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September 3 , 1999
Volume 37, No. 2


Finished by fire
The University greets Iowa at the fair
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Finished by fire

Hindes checks the progress of the fire. Wood stacked behind him is used to stoke the kiln.

Chuck Hindes scrambles up the chunks of broken concrete that form the base of a 14-foot- long, melon-shaped mound. He’s wearing cobalt blue welding gloves, a sweat-stained t-shirt, dusty pants, work boots, and a UPS cap. He reaches down and yanks out a clay plug the size of a grapefruit, one of six that ring the top of the structure. Flames and smoke leap through the hole. Hindes, professor of art and art history, peers into the inferno, the interior of a woodfired kiln, and starts barking instructions.

  Mike Maguire, graduate student in ceramics, hands a pot into the kiln to Chuck Hindes, who is placing the pieces to take advantage of the direction of the flame and melting ash.

"Put two thin ones in every 30 seconds, keep it going," he tells Reagan Yoder, lab coordinator, who stands on the other side of the kiln, a pile of wood lath at his feet.

"Switch between pine and oak." This to Mitsuo Kakutani, a visiting artist from Earlham College, who is stacking logs on the frame of the metal door at the front of the kiln before pushing them in en masse. Hindes feeds several thin strips of wood into the hole and squints up at the chimney to gauge the effect.

Hindes is "reading the fire," deciphering clues in the smoke and flame, in order to evenly raise the temperature throughout the kiln to 2300 degrees. Unlike pottery fired in a gas or electric kiln, woodfiring is a lengthy, sometimes intense procedure, in which the process is as much a part of the final outcome as shaping the piece of pottery itself. And from the suggestions Hindes makes to his colleagues, his nearly 26 years of wood-firing experience at the UI is apparent. By manipulating seemingly small variables—the number and size of the pieces of wood used to feed the fire, the frequency with which they’re shoved in the kiln, when and where plugs are pulled or doors are opened to allow in just the right amount of oxygen—Hindes hopes to mark the pots with melting ash, the "glaze" of wood fire ceramists. The firing can take up to seven days, and it can take another five days for the kiln to cool enough to remove the finished work.

Maguire at the back of the kiln. The pots in the foreground await loading and firing.  

The process of woodfiring pottery originated thousands of years ago. It’s been used all over the world, and is currently undergoing something of a renaissance. Unlike pottery adorned with colored glazes, the surfaces of wood-fired ceramics depend on the natural colors of clay; the pots’ placement in the kiln; the texture and location of wadding—bits of clay or shell glued on the pots to keep them from sticking to the shelves; and the molten heat that marks the pieces with wood ash.

For those not familiar with wood-fired ceramics, or for anyone who can’t get enough, the UI Museum of Art will feature the work from Sept. 11 to Dec. 31. The exhibit is one of several to be held in conjunction with "Different Stokes," an international conference on the UI campus from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2. Organized by Hindes, the conference will bring together ceramists from more than 20 countries, the largest-ever gathering of wood-fire aficionados.


Article by Linzee Kull McCray
Photos by Rex Bavousett

Hindes positions a pot in the kiln. The pot rests on wadding—pieces of shell that impart texture to the pot's surface and keep the pot from sticking to the shelf.  


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