Beauty born in fire: Bresnahan's Minnesota pottery revealed

Richard Bresnahan examines the pattern on a bowl
Richard Bresnahan examines the pattern on a bowl at the installation of the show at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Richard Bresnahan doesn't stand on ceremony.

"You need to touch this, just touch the surface of this," he said as he held a large vase about 3 feet tall, made in the 1990s. It shimmered gently in the light.

Piece from Minnetonka Center for the Arts show
Piece from Minnetonka Center for the Arts show
Image courtesy Minnetonka Center for the Arts

"You see this beautiful green? It looks like a copper green."

The 63-year-old Bresnahan, who has been the artist in residence at the St. Johns Pottery since 1979, says colors like this result from the alchemy of the huge wood-fired Johanna Kiln.

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"It's 87 feet long. It takes two months to load with a staff of five people; 10 days to fire, then it cools for two weeks. We unload for a week, and then we clean for nine months, the pots. And then we start all over again," he said.

A firing at this kiln is a community event. Hundreds of people help. Stoking the fire, feeding the volunteers. Sitting round the glowing kiln, all night long.

Richard Bresnahan
Bresnahan works on a piece.
Image courtesy Minnetonka Center for the Arts

"When you put welding gloves on a human being, and they are stoking wood into 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, there's that tiny little bell goes off, and you've got them hooked!" he chuckled.

The three chambers in the kiln produce different kinds of firings, different kinds of pottery. But so does the wood, piled around and against the pots. Bresnahan says that green he loves came from firing the kiln with willow and cottonwood.

Like many of the pieces in the show, he considers that green vase a benchmark for the Johanna Kiln. But it drew so much attention he worried it would disappear into a collection somewhere, and never be seen again. So he packed it away himself.

"Sometimes you just say, you need to hide these things. But here it is. It's the first time it's going to be out for visual view. And that's with most of it. Most of it, it's the first time people are going to see it."

Bresnahan blends the accumulated wisdom of generations of potters with contemporary understanding of chemistry, design, and social history.

Around the room there are more than a hundred platters, teapots, vases and bowls. Gazing at the colors, the way they swirl across the surface of the pieces, is magnetic.

Sometimes it's the glaze applied by the artist, sometimes it's the wood. Sometimes it's something else. Bresnahan picks up a bowl. It had coral and seashells placed in it as it went into the kiln.

Richard Bresnahan guides an assistant
Bresnahan guides an assistant in placing smaller objects at the installation of the show at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"Coral and seashells naturally, at very, very high temperatures, 2100, 2200 degrees Fahrenheit, start breaking the calcium and they start breaking the water-soluble sodiums out of the coral and the seashells and they will fume on a natural glaze."

Now it's marked with an intricate set of haloes.

Bresnahan seems to know the story behind every piece: the tradition behind it, and even how it was placed in the kiln. He points to a water jar with a rough almost stone-like finish.

"This piece was fired upside down in the firing, and this was where the wood was burning, right on top for four days," he said.

He says the ashes were so hard and sharp they cut your hands. However an aeronautical engineer volunteering at the kiln showed him buffing wheels used to smooth welds on fuselages. Bresnahan says it turns out they work well on pots too. They are now part of his arsenal of potters tools.

In addition to appearing at the gallery show opening tonight , Bresnahan will deliver a lecture on his work next Thursday evening, and then a two-day workshop starting on Oct. 14.

Bresnahan represents the latest step in a line that goes back centuries, said Minnetonka Center for the Arts Exhibits Director Robert Bowman.

"We have the opportunity when we walk into this room to see one of the premier practitioners of a very ancient art form," he said.

For Bresnahan, the challenge and excitement of a wood fired kiln is he never knows how pieces will turn out until they clean off the ashes.

"It's really one third the artist, and one third the clay getting a chance to speak and it's one third the firing getting a chance to speak."

And for Bresnahan, it's a delight that never grows old.

If you go

Richard Bresnahan: Selections from the Johanna Kiln

Minnetonka Center for the Arts, Sept. 29 to Oct. 27
2240 N Shore Dr., Wayzata
Free and open to the public