Scatter my ashes in a wood kiln

“…woodfired pottery is the most complex, difficult, ancient, profound, durable, and magical way to fire clay… Firing a wood-kiln is an extremely high risk endeavour, and each piece that we make and which survives the trial by fire, is utterly unique, and one-of-a kind. In a world over-full of mass-produced, disposable items, many see woodfiring as the antithesis of consumer irrelevancy, and as a philosophical and aesthetic balm for our age.” —Clark Wood Fire

Don’t worry, I’m not dead yet.

But after recently finishing my 10th (?) or so group firing of a large, wood-fueled anagama (“climbing”) kiln outside of Madrid, New Mexico, I decided that there is no better place to fling my earthly remains, when the day arrives, than into the fiery maw of that very kiln.

Toss my ashes into the firebox to be flame-swept and melted into glaze, settling onto the pottery of a dozen or so of my most excellent friends in clay and fun and fire. The last bits of carbon and mineral of the former Me will become a permanent aspect — or enhancement, I should think — of their cups, bowls, and sculpture of endless variety. Decorative and utilitarian objects that will be welcomed into homes to live awhile among the living, gathering and giving the energy and love of those who created and honor them. Of course, I may outlive my friends and the kiln, in which case just deposit me under a tree somewhere.

Until then, come with me on a little tour: here are some pictures of my favorite pieces from the recent firing, and of the kiln itself during various steps of the extremely labor-intensive process. If you’d like to learn a little more — about the four-to-five cords of lumberyard scraps that are cut, sorted and stacked before we begin, or the intricate, piece-by-piece loading of 400-800 wares, or the four consecutive around-the-clock days of firing — please see this series of posts. They were written two years ago when no one was actually reading my blog. Except you, Rodger (your reward in heaven will be great), and you, Postmanisms, for reasons unclear to me.  I’ve also included an excerpt from one of those earlier posts, a reflection written in the wee, sleep-deprived hours after the 2010 firing.

What the pictures don’t capture, aside from the incredible thigh- and brow-singeing heat radiating from the kiln, is the relationships: between ourselves and the fire, the kiln, one another, the landscape. There’s something really special about a group of people gathering around a fire year for a common purpose, as people have done for thousands of years, whether for food preparation, protection, comfort, ritual, or the creation of art. Fires of destruction and fires of purification. Just like water.

I’ve learned a lot about the nature of fire, a wild and insatiable thing, from working with clay. I’ve learned not to panic in the presence of intense heat and/or flame, and what it feels like to pick up a 900℉ brick with my bare hand (oops), and about Japanese woodfire masters who can identify the temperature of a kiln not by using cones or pyrometers, but by the interior colors alone: orange, red, light red, dark yellow, light yellow, white. 

But even after the thousands of hours our group have collectively invested in the study of fire through our anagama kiln, we still find it mysterious and unpredictable and prone to moments of utter disaster and devastating beauty. Which, of course, is probably why we continue: The challenge of controlling the flame and heat just enough to transform the simple work of our hands into objects more beautiful than we alone could make.

What the pictures don’t show is the way the 30-foot kiln breathes fire back and forth through its chambers with every stoke of wood into the firebox, the way it tells us where the fire is by spilling flames out the cracks, the way it sometimes won’t gain heat no matter how much wood we throw in or how many different fuel-oxygen-reduction strategies we try. The way the kiln is another character, along with the 14 or 15 of us, in our annual drama of the four elements.

In The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade, poet and mortician, Thomas Lynch, presents an interesting exploration of our relationship with, and attitude toward fire with regards to burial practices. Why do we burn trash and bury treasure? Why are we allowed to watch burials but not cremations, like they do in Eastern cultures where funeral pyres are common? A fine and insightful read.

What I’ve learned about fire seems to be what I’ve learned about everything: remaining engaged long enough to understand it, really understand it, displaces fear with respect and even admiration. I suppose this is true for anything, whether mice or kilns or people.  Maybe fire fighters should be called fire controllers. How can you “fight” something that doesn’t fight back? It seems to me that when we choose genuine empathy for something or someone we fear, the black-and-white, oppositional nature of the I versus Other relationship invariably dissolves into a mysterious, breathing world of I and Thou. The fire is in between.

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28 thoughts on “Scatter my ashes in a wood kiln

    • Thanks, Guapo! Firing that kiln is such a unique experience, I like sharing as much as possible with words and pictures. Non-potters seem to really enjoy learning about it. I appreciate the kind words about the ‘soliloquy’, too 😉

  1. You got it girl! and your reprise shows you already had it when your readers were but two. I’ll forgo my heavenly rewards for some earthly decadence and a viking burial at sea.

    Roggie xx

    • I’m fingering my rosary beads trying to ignore what’s you’ve said, or implied, about heaven. With your pantheist leanings. But decadent vikings sound fun!

  2. That’s amazing and your writing is so poetic. I can feel your “love” for that kiln. Love the third pot pictured. Beautiful. Even more, I loved the photo of you sitting in the kiln – you look like such a badass! The concept of using your ashes in the kiln is lovely, but as one of your blogging besties, what would I do if one of the cats knocked you – as a vase – over and broke it. You have me thinking, now – about having part of my beloved Mariah’s (my deceased kitty) ashes used to make a little urn to store the rest of her ashes and her special things in.

    • Christie! My commenting software is freaking out… thinks I’ve already replied to you. Lemmie see if I can edit this behind the scenes to say what I want to say! [ah, here we go] Hey bestie! I’ve been missing your latest because of all the May craziness & etc., but thanks for stopping by and, as always, your insightful comments. Badass–hoo ya! I mostly felt exhausted and relieved that the firing went well. Not to worry, if “I” were on your mantle (as a vase) and “someone” (cat) knocked me over and “I” broke, you could 1) smack the cat, evil little creatures and 2) gather “me” up and toss me in the ocean (far off the FL coast) where “I” would outlast bronze and steel and even flip flops. As it happens, ceramics are composed of the fewest natural elements and are therefore the most durable of all human-made materials! A win-win. And regarding Mariah, yes, I’ve read more than once about someone’s ashes being blended into clay and fashioned into their own urn. If you have any clay friends out there, you could ask for their help. Or me, because that’s what we blogging besties do for each other and our beloved animals.;)

      • I might just hire you to do that. Right now, her ashes are in a pretty carved wooden box, but it sits hidden in my nightstand drawer. I’d love to have her ashes in a beautiful urn that I could display. When people compliment me, I’d have a wonderful reason to tell them about Mariah and about one of my talented blogging besties!

  3. I’ve had the same thoughts about my ashes! Why be kept in an urn when I could be glazed to the outside of one!? Throw me into the kiln at cone 10 or mix my ashes into a carbon-trap shino.

    • Amen! I’m sure we’re not the only ones. I, personally, don’t want to be a permanent fixture of a relative’s mantel, being handed down from generation to generation until someone gets sick of it and ‘accidentally’ drops me at Goodwill! Thanks for your comment, fellow potter!

  4. I am so glad that there are artists like you. I loved the descriptions of fire and community. The photos are amazing. Thank you.

  5. I love the idea of my ashes being thrown into a kiln – a perfect last hurrah. And what an amazing process – i’ve only ever used electric kilns. There seems to be even more of an excitement and anticipation with a wood kiln firing, it was great reading.

    • Thank you! Yes, I think as burial practices are ‘coming out of the closet’ a bit with new green practices and alternatives to status quo, maybe that kind of choice will be available? And yes, atmospheric firings are definitely where all the drama is! I don’t do much with electric because, for my work, it wouldn’t be interesting if it looked basically the same each time. But when I do the occasional bowls or whatever in electric, I use Coyote Clay cone 6 glazes–really interesting effects & colors. Thanks for stopping by & I’ll go check out your blog, too!

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  7. Laura, I was taken off to a magical place with you, a beautiful, powerful experience you share so heartfully I can feel the heat searing my face, burning through my jeans. You describe the spiritual in the creative. The transformative power of fire (life and death). Your pieces are beautiful – I’m especially moved by the two following the lily (also gorgeous) – they sing with the fire, your beautiful blossom singularly scorched…I love them. I was reminded of an old Japanese film I saw years ago in which a village must flee the tyranny of war, but the potters cannot leave their kiln and risk their lives in waiting for the pots to be ready, this their ticket to financial freedom and survival (also a humourous element of greed). I want to tell you what it is but I can’t remember! I love the Japanese quality of your work, and the celebration of the ‘imperfection’, the mystery of creativity and the fire energy.

    • lovey lovegusset, I feel so honored to have taken you on this journey–and that you have been the willing traveler! Thank you. So interesting to see my work/words translated by another artist, a someone who clearly ‘gets it.’ Would love to see that Japanese film, sounds perfect! Maybe I’ll hunt around on Netflix. As for the blossom vases you like, we can thank a wild apple tree for the inspiration. And yes, leaving it up to the fire to decide which is obscured and which is highlighted. Like you with your story, no?

      • lovely, lovely, just so LOVELY to be appreciated appreciating. isn’t this blog business quite a revelation?! we can also thank your clear ability to catch the spirit and beauty of the apple blossom! and, yes, very astute: like me with my story… love that: the fire decides.

    • Thanks for the b-day wishes as well, it was a good, multi-level celebration this year. The ‘dents’ that appear in the blossom vases are probably tricks of photography –or my lack of skill therein. The smaller (first) is asymmetrical and rather lumpy mostly because it decided it would not be round, despite my vigorous attempts to the contrary. The second is actually quite round except for the rim, where it rebelled but I liked it that way and so left it instead of lopping it off. Perfection in the flaws and all. Not that I’m making any claims to perfection…

  8. I’m writing a late reply here as I’ve thought about this quite a bit and I’m visiting you and you don’t have a new post! (not a criticism – in fact I like the slow burn, so to speak! frequent ‘posters’ overwhelm me!)

    The ‘imperfections’ (=perfections) give your pots that quality I described as Japanese – I’m repeating myself! – but what I mean is they see mastery in the knowing of the ‘imperfection’. I love that you describe your vigorous attempts to keep the smaller one round and yet realised it as it is and wanted to be; therein lies the beauty of creativity, of the perfection that results from the ‘battle’, the struggle, the journey, the engagement. It’s the wisdom of you that evolves in the pot. And the rim of the second – well, it IS perfection! as it should be.

    I’m ruminating on that film – and when it comes to me, one way or another, I’ll let you know.

    Happy days to you.

    • Hello friend! No, nothing new yet… I’ve been a lazy summer blogger and try to only write things I’m inspired by, not be a blah-blah-blahgger. You are so right about the Japanese aesthetic, embracing the “flaws” is part of the perfection. In fact, I’ve read about Asian ceramicists who actually fill cracks with gold, or gold leaf, as if to proclaim, “See! I am cracked and it’s beautiful!”. As opposed to trying to cover up or fill or hide the cracks which is always my first inclination. Lots to be learned from that, yes.

    • So cool! I had no idea you did pottery… I think I was referred to your blog by the indomitable Guapola… if I remember right. Thanks for the kind words about my work — would love to see yours as well!

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