Thursday, October 14, 2010

Autumn firing in a Vermont valley

I returned Wednesday from Bristol, Vermont, up near Lake Champlain and not far from the Canadian border, after two days of heavy stoking on Robert Compton's two-chamber noborigama kiln. My arms are still tired.
Bob and his wife Chris run a very attractive pottery studio in the valley about five miles from downtown Bristol. Kilns are scattered here and there on the property, a hillside next to a busy road and across from an open pasture. Bob makes pots and Christine is a fiber artist. Their elderly golden retriever Shino supervises the place and two sheep provide sound effects and country atmosphere in the sloping field just below the main kiln shed.
Bob's wood-fired noborigama is usually fired only once a year. It takes the better part of three days to reach cone 11 in both chambers, which together hold somewhere between 1,100 and 1,500 pots, depending on the size of the work. Other - and much smaller - gas-fired kilns are fired at other times of the year, but the big drama is in the firing of the noborigama.
Lots of people came to see the firing and to visit the shop, awed at the flame coming from the main firebox and then wandering into the shop to buy pots. There's nothing like billowing flame, high heat and people throwing large pieces of wood into the firebox to get a buyer in the mood for wood-fired pots. I should try that sometime.
Bob is working on a stoking schedule that allows the workers to get several hours of sleep each night, banking the firebox late in the evening and starting up again about 7 a.m. It's still in the tweaking stage, but we slept well Monday night after we'd taken the front chamber to cone 11 and gotten the back chamber up to a respectable heat. Letting a wood kiln sleep through the night is a new idea for me, but it seems to work, and it allows for fewer people in the crew. Way more civilized than the midnight-7 a.m. shift.
Tuesday morning at about dawn Bob was there stoking when I got out of bed and wandered to the kiln. Fellow stoker Brad Ponack, a Keene Valley, NY, potter, came down from his night's sleep not long after that. A long day and many more visitors brought the back chamber up to cone 11 more or less everywhere. Then we retired with a variety of visitors for a potluck dinner and a few beers.
One of the great pleasures of this event was the chance to meet and talk to Bruce Martin of Kamaka Pottery in New Zealand. Bob and Chris met Bruce and his late wife Estelle many years ago on a visit to the Pacific nation. Bruce is a retired anagama-firer from the North Island, much influenced by the work of Japanese teaware potters. He and Estelle both made beautiful work and you can see some of it on his website at or go to his blog, which is linked to mine on this page.
At 84, Bruce dropped into Bristol part way through a round-the-world tour with stops visiting potter friends in Alberta, Vermont, the UK and Japan. Bruce is my new role model for how to live a full life as long as you can. I'd commented a few times on the pots and New Zealand seasonal photos he posts on his blog, never dreaming that he would show up a few hours away from me. One more pottery blog connection.
That's all for now. I'll post a few images from the firing, starting with the lovely fall colors across the valley from the Comptons' home and studio. Then: Brad Ponack stoking the front firebox, with Alan Frost handling the door; Bob Compton working out the temporarily heavy reduction in the front chamber before shutting down for the night Monday; Bob stoking and Brad at the door; all three men apparently contemplating something important while the kiln burns on behind them.


Tracey Broome said...

I just commented on Judy Shreve's blog that I still have about 50 years to be the potter I want to be. Bruce is now living proof of that statement and my new hero of the hour! Wow! good for him. Looks like you had the very best time! We are loving our newest bowl addition by the way!!

Hollis Engley said...

Glad to hear it, Tracey. Yes, I think we both have a lot of years of potting ahead of us. Bruce is a great guy.

cookingwithgas said...

look at those trees- be still my heart.
I do love fall.
It sounds like a grand time and place.
Like TB we are in LOVE with our new teabowls I have to wash it all the time.
SO I can use it all the time!

Hollis Engley said...

Thanks, Meredith. Dee was drinking cider just this morning out of one of your tumblers. I love that.

Michael Mahan said...

Sounds like a great place and a great time you had, Hollis. I fired a two-day extended firing a few firings ago. I got up to about 600 F., and because we were firing green pots, I let the last stoke burn down a bit before sealing up the kiln.
Next day, it had dropped to 470.

Unlike Tracey and Meredith, I have only memories of your lovely pots I saw at the blog show. Thanks for stopping by while you were here.