Potters share joy in the glory of the kiln’s fire

Local artisans are opening their studios to the public

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

FINN HILL — The “comets” are the key.

Stephen Mickey showed off some of the clay creations that have emerged from his wood-fired kiln, pointing out the colorful spots and splashes, the light and dark sides, the whites that turn glowing red, the reds that deepen to a rich mahogany.

“You don’t know how it’s going to come out,” he said. “Things are beyond your control in the kiln.”

And that’s what’s wonderful about firing clay in Mickey’s 16-foot-long Anagama, a wood-fired oven based on an ancient Japanese design. The types and blends of wood chosen, many days of continuous firing and the way the fire travels down the brick tunnel all contribute to intricate and fascinating irregularities in the final glaze.

“This is the aesthetic we prefer,” said fellow potter Robin Hominiuk, who has her own studio in Ridgefield. “It’s organic. Each piece is unique.”

“If we were trying to make it Walmart-perfect, we’d go nuts,” said Mickey.

The third member of the Southwest Washington Potters Guild, Dara Hartman, prefers her electric kiln and a sleeker, more uniform look. “It’s on the cool side, more soft and cerebral, and it’s very beautiful in a whole different way,” said Hominiuk. So if you’d rather avoid comets, Hartman’s work may be for you. Hartman, whose studio is in Battle Ground, teaches at Clark College and at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, and has had a very busy and professionally successful year exhibiting her work around the nation.

You can visit the three studios, and view all three artists’ works, during a studio tour set for early December. Hartman will be open for only the first weekend of the month, but Mickey and Hominiuk will welcome visitors on the first two weekends. And Mickey said he’s interested in meeting more established, professional local potters who’d like to join up and build the guild.

There are 400 or so members of the Oregon Potters Association, he said, and a whopping three members of the Southwest Washington Potters Guild.

“We are a group of three SW Washington ceramic artists who got tired of being in Portland’s shadow,” says the guild’s blog, “so we decided to bond together and coordinate an artistic tour for the holidays.” You can view that blog at http://swwapotters.blogspot.com.

Mickey hopes local pottery fans will stay north of the river as they go holiday shopping this year. At least some of all three artists’ creations will be priced with the Great Recession in mind — “so even the kids can afford presents for their moms,” he said.

Handiwork

“I never did anything with my hands,” said Mickey, who was a pre-med college student when he took a pottery course on a lark. He was “totally mesmerized” to watch the instructor’s skill and personality come through in his unique works. And he loved the idea of creating art that is both beautiful and functional.

“I’m giving on up pre-med. I’m going to make pots,” was his decision. Mickey studied ceramics and earned an M.F.A.; about 20 years ago, he and his wife moved to Clark County and started building their complex of semi-enclosed studio spaces in the woods on Northeast 224th Avenue, between Hockinson and Venersborg. He taught ceramics for years at Mt. Hood Community College but recently retired and is devoting a lot more time to his own artwork.

“I love the sensual feeling of working the clay and I love it when the piece is done; it feels alive in your hands again,” he said.

Hominiuk, a Canadian native, dabbled in clay but didn’t get too serious until she moved to Clark County and met Mickey. A former accountant, she built her own studio in Ridgefield in 2004 and now does pottery and other craftwork full-time. Because Hominiuk loves to cook, she really gets into creating plates, platters, pots and other equipment for serving and eating.

“I like chunky big vases and vessels; but I also really like smaller, abstract pieces” that she likes to call pods and orbs.

Firing up friendship

The members of the guild love getting together for the hard, rewarding work of loading up and firing up Mickey’s Japanese-style monster. It’s a special occasion, and a major commitment, that takes place only two or three times per year.

It takes something like 120 hours of round-the-clock labor to make the Anagama do its thing. Loading up the 16-foot brick tunnel with all the clay pieces that have been waiting for fire takes up to two days of painstaking work. The constantly monitored fire rages for three days at up to 2,400 degrees, and that continuous combustion forms a dense glaze of ash all over the brick wall and the ceramic pieces, too.

“The flames are unbelievably intense,” said Mickey. It costs $200 to reserve space in the kiln and participate in the process, he said.

What you get for that price is more than just pottery — you get something like a family of artists, all focused on a special project together. Mickey said there are about six regulars, including guild family members, friends and students, and it’s become a close-knit group.

“It’s a team effort,” said Hominiuk, who likes to cook for the group and also prefers the overnight shift, she said. “You can concentrate fully on the kiln — the sound, the flame and the rhythm of stoking. It’s amazing to see the kiln in the dark.”

“Making pots here and working with the kiln is a terrific part of our lives,” Mickey said. “We have become such good friends.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525 or scott.hewitt@columbian.com.