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woodfiring in midwest

updated sat 4 jun 05


Jesse Stevens on fri 3 jun 05

Greetings all- Thought I'd share some experiences of a studio tour I just
made in Wisconsin and Michigan. First off, woodfiring is definately
thriving out here! I'm actually from Maine, was in Michigan for a family
wedding, and have a deep interest the wood fired ceramic process. So I took
meself on a little field trip that spanned from Albion, MI to Gresham, WI.
I've been making pots for just a couple years, fired a few different
woodkilns in the NE(anagama, train, cat), so I wanted to check the scene out
in the midwest.

First stop- Ken Shenstone's studio in Albion. He's a furniture builder who
just happens to have a monster anagama (1000 cu ft!)that he's been firing
for 20 yrs. Being a woodworker who loves clay myself, Ken and I hit it
off. His kiln features an oversized firebox that can hold a ton of work by
itself for some serious crusty effects; multiple stoke holes onto that front
section, and then a tapering 'tail' where he fires functional pots. Found
out about him through his- website Fires for 9-11 days, 15
cord o wood, and gets a wide variety of effects from the various zones. Oh
yeah, he makes nice pots and sculpture too. Ken gave me the heads up on
some studios to visit in WI, and off I went(with a couple of his nice pieces
in tow)

Next I visited Ken's main firing partner, David Smith, who lives with his
lovely wife just south of Madison, WI. Smaller anagama than Ken's, but what
wouldn't be, right? 200-300 cu ft with another oversized firebox with 3
main stokeholes for a coalbed that can wrap around the work placed within
it. Autographed by Voulkos- a nice touch. I guess both David and Ken were
influenced by Peter Callas early on- liking that firebox zone. David
teaches, makes pots, some figurative sculpture, and recently did a low-fire
load of brick and earthenware; obviously someone who likes to shake it up,
keep learning and doing that dance of life.

A little to the north was Mark Schudleric- serious production potter making
functional pots in a noborigama that featured a big front chamber that
delivers anagama-esque effects, then two large catenaries for glazed stuff,
and a leetle chamber at the back. Felt like I was in Japan! Asked Mark the
volume of the kiln and he shrugged and said that he needed 8000 pounds of
clay to fill it- and he fills and fires 3 times a year- all his pots! That
man is a worker! Processes his own clay, sells mostly from a home studio at
very reasonable prices. Quite the setup.

Around the block was Michael Schael's. Missed meeting the man, but saw his
kiln- a straight tube style anagama built on a slight incline.

After that I was ready to for the final push up to Simon Levin's place in
northern WI, a tweensy town named Gresham where Simon and his family live in
a sweet log cabin next to a babbling brook. Sounds idyllic, eh? I met
Simon at a firing workshop last summer out east so it was nice to reconnect
and see his setup. He's got an anagama that is tall for its length- kinda
stubby, just like the guy that built it. Could there be a correlation? He
makes functional pots that I'm a big fan of. Nice sculptural qualities, all
about process, sensuous surfaces: potters' pots. He first built a catenary
kiln, and later the anagama and the two share a common chimney which I
thought was nicely efficient.

Headed back to Kalamazoo, MI which is where my folks live and I saw the two
anagamas of the Kalamazoo Inst of Art- what a great facility that town has!
did a salt firing in one of their other kilns with some work that I'd
brought out for a anagama firing that got cancelled, and here I am, feeling
a little jealous of all the woodfiring opportunities that the midwest enjoys
I mean, there's a few woodkilns in Maine, but nothing like the concentration
out here(I know I just scratched the surface). Guess I'll be building my
own someday, when I find some salvagable, free, or cheap brick. It was fun
and informative to visit a variety of kilns and see folks making a go of it
in different ways. Tomorrow I drive back to Maine with a pickup full of
pots, and an addiction that only seems to grow stronger the more I feed it.

Jesse, a gypsy firing potter from Maine