or something. We were recycling old stuff on mini face jug

On all of the pots, well, I mean all of the pot's sides facing the fire, the residuals from the white -wash caused a very pronounced gold colorization. And I mean Gold! It was in stark contrast to the normal drippy ash glaze on the other side of the pots. I had a tremendous amount of this fine old heart pine. I couldn't burn it all over the course of 3 firings, so I hauled it home to the baby groundhog kiln located there. I couldn't bring myself to toss it all in a dump somewhere. The gold color will represent one more lesson in wood-firing stoneware pottery in the Old Edgefield tradition. When's school gonna be over?

nice slip-trailed jug

The heat of those two days sure took a toll on me. On the first day of firing the groundhog kiln I also hosted our clay group, Clay Artists of the Southeast (CASE), doing our first pit-firing of pieces we made like the Stallings Island people. These pots were made from indigenous clay with Spanish Moss mixed into it to temper the clay. By temper, I mean it opens the clay body up some and allows it to dry and fire over open flame without cracking. We took about 4 hours for the whole process and got some nice pieces out. Unfortunately, 2 large pieces got licked by the flame too soon and popped a couple of flakes out of the sides.

Stallings-type pot bathed by fire and Stallings pots cooling down after firing

I hosted a second firing a short while later and it wasn't quite as hot, only a balmy 96 degrees with about the same in humidity. Some fool had turned on the sprinkler system at Enterprise Mill and most of my wood had got thoroughly soaked over-night before we started the pit-fire at 8:00am Sat. June 28. I had a lot of sweet thin slats under a tarp that I was saving to blast the groundhog kiln with on the next firing which I had to use for this primitive firing. Well, it was all worth it because we got some nice stuff out and didn't loose a thing really.

The primitive stuff will go on display at Augusta State University as a part of the Westobou Festival coming up in September 08. I'm ready to load the groundhog kiln as about 2 loads are backed up after spinning my wheels with the white-washed wood. I'm laying in the last of the new wood for the firing and hope to hit it in the next two weeks. Oh! A good friend, Dean, was on hand the night of one of the past firings this Spring when our fearless firefighters showed up with that damn giant, loud, ladder truck right in the middle of the firing. Here's a couple of photos.

As a gift or as payola, the firemen took with them an under-fired face jug which now resides above their bunks in the firehouse. They also put in an order for a medium size spittoon with their station logo slip-trailed on it. The ranking guy really got me going by saying they were going to have to "lay" down some water, since they had to respond. When I asked where he was going to lay it down, he said, " in the kiln, naturally." Well, I got to shaking so bad I could barely croak out a " like hell you are" response. He started laughing and replied with a stinging "GOT 'CHA". What a firing!a better match couldn't be had!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

An Amazing Tradition

I would like to invite you to view my work in the 20th Anniversary Show at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, SC. I juried into this show which was wonderfully curated. It runs from April 25-Sept.7, 2008.

As more and more people become aware of the unique ceramic tradition that started in the Old Edgefield District of South Carolina, the prices at auction of the few old original pieces skyrocket. While I have not conducted an exhaustive survey of past and present American potters and sales of their work, I can state few have reached the prices being fetched by the famous slave potter, Dave Drake. With a single pot of his commanding well over $100k at auction, it is not only collectors who should sit up and take notice, but also ceramic historians and experts. True, and shameful, that Dave never received a dime from the sales of his pots. As a slave, he was required to make pots for his various masters.

Dave, more than any other factor, is responsible for the increased valuation on all of the Old Edgefield-style pottery, even that which was made when the tradition spread into Georgia and North Carolina. We know from the surviving pots, especially the pots Dave made and inscribed his original prose on, that he was much more than a pot turner. In a time when it was illegal for a slave to read or write, Dave proudly incised his poems and name, along with his master's name, boldly across pots which were shipped across the south as well as used locally. People who purchased them had to know something of why they were the only pots made with a cryptic couplet or bold script signiture. The historical record shows next to nothing about Dave other than him being sold or transfered to another master or showing up in a census count. Undoubtedly, people of the Old Edgefield District and beyond had to know something was special or unusual about Dave, even to the point of looking the other way in regard to laws of the time.

His cryptic prose and majestic pots are all we have to help us to try to look into the soul of this most unusual being. He shook the bonds which enslaved him for almost 70 years of his life when the Civil War ended and he was emancipated. Perhaps this next fact sheds more light on Dave, to me, than any other. A sherd was recovered recently which is inscribed in Dave's hand and dated 1867. Most assumed Dave stopped potting in 1865 with the end of the war. To me, I think Dave was a master potter and that his relationship with clay superceeded any monetary gains or concerns. I do hope that he was finally a master of his own destiny as well as recipient of whatever financial returns his pottery might have brought. But he continued at his advanced age, making the pots he had made for most of his life. He was a master in the medium of clay and unparalleled in American ceramics.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Oldest Pottery in North America

I love the old alkaline glazed pottery of the southern USA. This area has contributed greatly to the ceramic tradition of this country. Little did I realize just how much!

While doing research for an upcoming project for the area clay artists group, I stumbled upon some amazing facts that I was unaware of. The most important of these facts was that around 4,500 years before present time, ancient people of the Archaic period of civilization began making pottery on Stallings Island in the Savannah River near present day Augusta, GA, making it the oldest pottery in North America! These people are known as the Stallings Culture, after the Island they inhabited, and were the makers of fiber-tempered pottery vessels. Fiber-tempered means they added a member of the tillandsia family called "Spanish Moss" or a type of palm leaf to the clay in which they hand-formed the pottery from.

They had been cooking and eating their food out of animal skins. How, you might ask, did they cook in an animal skin? They heated rock in the fire and dropped the heated rocks into the pouch-like skin to bring the contents to a boil. The rock used appears to be soapstone at first. Later, they started baking clay balls to use in place of the soapstone since it was hard to come by in this area. Later, soapstone was also hollowed out into a cooking vessel which could be placed directly over the fire.

It appears the first fiber-tempered pottery, plain and undecorated, was used as serving bowls. Some 500 years later, designs were done by punching a reed or other sharp point and dragging it to the next spot.

The heated food was divided up into bowls and consumed. Can you picture the first early woman (I feel it was probably a woman since they maintained the fires and did all of the cooking) noticing a thin, hard, bowl-like shape that had formed in the damp clay depression where her cooking fire had been? I can see her prying it out and holding it to marvel and wonder about the possibilities. As she showed it to her family, they soon discovered that not only would it hold water without dissolving into mud, but that it made a mean Saber-Tooth Tiger stew pot! Just kidding, the tigers were gone at this point in time. But, you get the idea. What a momentous day it was for mankind until the y realized someone had to wash the bowl out after its use. Well.... guess who wound up inheriting that job? It was only fair, the woman invented it and she should wash it. Seriously, the male mind of the time traveled down a similar train of thought as those of today.

Early woman had discovered that when they sought to duplicate the process of the bowl made by the fire, it tended to crack, explode, etc. Somehow temper was discovered. The earliest temper, again, was plant fiber. Not long after, they discovered adding coarse sand for temper, which is what the balance of early native American pots have in them. Nowadays, we use ground-up fired clay grit or grog for our temper in clays we throw on the wheel or hand-build with for precisely the same reasons as our predecessors.

Our clay group will soon duplicate this ancient pottery-making process using hand-dug clay from the banks of the Savannah River. We will pinch the pots to form, crudely use the jab and drag decorating method and fire them in a small pit with open wood fire.

The following are some photos of pots made recently in the Stallings manner by me and my friend which were fired while burning some brush.