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At the Black Mountain kiln, women keep the fire burning

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The crew on Black Mountain has been taking turns feeding a wood-fired kiln 24 hours a day, and by the time I get up there, they've been doing that for seven days straight. Some of them pull 12-hour night shifts and at dawn climb into their trucks to get some sleep. Others drive the 20 minutes back into Missoula to run errands or tend to families or work before returning to the mountain for more stoking and stirring.

It's late Sunday morning, and three women mill around the blazing beast. Eva Champagne and Grace Brogan slide the heavy, metal covers off the two front holes of the kiln, shove logs inside, and then cover the holes back up. Nonda Gaylord stands at the top preparing to add more wood to the back vents. They listen for a healthy crackle and, hearing it, look satisfied. "Let's do another," Brogan says a few minutes later, and they load two more logs inside, keeping their eyes on a nearby digital pyrometer as it rises and falls, locating the kiln's ambient temperature at somewhere between 2,000 and 2,100 degrees.

The wood-fired kiln is run by the Clay Studio of Missoula, a ceramics center and gallery on Missoula's Westside. It's known as an anagama, meaning "cave kiln," which is a style of firing pottery that dates back to 5th century Japan. It's 8 feet wide, 5 feet tall and 20 feet long, made of stone and brick, and it features a chimney at the far end from which flames sometimes spew. When the metal doors are opened, you can catch a glimpse of the shelves inside filled with ceramic works that, by this point, are completely engulfed in glowing, near-white heat and sparkling ash.

The kiln was built into the side of the mountain in 2007, and it's usually fired just a couple of times a year, overseen by the studio's rotating cast of wood-fire residents. But this particular firing is unusual: It's an all-women community firing dubbed "Ladyfire"and it's the first of its kind in Missoula.

Ladyfire developed out of a conversation about gender roles. So far, all the wood-fire residents at the Clay Studio have been men, and that naturally leads to situations where men are the kiln bosses and everyone else—including a lot of women—ends up following instructions.

"A lot of women who had been firing here and at other [wood-fired] kilns enjoyed doing it and were looking for an opportunity to have more of a leading role," Brogan says.

At this, Gaylord grins and says, "Being the '60s feminist I am, can we just cut to the chase? We got tired of the boys."

Brogan and Champagne laugh.

"It's not anti-men, though," Brogan says. "The current resident, Chris [Drobnock], has been really helpful and has been up here a lot and welcomed. But there were a few times when we've caught ourselves saying, 'Chris, what should we do?' And he'd make a recommendation, and then we'd be, like, 'Wait, what do we want to do? We can decide.'"

Grace Brogan, left, and Eva Champagne feed the kiln at Black Mountain. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Grace Brogan, left, and Eva Champagne feed the kiln at Black Mountain.

Ceramic art has a long and glorious history in Montana. The Archie Bray in Helena is one of the most coveted places in the nation for ceramicists to work, and the University of Montana has a storied history in the art. Artists including Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio created a buzz in the international ceramics community, and there's also a vast number of women Adrian Arleo and Shalene Valenzuela, to name a few—who have developed shining reputations in the medium. Champagne, also, has earned a lot of praise for her work. She has fired kilns in Bali, Denmark and the Virgin Islands, but Ladyfire is her first experience with the Clay Studio kiln. Though a lot of the mechanics are the same wherever you go, every kiln is different, and a lot of ceramicists say it takes at least five firings to get to know a kiln.

"I don't have the sense of fluency that most of these women have up here," Champagne says. "I feel very much a tourist about this kiln, right now."

By noon, the women have begun to feed the kiln from the top, careful to avoid disturbing the ceramic pieces inside. They check the damper on the chimney to experiment with airflow, pulling out a brick or two to bring the temperature up higher.

Cheryl Tandy, a ceramicist who owns the land on which the kiln sits, shows up to check on the food situation. Some people call her "the den mother," for all the support and meals she brings to the firings. The house she shares with her husband, located a few minutes from the kiln, is filled with ceramics she's collected from Clay Studio residents. But she's also an accomplished ceramicist in her own right and a master at wood-fire, though she would never say so. Proof is in her studio, though, which is lined with vessels she's fired in the kiln over the years. They're voluptuous works, seared in purples and oranges—a result of fire, not glaze. She says she enjoys all the wood-firings, but Ladyfire provides a new dynamic.

"I think it's fabulous," she says. "We have had such a wonderful time. It's exciting for the ladies to do this, and we've also renewed a lot of old friendships. Everyone has come together. And it has a different feel to it."

Melissa Mylchreest (who sometimes writes for the Indy) is one of the Ladyfire organizers and is often on long shifts for firings. She enjoys splitting logs and keeping the fire going, and her time spent with the kiln over the last few years has given her confidence in handling the machine.

"Whether or not there actually is male dominance around the wood kiln, there's definitely a perception that it is very much a male-centric form of ceramics," she says. "In part, that's because it takes a lot of physicality, long hours and heavy lifting."

Mylchreest says some women in the group have sometimes been frustrated when their knowledge of wood-firing was overlooked. But she also says the idea behind Ladyfire isn't just about gender—it's about giving the ceramics community a chance to fire outside of an instructional environment.

"One of the things Ladyfire was interested in was kind of proving the point that you can fire that kiln as a community without the leadership of a resident at the studio," she says. "We have a knowledge base that's years and years and years deep and it just so happens that a lot of those people that have been firing for a long time up there are women. This provides them the opportunity to be hands-on and troubleshoot, and make changes and learn from it. People don't learn if they just defer to somebody all the time. More than it being a gender thing, it's about a community of people firing with confidence."

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