Studio visit: The Clarks fire their kiln

"Wood-firing is almost inexplicably demanding, but also in a strange way, refreshing, galvanizing, exciting, hopeful." - YC

This past August I had the privilege of catching a few moments of what can only be described as one of the most intense creative experiences I’ve ever seen. Lee and Yolande Clark fired a batch of their pottery in the anagama wood kiln they built with their own hands, for 8 long days and nights. It is an event that only happens twice a year, for several reasons. For one, it takes an inordinate amount of wood, time and energy, and it also takes awhile to build up the stock of pottery to fire. It may seem crazy and risky since they’re lucky if 60-70% of the pieces make it out unscathed, but the results are stunning and cannot be achieved with standard electric firing. It is one thing to make art, to make it with your own hands, and it is another thing to make art and then burn it for a week in a white-hot kiln with no guarantee of success. I tip my hat to Lee and Yolande and admire their tenacity and commitment to their work. This is a two-part series about their work and the all-consuming firing process around which their lives and years revolve.

Clark firing: part I

We arrived en masse, my mom, two girls and my brother and his new wife Lydia. “Don’t worry,” said Yolande, “it’s already crazy here.” Yolande, three of her children and two dogs were sitting outside in front of the kiln, under the tent. Yolande was on kiln shift, wearing jeans, a jacket, bandana and heavy gloves in 30-degree weather. “I’m so sweaty I just don’t care anymore”, she said. As we sat down and began chatting she put the bandana over her face, got an armload of wood and delicately removed the door obscuring the opening of the kiln so she could throw the wood in and slam it shut again. The wave of heat emanating from the opening was tremendous. “It took me at least 4 or 5 full firings before I stopped be terrified every time I open the door”, said Yolande. Most people who offer to help end up balking when it comes time to face the flames, apparently survival instincts kick in when they see and feel the intense heat. It is precisely these instincts that Yolande and Lee fight for hours and days on end, pushing past exhaustion and monotony towards the goal of meeting their precious pieces on the other side. Is it worth it? Wait til you see Part II of this piece when they unload the kiln.


How did you become interested in clay?

I’m from Vancouver, and my mum enrolled me in my first clay-class when I was three years old. I loved pottery from that point on: the tactile nature of the material, the meditative quality of working with clay, but I also loved it, I think particularly because I was involved in fairly high-level piano performance throughout my childhood, and competitive swim club, and track and field, and ballet, I really felt the pressure of competition during my early years, and was always ambivalent about it. My parents were very loving and they genuinely believed that exposing me to a variety of cultural influences and opportunities was a good thing, but the weight of competition and responsibility of that, (and some corresponding guilt), was somewhat an ever-present part of the emotional landscape of my family, and clay was always a refuge—a sanctuary-- I think partly because it was just a given that I wasn't going to go into professional ceramics when I got older…ha!

Lee and I had very different childhoods, and he was sort of let loose in the woods from an early age where he roamed free to a great degree, but this was also balanced by the responsibilities he had, also from an early age, to contribute to the family by working with his father, who was a wood-lot manager and sustainable logger in Carleton County, NB. He grew up feeling somewhat out of step with his family and their expectations, but also incredibly determined to pursue his passion for art, and making. When he was just sixteen years old, he inherited some old camera equipment, and decided, of his own volition, to build a darkroom in his bedroom, based entirely on his own independent research and resourcefulness. When he graduated high school, he was encouraged to go into forestry full-time, and he did that for one year after finishing secondary school, but then mustered up the courage to apply to the New Brunswick School of Craft and Design, to study photography further. While choosing his first semester courses, he just happened to select a pottery class as an elective, and as soon as he took one class, he simply knew that clay was his life, and he dropped all his photo courses then and there, to pursue ceramics.

Lee had been a professional potter for eight years when he and I met, by chance, in Halifax. I had been floundering, working in coffee shops and as a freelance writer, and I literally fell in love with him at first sight from across Agricola street. Within a couple of weeks, we were on the road to New Brunswick for my first wood-firing, and that was it—I was hooked, or maybe just reminded.

What brought you to NB?

In retrospect, I see that my motivations for moving across the country were partly a roundabout attempt to distance myself from my family, (whom I love!), and also a misplaced (at the time) attempt to escape a really dysfunctional first marriage—I didn’t actually need to move, I needed to get divorced, but moving eventually served that purpose, sadly. I’ve probably also always been a little bit contrary, and Vancouver had started to feel really stale to me, and overly familiar, and I guess I just didn’t really feel like I fit in—although this had more to do with where I was in my life: kind of unfocused, and probably a bit depressed, really. I also felt a pull towards the maritimes in particular. My ancestors are all from England, Ireland and Scotland, and my great-grandmother had landed from Yorkshire, in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia, which is where I moved first, from Vancouver. I remember right before I moved to Nova Scotia, my grandfather, who was a well-respected historian, sat me down and told me how disappointed he was that I going all the way back to Nova Scotia when my family had spent two generations desperately getting themselves out of there, but at least I wasn’t moving to New Brunswick! So maybe there was an iconoclastic urge there, too. As I mentioned, I eventually met Lee in Halifax, and we decided to permanently move to New Brunswick, to be close to the Little River Anagama, the kiln that Lee built a few years before we met. I admit that I really hated New Brunswick at first, and didn’t get it. Thankfully, the reversal in my attitude and outlook when it comes to NB was slow, but total. It took me a few years, but I absolutely love New Brunswick now, and feel a fierce loyalty to this place. New Brunswick is definitely my home.

Tell me about the anagama kiln, when and how was it built?

Lee finished the construction of the Little River Anagama (located near Hartland) in 2000 (he began its construction while finishing his last year at NBCCD, having been fortuitously gifted several pallets of high refractory bricks from an uncle who just happened to own a lime kiln), and in 2008, we renovated that kiln considerably, tearing down the back chamber and chimney, and rebuilding it. The following year, we built another smaller wood-kiln in Knowlesville, NB, and when we decided to move from Carleton County to settle in Queenstown, the plan was to build another large Anagama on the same site as our home and studio, so we could more easily integrate our wood-firings with daily life, our family, etc. The Queenstown Anagama is based on the design of Japanese pottery master Shiho Kanzaki’s kiln in Shigaraki, Japan. Kanzaki’s work was actually what first inspired Lee to pursue wood firing, while he was still a student at the Craft College—Lee came across an article about Kanzaki, I think in an old Ceramics Monthly magazine, and this prompted him to begin the construction of the Little River Anagama. A few years later, Lee was accepted into a program called IWCAT (International Workshop of Ceramic Arts in Tokoname), which took him to Japan for two months, where he met Shiho Kanzaki. They connected, and Lee returned a year later, to fire with and learn from the elder potter. While he had built the little River Anagama with a catenary arch design, he returned to Canada with a dream to implement the design that Kanzaki used: a sprung arch, larger firebox, and a tiered, climbing floor system. One of the many wonderful things about Shiho Kanzaki is his philosophy of openness, and he welcomed Lee to study his kiln plans, and to employ his firing techniques, which is really quite amazingly generous. Two years before Lee and I met, Lee travelled to Arkansas to build a kiln for potter Joe Bruhin, and Lee did a masterful job of heading that construction project. Our Queenstown kiln is essentially a continuation of Lee’s passion and genius for designing these structures. It took us about a full year to build the Queenstown Anagama, and our third child, Felix was born just a week before we had to do the first firing of the kiln. We were working so hard that year, I remember spending the morning of Felix’s birth laying bricks. I felt a little tired that afternoon, so I went inside to have a nap, Felix was born that evening, and then I stuck him in a snuggly wrap and went back out the next morning to lay more bricks. We did do the firing a few days after that, and it was ok!

How does the kiln work?

“Anagama” means “tube chamber”, and in a nutshell, the kiln is essentially a long continuous chimney. The large firebox is at the front of the kiln, which generates a massive heat, and the entire kiln itself basically sucks the flame through the entire body, where the pots are stacked, spreading the heat (ideally) quite evenly, and creating an atmosphere in which the flame is continuously cycling between oxidation (enough oxygen for the fire to burn) and reduction (an absence of oxygen), which, combined with the high temperatures, allows ash to melt to create a glaze, as well as creating colour thanks to that fluctuation in atmospheric states.

Can you briefly describe the firing process?

It takes about a week to pack the kiln with the hundreds of pieces required to do a firing, and each piece is carefully placed in order to influence the path of the flame, to greatest effect. When loading is done, we start a little campfire outside of the kiln, which is slowly, over 24 hours, fed into the lower front firebox. We do this, because any sudden changes of temperature inside the kiln can causes pieces to crack, so that first 24 hour period is essential to the safety and potential survival of the work. After the pre-heat, we begin stoking the front firebox, which involves the door being opened, and three handfuls of wood being thrown into the firebox, then closing the door. This cycle is repeated every five minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for the entire duration of the firing process, which usually lasts for at least seven days. Those are the basics, but the actual experience of firing the anagama is really an incredible one that involves a very keen honing of observational skills, as well as an ability to surrender to an almost-meditative state of mind, that allows one to tolerate the extreme physical sensations (exhaustion, pain, heat, cold, burn, etc.) and a parallel psychological intensity. Wood-firing, especially for long durations, is almost inexplicably demanding, but also in a strange way, refreshing, galvanizing, exciting, hopeful.

Stay tuned for Part II: Unloading.