Wednesday, December 30, 2009

North Carolina Kiln Opening

What are all these people looking at? Why are they standing around shivering on the Saturday after Thanksgiving?

Under the green roof in the picture above sits a brick-domed wood kiln filled with pitchers and face jugs and other pottery by Traditions Pottery and Bolick Pottery.

Most of the year, these two businesses sell their pottery through a shop in Blowing Rock, online, or to those tourists and locals who take the time to drive out to their workshop. Twice a year, however, they invite the public to their enclave where they live and make their wares. One event in June features pottery throwing demonstrations, music, and other fun.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, however, people come from miles around to have first pick of the work coming out of the wood-fired kiln. Yellow caution tape rings the area around the kiln, keeping the crowd at bay while the kiln is unloaded.

First, however, there is a prayer asking the Lord's blessing on the day and on the work produced. A man with a guitar sings a song. Then the unloading begins.

The first few pieces are easily removed and handed out to the women waiting to give them a quick inspection for firing flaws or cracks. The women afix a price to the items and set the pieces on a large table in full view of the crowd.

The kiln extends back about 16 feet or more, so after the first row is removed a young man -- not too big -- crawls inside to hand out the bulk of the load, many of which have been glazed with Christmas red.

Dark blue is another common color.

People in the crowd huddle together for warmth and pull their hats down over their ears as they watch the table fill with lidded crocks and graceful ewers. You can see people nudge each other and nod as particular pieces emerge and are added to the table.

Once the kiln is emptied and all the items are priced and set on the table, the yellow tape comes down and the crowd rushes forward to claim their chosen items before someone else grabs them. There's some bantering about who had what first, but most seems good-natured and friendly.

Sometimes, after the customer has inspected the item more closely or after they realize they've snatched up six items and only need five, some are returned to the table for someone else to take.

Within twenty minutes or so, however, the table is empty.

Then the crowd works its way down to the building where hot chocolate and goodies are being sold. Some of the pieces need to be smoothed on the bottoms, so the potters turn on their grinders and sanders and provide the finishing touches.

The shops fill with people paying for their prizes and with others looking for items similar to those they wanted but didn't get.

The man with the guitar moves to another gathering area in front of a manger scene and pulls out a banjo.

A dog finds a sunny spot for a snooze and ignores the whole thing.

Life is good.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Highwater Clays: Asheville NC

Not much to look at is it?

Just a sign directing trucks where to turn in off of a road in an industrial warehouse area of Asheville, North Carolina. Cross the railroad tracks, dodge a pothole or two, and pull around back. Drive past the loading dock and park facing the French Broad River or facing the two-story white metal building. No further signs indicate that this is a shrine on at least one potter's pilgrimage.

Namely mine.

The St. Petersburg Clay Company, in St. Petersburg, Florida, has an on-site Highwater Clays store where I buy all my clay. Plus, I often run down there on my lunch hour to pick up clay for the Dunedin Fine Art Center and haul it up in the evening.

But the clay I buy in St. Pete is already mixed, pugged, and bagged. I've read about the mixing process, but reading and seeing are two different things.

So when we drove to North Carolina for Thanksgiving last month, a side trip to the Highwater Clays plant in Asheville was high on my list of want-to-do's. And the nondescript warehouse building exterior didn't diminish my anticipation in the least when we drove up.

Inside, we browsed among many of the same books, tools, and glazes as in St. Petersburg. There was a larger selection, to be sure, and a small gallery type display of area potters' works. But what I really wanted to see was behind the closed swinging doors leading to the main part of the warehouse where pallets of bags of dry clay were stacked pretty much floor to ceiling.

Thanks to Jennifer Hoolihan, ceramic technician at Highwater Clays, I got to do just that. Jennifer escorted the four of us -- my wife, my brother, and his wife -- through the swinging doors and answered our questions about how they put out as many as 32,000 to 35,000 pounds of clay a day using a gigantic, retrofitted, computer-controlled cement mixer to transform raw materials mined from Ohio, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia into clays ranging from fine porcelain to coarser raku.

It's always good to know where things come from--and to know that a plain, white warehouse can churn out a whole world of creative possibilities.

Back to the studio . . .