Making art can be a delicate, quiet process; but when Minnesota potter Pete Landherr spends four straight days firing his pottery, the rolling ball of flame from his kiln can be seen for miles on the prairies of southwest Minnesota.
It's just about time to begin what Pete Landherr calls the marathon. He takes his scoop shovel inside the kiln, an arch-shaped structure made of bricks that looks like a stretched out igloo. The shelves inside are filled with nearly a thousand pieces of clay pottery made by Landherr and his students. Landherr says right now they're delicate things.
"Of course, it's a good material, this clay, and we work it so it's very consistent throughout," says Landherr. "But it is essentially just a dried mud puddle; pretty fragile."
But the fire will change that. It will harden the clay and give the pottery a color that only a wood fire can produce. As he gets ready to fire the kiln, Landherr scoops up shovel after shovel of wood ash left over from the last time he used it.
The leftovers hint at the ferocity at what happens inside the kiln. One scoop brings up what used to be a dozen nails. Now they're melted together into a toothy ball.
"The wood fire, it can be harsh environment," says Landherr. "It can also be a deceivingly slow and beautiful environment. The flames move ghostly and slow. You see a flame appear here and move very slowly and then disappear and reappear somewhere else."
Landherr piles wood in the fire box, strikes a lighter and the fire is underway. He says it will burn for four days.
Feeding the fire
Landherr has friends who help him feed the fire, but he says he'll be here most of the time.
"I pretty much tend it around the clock the last one and a half," he says. "Bring my lawn chair out here and my winter coat and I'll just take catnaps."
He'll plunk his lawn chair down next to the kiln on a peaceful hilltop at the farm he, his wife and children live on near the town of Walnut Grove. The area is famous for being the one-time home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.
This setting has a little of that pioneer edge to it. A three-quarter moon hangs overhead, the flames from the kiln light the darkness, from a distant pond comes the sound of geese, and further off, a coyote howls.
By the fourth day, the fire is a constant popping roar. A half dozen people are helping out, piling more wood outside the kiln. At this point someone needs to feed the fire every few minutes.
The pottery inside the kiln is glowing now, white and orange. The flames are so hot, about 2,100 degrees, a friend stoking the fire wears a flame retardant suit. The orange glow from the blaze lights up the silver suit as though it too is on fire.
As the temperature inside the kiln approaches 2,400 degrees, Landherr orders some of the vents closed to restrict the flow of oxygen to the fire. Pete Landherr says this step is part of the art of making pottery. He says it's a way of letting flame and ash particles paint the pottery inside the kiln.
"You're depriving it of oxygen and you're creating that sooty atmosphere," he says. "That causes a lot of our nicest glazes to be what they are -- the rich colors."
The smoky phase of the fire means things are nearly at an end. The helpers feed wood into the flames one last time. After four days of stoking and watching, an exhausted Pete Landherr can now let the fire die out.
"I like it. I like things that involve me totally," Landherr says. "You're completely part of it and time kind of stand stills when you're completely involved it something."
After waiting a week, Landherr opens the kiln up to see the results for the first time. He removes the bricks from the temporary front wall he built to seal up the kiln and steps aside.
He picks up a cup with a surprising finish.
"It just really got metallic," he says. "We burned a lot of boards this time and maybe we vaporized some nails."
He finds other pieces that please him. Something melted, maybe the corner of a brick, and dripped onto a plate leaving it with a unique signature. Wood ash fused into the bottom of a cup, giving it a finish unlike any other. The fuel, the intensity of the heat, all of it makes a difference in how the final pieces look.
Landherr likes the surprises and he's already looking forward to six months from now, when he'll fire the kiln again.