This week marks a special occasion at St. John’s University and Abbey in central Minnesota: the firing of the Johanna Kiln, the largest wood-burning kiln in North America.
The 87-foot-long brick kiln was designed and built 25 years ago by the university’s master potter and artist in residence Richard Bresnahan, along with help from apprentices and volunteers.
The biennial firing draws artists, alumni and former apprentices, who returned for a lighting ceremony last Friday. Roughly 50 volunteers have been working in shifts to help stoke the fires for 10 days.
The kiln is named for Sister Johanna Becker, an Asian art historian at St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph and Bresnahan’s mentor, who died in 2012. It was built from recycled bricks from the original root cellar of St. Joseph Hall.
It takes about two years to split enough wood to keep the fires burning over the week and a half, Bresnahan said. The evenly split pieces are stacked up to the ceiling in the kiln shed. The wood is harvested from the St. John’s Abbey Arboretum and is certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council.
"It is such an intensive amount of labor,” Bresnahan said. “This is 22 cords of firewood, beautifully split, carefully stacked. All of this is going to get used."
Volunteers wearing welding gloves stoke the fires, day and night, by carefully loading wood into special windows in the kiln, so it’s burning right next to the pottery, Bresnahan said.
The multi-chambered kiln typically holds about 12,000 pieces of pottery and sculpture. Bresnahan estimates this is the biggest firing in the kiln’s history, with close to 15,000 pieces from 40 different artists.
“My apprentices have been in some of those chambers for two months straight, just loading every day, Monday through Saturday,” he said.
During the firing, the kiln reaches temperatures of about 2,400 degrees. After the 10-day period, it takes about two weeks for it to cool enough to remove the pottery.
"Every firing is going to be different,” Bresnahan said. “So if you expect that one piece is going to come out as beautiful in the same spot as the last time, it’s time to get a different career.”
Bresnahan compared the kiln to a living organism that requires careful feeding and care.
“The results are going to be beautiful no matter what you're going to get,” he said.
The kiln firing draws artists and others from all walks of life who save their vacation time to return to St. John’s for the ceremony, community meals and fellowship, Bresnahan said. Some have been present for every firing since the kiln was built, he said.
“They've built this relationship with themselves, with the kiln and with all these wonderful people who come back, and then the new young people they can nurture,” he said. “It's really a cross-reference of American culture that comes to this.”