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The Power of the Material

or: Make something and keep it on your desk

One of the first pieces of pottery I ever made ended up getting a much more royal treatment than a beginner’s piece typically receives or deserves. After being thrown on a wheel and then fired once in an electric kiln at my studio, it was finished in a wood-burning kiln at Baltimore Clayworks, a cultural institution dedicated to ceramic arts that, like me, dates back to 1980.

Wood-burning kilns were the traditional way to high-fire pottery in certain parts of the world for certain periods of time, but in modern times they are increasingly rare. It takes nearly a full week from start to finish to fire pottery in the kiln at Clayworks: several hours to load the kiln (an art in and of itself), 24 hours to fire the kiln (during which shifts of people feed the voracious fire until the kiln temperature reaches nearly 2,500 degrees farenheit), 3 days to cool it down, and another several hours to unload, clean, and get ready to start all over again the next week. Contrasting this with an electric or gas kiln which takes the time down to 1-3 days, and you can see why most people don’t do this kind of thing anymore.

I was lucky enough to participate in a wood-firing about 5 months into my time as a potter, and it was amazing. I learned the folklore of the kiln, about how different historical glazes were influenced by the chemicals in the wood from trees indigenous to their regions, how ash and smoke flow through the giant oven, and more. It was awesome. Here’s my favorite piece from the firing:

It’s a small, lopsided, not very useful “bottle” form that I sometimes put little branches or weeds into. It’s not particularly skilled, it’s heavier than it should be, the lip is uneven, the glaze should go further down the body, there’s not great ash from the kiln, etc.

Even though all of these critiques are true, I’ve kept this bottle on my desk every day since the kiln firing. I have turned it over and over in my hand thousands of times while on video calls, while thinking about problems, while trying to waste time. I’ve considered it from so many different angles, felt it move slowly in my palms with my eyes closed, thrown it up and down in the air to see how it’s weighted.

I know exactly how I would make this form again if I had the chance, how I would glaze it differently, where I would try to get it placed in the kiln. I have some ideas about ways to decorate it, thoughts on the types of flowers that would look good in it.

I’ve thought very deeply about this object, and then I spent a bunch of time thinking about why I’ve thought so deeply about it. My conclusion turned out to be pretty simple: it’s been so easy to consider this piece so deeply because it’s right in front of my face all the time. I can pick it up. It’s physically there. It’s physical presence helps me understand it.

And then I started to think about the things that we create which aren’t physical, and the problems that we tend to face with maintaining, knowing, and understanding those things. Teams of very smart people who spend hours and hours fighting against software systems, for instance, that everyone knows some part of but no one could possibly know in its entirety.

While I don’t have a solution or a good answer about how to make software more physical, or how to consider the immaterial things I create as deeply as the material ones, I can definitely say one thing: making something physical and then keeping it on your desk can teach you a hell of a lot.

It can teach you about the consequences of small, seemingly meaningless decisions on final outcomes. It can teach you about how much you learn about something once it’s been used, and that you shouldn’t stop thinking about something or consider it’s “done” just because the initial phase of making it is over with. And lots more.

I’m trying to schedule time for another wood-firing this summer - it will probably take me 4 or 5 months to prepare this time. Now that I’ve gone through the process once, and spent enough time thinking about it, I know that it will be much easier for me to achieve my desired results. Just another lesson that having a lumpy bud vase on my desk for six months has taught me.