Learn to burn

That's the rallying cry for a group of committed, creative and possibly a little crazy ceramicists camped out on a mountainside to tend to the Clay Studio's mammoth wood-fired kiln



It's 6 a.m. and Casey Zablocki looks beat.

Boosting himself off a battered couch, he stretches, walks in an aimless circle, runs a hand through his wild, curly hair and then stares off into space, idly twirling the end of his mustache. His T-shirt is inside out, his Levi's smeared with soot and his logger boots are powdered with dust.

"I haven't taken my contacts out in four days," he says, as though just realizing it.

He grinds his red eyes with grimy knuckles, sits back down on the couch and is asleep in seconds.


Up here on the side of Black Mountain, a small clearing in the trees plays host to the cause of Zablocki's exhaustion: The Clay Studio of Missoula's wood-fired ceramics kiln. A behemoth built into the mountainside, it's a voracious dragon that requires round-the-clock feeding, eats a cord of wood a day and takes up to 10 days to fire. As the current wood fire artist-in-residence at the Clay Studio, it's Zablocki's job to oversee this process and, even though he's got a small army of volunteers and supporters helping, he can't seem to rest during a firing—too much excitement, too much at stake and too many variables that require attention. So he grabs catnaps here and there.

On this, the penultimate morning of the firing, he dozes face-to-face with the beast that holds hundreds of white-hot pots in its belly and contentedly churns along just under 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In 15 minutes he'll be up again to check the pyrometer (which measures temperature in the kiln), stoke the fire and gauge the color and quality of smoke pouring from the chimney.

The tradition of using wood to fire ceramics is ancient, stretching back to the roots of civilization when wood was the only fuel available to vitrify raw clay and turn it into something stable and utilitarian. Today in America, the wood fire community takes its cues loosely from Japanese firing techniques that have their roots in the 5th century. The kiln on Black Mountain is what's known as an anagama kiln, which means "cave kiln" in Japanese and is a pretty good description: About 8 feet wide, 5 feet tall and 20 feet long, with a chimney at one end and a door at the other, it's sunk into the hillside like a burrow. With its vaulted ceiling and stone facade it's an impressive piece of construction, and even as anagama kilns go, it's a monster. But it was built big for good reason.

  • photo by Steve S. Saroff

"In Montana, there was a good amount of wood-fired activity early on," says Ryan Mitchell, the ceramic artist who designed and built Missoula's wood fire kiln in 2007.

Montana is a state graced with a small but impressive ceramics community, the cornerstone of which is the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, home to one of the first—and still considered one of the very best—ceramics residency programs in the country. Since the middle of the 20th century when well-known artists like Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio drew the attention of the international community, Montana has quietly been expanding its reputation.

"It's been really interesting on the national level," says Shalene Valenzuela, executive director of the Clay Studio. "People keep saying, 'Huh, what's going on up there in Montana?' And then they come for a residency at the Bray or the Red Lodge Clay Center or here in Missoula, and they end up staying for 10 years because the community is so great."

Given the state's history, it made sense that when American potters first began dabbling in wood-fired work, Montana would be out ahead of the curve. "David Smith built the University of Montana's kiln at Lubrecht Forest in 1986, and at the time, it was only the 13th wood fire kiln in the country," Mitchell says. A decade later, Mitchell himself caught the wood fire bug while studying ceramics at Montana State University. His fascination led him to the University of Montana—and its wood fire kiln—for graduate school.

  • photo by Kayla McCormick

But Mitchell quickly realized that having access to a kiln was only half of the equation.

"I learned early on that I needed a support team to fire it. And I also learned that there were a lot of Missoula people who really wanted to participate," he says.

Unfortunately, non-students technically weren't supposed to fire the university's kiln. After a few years of surreptitious community involvement, it became clear that there was both the need and the desire for an independent wood-fired kiln in Missoula.

After many conversations with the Clay Studio, a fortuitous donation of bricks, a donated, long-term lease of land and a whiskey-fueled fundraising event, Mitchell broke ground on the anagama in March 2007.

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