Primitive Pottery

Rimas VisGirda proposed this workshop in 1972. He knew what he was doing. I didn't, -and spent most of the first year's session unnecessarily freaking out over the logistics and group dynamics and getting completely hooked by the experience. We decided to make it an annual event. When Rimas moved on after the second year, Patrick Siler joined up and the workshop had a seven-year run.

In 1972 there were almost four billion people, and forty-three enrolled in Raku. Not liturgical Raku, mind you, --we just shared the end process of tossing the glazed ware directly from the fire into organic material that burns and releases enough free carbon to reduce the metal oxides in the glaze, producing the rich and unpredictable colors characteristic of the process. The workshop was about clay.

A nearby firebrick manufacturer sold us culls for our kiln, we provided some community tools like shovels and bucksaws, everybody had a piece of heavy canvas for wedging and working clay, and we brought all the glazes. Imported tools were sneered at, and making tools was encouraged.

The clay pit was actually a shelf cut out of a mountain of kaolin clay, and the scar was almost sterile. A local cedar mill was dumping piles of bark here and there as part of a reclamation project. Mulch to them, --everything from bedding to compost for us. The mining operation had left overgrown terraces on the hills, providing campsites with a view of the whole claypit.

June was the best fit for the academic calendar, but maybe the worst for the potting. When the sun shines it is efficiently reflected off of the white clay and can sunburn quickly, but June is the wet month in the area, and rain was sometimes near-fatal for the workshop. Making and firing pottery in the rain is technically awkward because the raw ware will explode in the fire if it's not dry. We had to invent ways to bake the ware at low temperatures to get the physical water out of it before pre-firing (bisque) in the ashpit. June was also a pretty good fit for the exuberant pyromania the process involved, since forest fire was not part of the curriculum.

One year we got a record two inches of rain on Monday and Tuesday. At the group gathering on Wednesday morning, I offered to call the whole thing off. The clay was like sticky grease, and every step added a pound of weight to the feet. There was little discussion, and no one wanted to quit. They built a shelter out of black plastic and lodge-poles over a bed of cedar bark and got back to work. The sun broke through several hours later, and we ended up with a productive week. Friday night everyone was ready to leave, but the wet clay made escape in a vehicle impossible. It could have been a disaster, but for a local hero named Tiny, who came out dressed up for his birthday party in a D9 Caterpillar tractor and dug us a road.

During one rainy spell, I discovered that a person could haul a five-gallon bucket of water up the clay hill, sit with it in his lap and pour it in front of him as he slid down at high speed. The run got better with repeated use, and became a fast slide of about 150ft. Maybe half of the group got into this, and we ended up looking like a clay tribe Margaret Mead could have photographed. Then everyone made for the pond, and somehow I ended up buck-naked in the middle of it. I waited for months for the repercussions, but nothing happened. What happens in the clay, stays in the clay.

The camping was without amenities, and we had to import things as basic as drinking water. Many, if not most of the students had not camped like this before, and I envisioned swamped tents, and sleep-deprived zombies. There was a little of that, but not much because within hours we were a community and people took care of each other. It was like total strangers marooned, but more like Gilligan than Golding, fortunately. The age span of the group was at least 60yrs, they came from almost every state, and of the 300 people who passed through our little adventure, I don't remember a jerk. There probably were some, but they didn't show it in the claypit.

Several of the small creeks in the area gave us some great swimming holes, and if you knew where to look, the woods were full of morel mushrooms and wild strawberries. It was in the third year that the local people started calling us the raku-uns, and were always hospitable. Some young guys came out and gave us a demo of dirt-bike assisted suicidal behavior -as an excuse to ogle the girls-, but never caused any trouble, and sometimes ended up participating, and made some pots.

Rakuballs were a good exercise in making a hollow sphere out of clay, and were supposed to be artifacts we would leave behind. The idea was to have each campsite marked by a single rakuball and no other trace. It was also agreed that each campsite would save its organic garbage and use it under a transplanted seedling in the claypit. By the end of the workshop, rakuballs became a little precious and not many were left, but some years later I saw several of them in a local business I visited. Some of the trees did pretty well.

The first three days of the workshop are devoted to making pots while the last two are about the fire. The surrounding forest was full of dead lodgepole pine, so there was plenty of fuel. The only equipment was a half-dozen bow saws, and organization was to tell the group, "...we need a lot of fuel and there's the saws, so if you're not doing anything else..." I would not have believed how efficiently forty people with a common focus could get a job done. The focus is on the task and the rewards are in the work, so the group self-assembles into a wood-gathering machine, and the task gets accomplished. It's a shame that the corporate model limits rewards to money, --separating the focus from the task.

One afternoon a pair of university administration suits came for a visit. They were probably looking for communists and hippies, and I offered them a complete tour, hoping to get some clay into the little holes on their wingtips. A few hundred yards across the claypit was a 20ft log about 18in in diameter, and when a couple of students walked by I told them that I wanted that log brought up to the pile we were making for the bonfire, near where we were standing. I was joking; but not more than ten minutes later here came the log, floating on forty legs like a giant centipede, passing me and the suits on the way to the woodpile. I felt some concern that someone could get hurt when they tried to set it down, but they did a most beautiful little synchronized dance over and under the log as they literally tossed it on the pile. The suits left. I guess they found their communists.

The pots are fired twice. The first fire is critical to their survival, and is all about getting the water out of the clay body. It happens in two stages: first at the boiling point of water, where the water that makes the clay sticky and plastic becomes steam and escapes (drying), and second at the temperature where the water that binds the structure of the silicates is driven out (bisque,quartz inversion). If either of these stages happens too quickly, the clay body can be blown apart by steam, or fractured by the change of shape of the silicates on the molecular level. We accomplished this delicate process by loading a dug pit with all of the pots and building a huge bonfire over them. The radiant heat and falling embers provide a slowly increasing temperature, while the fire roars for most of the night, punctuated by the pops and thuds of exploding pots. Exploding helps to cut the inventory enough to make it possible to fire all the ware in the kiln the next day, and an all-night bonfire on the last night of the workshop tends to seem like a party.

A glaze mixture is applied to the surviving bisque ware, making it ready for the second fire in the kiln, which was built on Thursday. We built a new kiln each year, and the designs were various to say the least, but they all shared the purpose of storing enough energy from a wood fire to reach the temperatures necessary to melt the clay and glaze into the glass that makes it a ceramic material. They all were built of firebrick and covered with a mix of cedar bark and wet clay. All the pots get fired in a succession of batches. When pulled from the kiln with tongs, they are buried in a pile of cedar bark where the heat causes free carbon to be released, and the surface of the glaze is reduced.


One year the drying operation was located far across the claypit from the bonfire site so a bucket brigade happened, and each precious object was passed one at a time. It felt like a special occasion and one of the students said she wanted to believe that all the hands touching all the pots would generate a karma to protect them in the test of fire. I told her I would watch for that, while having the thought that there was no need for belief when in the claypit. It took a little faith to start the workshop, but dealing with earth, air, fire, and water doesn't require belief, it only requires engagement.

Thanks for visiting. I hope you enjoyed the tour. n