Beyond Melted Ash: Michiana Wood Fired Pottery
Around the world, wood fired pottery has been made in many cultures and for thousands of years. However, since the industrial revolution, manufactured pottery has become cheap and widely available. Today, few people use hand-made pottery in everyday life, and even fewer know how it is made.
This exhibit explores the methods used to produce hand-made, wood fired pottery in the Michiana region: mixing clay, throwing pots on the wheel, and firing the pots in a carefully constructed kiln that can reach up to 2500°. The challenging and intense wood firing process causes wood ash to melt on the surface of the pottery, creating a beautiful and unusual glassy surface.
Wood firing in Michiana is not an endeavor to be attempted alone. The large kilns are filled with the work of multiple potters, and the work of the long firing is shared amongst many hands. The "Individual Artists Working Together" section of this exhibit features a selection of Michiana potters and the unique contributions they each make to the art and to the community.
Fieldwork for this exhibit was completed between 2012-2013. This material was also used to create an exhibit at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, Indiana, which will open on September 20th, 2013. The exhibit features a potter's studio, a model wood fired kiln, and beautiful wood fired pots by four featured artists.
Fieldwork and Exhibit by Meredith McGriff
The pottery and firing techniques presented in this exhibit come primarily from an area called “Michiana,” an unofficial region around the border between northern Indiana and southern Michigan. Many of the Michiana potters work in or near Goshen, Indiana, and studied at Goshen College with Professor Martin Bartel. The 2012 Michiana Pottery Tour, organized by a number of local potters, included 18 artists who live and work in the Michiana area.
Many machines, tools, and natural materials are needed to create pottery. This section explores the basic process of making pots, from throwing and trimming pottery, to bisque firing and sometimes glazing the pots. After the forms are created, the wood firing adds a natural ash glaze to the surface of the pots. Firing in a wood kiln is an intense process that can take anywhere from a few days to longer than a week.
Once the pottery is stacked in the kiln, a fire is lit and wood is added constantly until the kiln reaches a temperature of around 2200°. This takes a great deal of dedication on the part of the potter, and is often a community event. During the course of the multi-day firing, ash from the burning wood fills the kiln and falls on the pots. Due to the very high temperature, this ash melts, and creates the dripping, glassy surface you see on completed wood fired pots. This is why wood fired pots are said to have a wood ash glaze.
Although each potter makes unique pots, it is their community that allows them to pursue this profession. Building kilns is easier and firing more often and for longer periods of time is less exhausting when the work is shared amongst multiple people. Additionally, by sharing their skills and knowledge about the process, each person is able to learn from the experience of others to produce better pottery and refine their individual style. Living in a community that is primarily of the Mennonite faith, they all share a value of hard work, preference for using natural materials, and neighborly support of one another. Other residents and those who visit the area know that the artwork they can purchase in Michiana is carefully crafted by artists who hold themselves to high standards.