Work from the wood kiln: Torpedo Factory artists get “Stoked” in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania

When you talk to the ceramists at the Torpedo Factory, you soon discover that they devote tremendous care to an aspect of their process that the public rarely sees: choosing the type of kiln they use to fire their work. Some use electric or gas kilns that offer tremendous creative control—but this month, several of our artists are celebrating the wonderful enigma of a traditional wood kiln, in which flame and ash leave wild impressions on art.

A wood-fired bowl by Lori Katz
showing flame marks and signs of
the wadding that kept works from touching

“The firing took 36 hours,” says Lori Katz, recalling the trip she took to the Cheltenham Center for the Arts in Pennsylvania last August with several other Torpedo Factory artists, including Brian Grow, who designed and built the center’s wood kiln with a friend in 2000. “We worked in shifts, but most of us wanted to be there when the kiln reached temperature, so it was a very long night,” Katz says. “It was my first wood-firing experience, and while the results were mixed, it was extremely educational.”

Through March 7, 2014, four of the artists from that experimental jaunt—Grow, Katz, Susan Cohen, and Joan Ulrich—are showing examples of their work in “STOKED: A Lifetime of the Cheltenham Wood Kiln.” The exhibition uses a decade of unique ceramics made in the kiln, from functional wares to sculpture, to spotlight each step of an exhausting process that can challenge even the most experienced artisans.

Lori Katz and Joan Ulrich in Cheltenham

I don’t take the chance to try a new type of atmospheric firing lightly,” says Ulrich, who points out just how many new variables she and her colleagues had to consider: size, shape, material, even the specific place inside the kiln where the work is stacked. “Moving flame and swirling ash in the wood kiln promises different effects on the skin of pots and begs for exaggerated curves and edges,” she explains. “I imagined which of my forms would lend themselves well to this firing and tweaked some of my usual crisp edges into softer contours.”

As the artists found out, the wood kiln roars with a dizzying randomness. Flame, ash, and wadding may leave unforeseen streaks and burns that the artist may find disappointing—or unexpectedly beautiful. In one case, a teapot and an urn made by two different artists bumped into each other and were forever fused together. Describing the uncertainty of the experience with a blend of amusement and exhaustion, Ulrich notes that a wood kiln defies the popular notion of artists creating their work in places of quiet reflection.

Brian Grow inside the kiln

“The Cheltenham kiln is the largest kiln I’ve ever fired in, and it demands, it seems to me, an outrageous effort: many participants, long hours, and a lot of physically taxing labor in extreme heat,” she says, recalling how she carried wood, helped make heat-flow decisions, and acted quickly when the stoke-hole door of the main chamber broke in her hands. “Certainly there were ‘sitting around the campfire’ moments,” she admits, “but there were far more ‘flying by the seat of your pants while stressed out and sweating’ moments!”

For Grow, one of the minds behind the Cheltenham kiln, outlandish snafus and unbearable heat are part of the sheer joy of it—as is the spirit of teamwork it kindles.

“I’m intrigued by the variety of relationships that take place during each firing: the marriage between the kiln, the flame, and the artwork complemented by the dance of artists loading, stoking, and unloading the kiln as a team,” he says. “The premise for everyone in last August’s group was to attempt something they hadn’t tried before. For some, that meant wood-firing itself; for others, it meant altering their work in order to elicit a different result.”

The Cheltenham kiln in full firing

Grow himself took the opportunity to revisit a favorite form he’d not recently attempted: figure-oriented sculpture, which he scattered in pieces throughout the kiln and reassembled only after the firing was done.

“Bodies in the fireboxes and heads in the chimney flues!” he says. “I call these figures ‘reliquary’ because for me they contain the relics of the firing. They bear the physical remains in their crusty, fire-painted, ashed surfaces—but, more importantly, they embody the varied energies of the group of artists who stoked the kiln in partnership.”

See “STOKED: A Lifetime of the Cheltenham Wood Kiln” through March 7, 2014, Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. Stop by the Torpedo Factory to meet the artist who co-designed and co-created the kiln, Brian Grow; he’s sharing studio 8 with Lori Katz for the next several weeks.

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