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Old Tavern Wood Kiln Collective

In the spring of 2013 I joined together with five other potters to construct a two chamber wood kiln just out side of Richmond, 20 minutes from my home and studio. As a collective, we work together to fill and fire this huge kiln several times a year. Each three day firing becomes a social gathering, a party and a ceremony...and brings most of the clay community in the Richmond area out to join us. While we each have our own bodies of work separate from the wood firing experience, coming together as a collective several times a year and immersing ourselves in this traditional approach to our medium is almost a religious ritual. It refreshes me, informs my studio work, and brings new life to my creative efforts.

Group builds wood-fired kiln on farm in Quinton

BY ZACHARY REID Richmond Times-Dispatch

With this group of potters, it’s process first, then party. And it’s a big process, so they’re having a big party.

“It’s all about people getting together and working together,” said Jeff Vick.

“And having a good time,” said John Bryant.

Bryant, Vick, Paul Klassett, Joanna Gragnani, Philip Mills and Lee Hazelgrove make up the Old Tavern Kiln Collective. The group of friends recently built a massive wood-fired kiln on Bryant’s family farm in Quinton.

They’ve taken several practice runs to work out the kinks in the process. Now they’re ready for a formal firing, after which they are inviting everyone who wants to come out to the farm for a daylong viewing and party.

Next Sunday, they are hosting their first festival to show off the latest run of pottery — more than 600 pieces all told — and to celebrate art, music, food and anything else that comes to mind.

“It’s a chance to get out in the country, be with people you like and maybe buy some pottery,” said Bryant, whose family has owned the farm for more than a century.

The festival will feature the work of the six potters plus six to 10 other artists, including jewelry makers and basket weavers, some of whom will be giving demonstrations.

Grow RVA and FeedRVA are helping arrange food vendors and organic-food stalls. There also will be music, a petting zoo and plenty of space to spread out during the free festival.

“We have more than 100 acres here,” Bryant said.

Using part of that space for a kiln was Bryant’s idea.

A potter for decades, he’s well-schooled in a variety of firing techniques. His favorite is perhaps the most complicated, and definitely the most time-intensive: wood firing. In recent years, he has rented space in one of the few kilns of its kind in Virginia.

“There are just not many options if you want to do this,” he said.

So he persuaded his friends to help him build one they could all use.

“I thought it’d be easy,” Klassett said. “I looked at the plans and thought it was something we’d do in a weekend or two.”

It wound up taking months. But it’s not just any kiln. The two-chamber wood-fired cross-draft kiln can hold about the size of three large refrigerators of pottery.

Built on a cinderblock base, it includes more than 8,000 bricks capable of withstanding more than 2,400 degrees.

From the ground to the top of the chimney, it stretches more than 21 feet.

The design includes several arches, each supporting thousands of pounds of bricks.

Unlike in electric kilns, the pieces that go into this are not colored only by applied glaze. The ash from the wood is drawn across the pottery and randomly falls on the pieces, with the pieces closest to the fire getting the most ash. The coloring comes from the minerals in the wood. Different woods produce different colors.

For the smaller of the two chambers, the potters also apply a mist of water and soda carbonate, which creates a different kind of natural glaze.

All produce muted, earthen tones.

Reaching and maintaining the firing temperature can take up to 80 hours. Every five to 15 minutes during that span, someone has to feed wood into the firebox. To keep the process going, the potters camp out at the site and work in two-person groups in six-hour shifts.

“You get into a rhythm,” Vick said. “That’s part of what gives the pieces a unique look. Every person has a different way of feeding the fire, and that has an impact on what happens.”

By the time the process is finished, the potters will have burned through nearly four cords of wood, or a 32-foot line of wood that’s 4 feet high and 4 feet deep.

They’ll use oak, pine, cherry and whatever else they can find.

Most of it comes from trees that naturally fall on the property, but Bryant said he’s willing to go elsewhere when a good tree’s available.

He’s also willing to hand off the ax when it comes time to split the logs.

“Oh, I’ve learned how to chop wood,” said Gragnani, who became involved after taking a class Vick was teaching at the Visual Arts Center in Richmond.

Firing their pieces, they said, has been a learning process.

“You’re definitely not getting perfection out of this,” Vick said. “But you are getting something you can’t get anywhere else.”

For potters curious about the process, those in the collective are offering something that can be hard to find: space.

Of the 75 cubic feet, the six regulars each get 10. The rest is rented out.

Getting new people involved is part of the idea, they said.

“We’re all feeding off of each other,” Klassett said. “Jeff and I do different kinds of work, but we can still feed off of each other when we get going.”

Having new people in the mix, he said, is part of the fun.

“Most of us teach, so we enjoy sharing what we do.”

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