Home Life. Writings.

The Kiln

Erin shares the saga of the kiln fiasco, and what might be next for her art

a piece in progress, dried clay, 2020

I’ve been asked many times during the lead up to this move and since: “Are you going to be able to do any pottery?” And my answer has been a happy: “Yes! I think so!” Since first really encountering ceramics seven years ago, making ceramics has been integral to my life. It has been a means for me to connect to the earth, to understand the nature of the physical world, to see beauty in the small, the mundane, and the slow. Ceramics entered my life when liturgical worship entered my life, and they’ve been intertwined since, and I imagine they always will be. 

After graduating with an education in ceramics and sculpture I was burning to get to work and continue my ceramics. I settled into functional pottery because I love pottery, because I believe handmade pottery is important, and also, not least, because pottery sells. I stumbled through producing work while also taking care of a little baby Eleanor. And since having Ames, I’d taken an indefinite hiatus, setting aside ceramics altogether. 

But it never stopped being a steadfast presence in my life. In the past two years, without even touching clay, I always felt things simmering. Ideas, or dreams, or something like that. 

It seemed that I would be able to get back to the work of my hands once we moved to Birmingham. One of the big attractions of this house was the full unfinished basement. It has a big ceramic sink right beside a walled-off section that creates a big studio space. There’s an old metal-framed paned window that’ll crack open (with some force) to let in some fresh air. It is perfect. And I still have so many dreams for it. After we moved in, I didn’t even think about the studio for a month or so (to focus on the house projects). Finally, though, I set up the studio with wedging tables and my wheel, my parents graciously brought down an old kiln they’ve been storing for me, and we’re up and running! Sort of. 

The kiln ended up not working out with the plug I thought it would, so I needed an electrician to come and install a new outlet. Something I thought was pretty straightforward (my dad could’ve easily done it). I had some of my business money saved for this sort of thing, so I wasn’t worried  initially about the cost. 

Hours, many tears, and hundreds of dollars later, I got my outlet. The whole situation was a disaster, the doubts flooded in. Should I have just waited until my dad could’ve done it? Should I have gone with another company? Is the ceramic thing even something I should be doing right now? 

One of my motivations for doing ceramics at all was to make a little money for our family, not to lose us money. Zack has always encouraged my ceramic endeavors; no matter what, he’s pushed me forward. But even with him telling me to move forward with all of it, I felt so defeated. I had been trying really really hard to spend literally no money (Zack does our grocery shopping, so this was actually possible, hard, but possible). It all felt like I was stepping backward. Most things since we’d moved felt like going backwards even though it was a big leap forward. 

Well, now I was really up and running. A fancy new kiln power source and everything. I worked a little here and there. No real rhythm yet. I am still mothering the two little humans. After bedtimes I was too exhausted to work in the studio. Saturdays Zack would watch the kids while I worked. Sometimes that worked out, sometimes Ames freaked out because he wanted to be in the studio. (We had to immediately come up with the studio rule: “Look but don’t touch!” But Ames stressed me out too much, so he was banned). I still wondered why I was doing this. Is this really what I should be doing with my time? This is what I’ve wanted for the past five years, but was this the right time? 

Enter Eleanor. Eleanor doesn’t always take naps. I usually make her at least lie down for a rest time. But one day, after I put Ames down, I told her she could come down to the studio with me. She was excited to not have to nap, of course. And when I sat down at the wheel and it started to spin, her eyes lit up. “That looks fun!” She’s more careful than Ames, but I was still anticipating her wanting to touch everything or do it herself or help me in a way that wasn’t actually helpful. But she just stood beside me and watched. 

She eventually started asking about the different tools. So I told her the names of all the different tools. And, as she figured out the general process, she would hand me the tools as I needed them. After each piece she would clean my tools. She was being so good I asked her if she wanted to touch the clay after I centered it. She said yes and giggled as she wet her hand and felt the smooth clay glide under her fingers. After that, she got to touch each piece after it was centered. She would be down there with me during Ames’ naptime and after I put Ames down for bedtime. And she loved it. I finally felt: yes, this was a good time for ceramics! and, yes, it was good for our family. 

We fired a load, and then glazed it (Eleanor helped paint the glaze on). Then I loaded up the glaze fire and turned it on. It was supposed to run during the day and switch off at some point in the afternoon. The afternoon came and went. The evening came and went. The kiln was still firing. I didn’t know why it hadn’t switched off. The kiln is old, I thought, it must be having a hard time getting up to temperature. I’d worked with other kilns that took a long time to reach temperature. Finally, at 9pm, I shut it off manually. And a sinking feeling swept over me. My thoughts raced: it’s probably nothing, it must have been close enough for the glaze to mature, I hope nothing is wrong with the kiln, I hope I don’t have to refire it, maybe it did go over and just didn’t shut off, I hope my glaze didn’t run, but maybe it went way over, it would have to be pretty hot to melt the glaze off, surely I didn’t just ruin all the hours and hours of work. 

Needless to say, I had a hard time going to sleep. The kiln would need to cool overnight before I could peek inside to see if everything was okay. But the more the thoughts came the more dread washed over me. What’s the worst that could happen? Literally. What is the worst possible damage? I thought. Like I said at the beginning, ceramics is tied up in all aspects of my life, spiritual life included. I began to pray, which turned into crying out. I remembered that first time I sat down in this new studio space. I offered it to God. I prayed the work of my hands would be His. Was He trying to tell me something? Didn’t He hear my prayer? If it’s a disaster, what am I to learn from that? I wrote out a prayer. 

“…I do believe every detail is the work of your hands. Every moment, especially the ones I don’t understand you are at work…If this whole kiln is full of ruined pottery, will you use them anyway?…”

The next morning finally came, and up I rushed. Zack was already up doing morning prayer in the living room. I didn’t acknowledge him. I was focused. Down the stairs, into the studio, over to the kiln. I cracked the lid and shut it back again as quickly as I could. It was all ruined. Not only had the glaze melted off, the entire clay body had melted. It all turned to liquid. 

I grieved the loss of the ceramics and hated myself for letting this happen. I was so embarrassed. I was taught to have a secondary thermometer, and I didn’t have one. The kiln had worked perfectly fine before. Of course I shouldn’t assume it’s going to work every time. On and on. I just couldn’t bear what I had let happen. The morning was hard. I had failed in the studio before I’d hardly started. That was to be my first load of finished pieces. I was embarrassed by my failure. I have a degree in this. This is literally the one thing I should be able to handle, and I failed. 

The morning got worse as I braved the kiln, opening it up fully. I saw that not only had I lost all my ceramics, I lost the kiln too. If you don’t know what a kiln sitter is, then it’s a little hard to explain, but basically gravity didn’t do its job, and the mechanism that shuts off the kiln at a certain temperature didn’t trigger. The boiling clay/glaze liquid flowed off the shelves hitting the walls on the way down and pooling at the bottom. All that money for the plug, wasted. All the time I spent making pieces, wasted. All the potential money from the pieces, wasted. The kiln, wasted. 

The reason for this hard experience hasn’t been fully revealed, but I have been given a peace about moving forward. If I hadn’t had those few good studio days with Eleanor I may have ignored the peace, and chosen defeat. But seeing a glimpse of the good of the studio I see what is possible. With the peace all those questions about if I should be doing this stopped. My mind was quiet. I don’t know fully what God was teaching me during those hard days, but I don’t believe He wants me to stop.

I’ve felt more serious about ceramics since this has happened. I still don’t know what my business will look like, but I feel a new breath of life into my work. I haven’t even touched clay since this happened about a month ago. But when I’m ready to jump back in, I’ll be in. I’m planning to ease out of pottery and into figurative sculpture (something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.) Another step of trust. Pottery sells pretty easily, but sculpture, I have literally no idea how to sell sculpture. But I’m excited and hopeful. Figurative sculpture has always spoken to me in a unique way. The human body carries so much meaning and weight, particularly the face. I’ll continue thinking about, experimenting, and making pieces involving face/head/bust. Maybe in a few years I’ll brave sculpting the entire figure…

I trust that God will be in the work of my hands, and I’ll keep learning along the way. I’ll have more failures (hopefully I’ve got my big one out of the way.), but I’ll keep learning trust. And I’ll keep making. 

A couple weeks after the kiln over-fired my dad found a rare and really good deal on a nice used kiln. He drove 4.5 hours one-way to pick it up. Then drove it down 3.5 hours to us (they were at least coming to visit for Eleanor’s birthday party anyways). He surprised me with it, and installed it. An answer to prayer.  

Some of you likely know how loathsome I feel about the internet, specifically social media. I cut social media out of my life a couple years ago, felt free, and decided I’d run a small business without it. Well, I guess I’m giving in to the dreaded screen. I’ll be easing back online (website, Instagram, online shop, etc.). I hope to do it all with the utmost caution and wisdom, but I’m doing it nonetheless. So, be on the look out for Erin Clemmons Ceramics. There will be plenty of virtual places to track this journey. 

Home Life. Writings.


You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.
—-Isaiah 26:3—

Aroostook Barn. Linden Frederick. Oil on linen.

Several events and struggles converged this past month under the thematic heading of “maintenance.” Perhaps I’m just getting older, but I’ve been realizing this week that so much of the substance of life has to do with the unglamorous work of maintaining things, especially the things to which you’ve made commitments. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the central task handed to Adam was one of “tending” and “keeping.” But I think this realization hits with a sense of surprise for someone growing up in this day and age.

For one thing, consumerism agitates against the task of maintenance. Our immersion in digital and televisual common spaces means we’re constantly inviting the risk of being ripped out into the vast sea of new commodities, new services, new experiences, all groping for our time, our attention, our money with powerful currents of targeted advertising. We’re also denizens of a throwaway culture—things are designed and optimized to be used for a flash and then phase out, so you have to buy a replacement, the new and improved version. You can’t even say we’re a culture that believes “Ending is better than mending;” we simply have no concept of “mending.”

And yet, in our consumption, we find ourselves laden with the obligations of possessing. You wake up, and you realize that your entire day has been claimed by the demands of things you already have. You have a lawn; it needs to be mown. You have a pet; it needs to get its shots, to be fed. You have central heat; the propane tank needs filling.

We accrue possessions, slowly but surely, to fill certain needs, but then those same possessions turn out to have needs of their own. In an analogue to Churchill’s famous dictum, “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us,” we might also say: We own our things, and then our things own us.

But it’s not just our things. Much more significantly, it’s our relationships that require maintenance. Some of these relationships are chosen, some are not, but if they’re going to flourish, they all require time, attention, care. You have a neighbor; he needs help finding his lost dog. You have a wife; she needs your emotional support, your help with the children. You have children; they need pretty much everything.

We’re sometimes tempted to conceive of the life of faith in a similar manner. Evangelicals rightly value conversion, but can neglect that conversion is the first shuffling step of a journey up and into eternity. I believe and am increasingly convinced that God intends to be fully present and alive to the believer undergoing sanctification, but thus far most of my experience of the Christian life is one of failure and confession and weakness.

Vice is real, and deeply ingrained. It takes a long time to root out, replant virtue. It takes a long time for virtue to grow, and propagate. Most of the time of your Christian life will be unremarkable, mundane, often tedious tending to the fragile plant of your soul—through unremarkable, mundane obedience in mundane, tedious matters. It’s all Eugene Peterson’s “long obedience in the same direction.”

And the spiritual struggle in all this is that maintenance is so much less glamorous, less culturally admirable, less fun than acquisition. It’s fun to buy a house (ok, it’s not actually fun) and envision your new perfect life there; it’s hard to make three separate runs to the home improvement store just to repair some stupid rotted piece of window framing that you measure wrong anyway. It’s fun to begin a relationship, to court a woman into increased intimacy; it’s hard to comfort your wife through a tragedy. It’s fun to move denominations and explore a new tradition; it’s hard to get up early enough to pray the Morning Office. I’d rather buy something new than take the time to fix something old. I’d rather scroll Twitter and try on 200 new opinions than sit down and think hard about a single idea.

This all sounds rather pedestrian, but the accumulated weight of life’s maintenance is just beginning to hit me. The temptation to novelty is strong, and it must be resisted. The goodness of a thing is not in its acquisition, though acquisition can be a good. It’s good to sell all you have for the pearl of great price, but then what do you do with it?

I yet believe that the true joys of life are on the other side of longsuffering care and patient, patient attention. I believe purity of heart is to refine the will to one thing—to love and obey God— and that the will is refined by the slow and perpetual washing of quotidian choices. The cure for novelty is, I suspect, “staying” our minds and trusting God. Now if only my living could line up with my belief.

Merciful and most worthy Father, teach me what to value. Don’t teach my mind—you’ve already done that. Teach my heart—the core of my desire. Let me forsake novelty for its own sake; make me to forsake the movements of vanity, of wanting to appear a certain way. To be is better than to seem. Teach me to be. I don’t have these things on my own, and I won’t get them on my own: Give me patience where I am restless. Give me satisfaction where I am avaricious. Give me courage where I am apprehensive and weak. Keep my attention stayed on you, and on the things you have given me to love. Make me forsake those things which hinder the sanctification of my family, my friends, my own soul. Do this for the sake of your love. Amen.

Home Life.

Working on the House

Unless the Lord builds the house,  those who build it labor in vain.
—-Psalm 127:1—

July 6, 2020 | Moments before the longsuffering begins

Since we moved to Birmingham in late July, the great bane of my existence has been our new house. New to us, that is. It’s an older house, built in 1960, and very poorly kept. Really, the first thing I should say is that we’re genuinely, unreservedly grateful to have a home we can call our own. We’ve longed for a place on earth in which to plant ourselves, and begin the patient work of settlement. It doesn’t take much reflection on the plight of countless displaced and dis-housed people in the world to realize that all of my problems pale in comparison to the dark valleys so many travel. And yet, our trials and temptations are real, and are our own. 

And so our house which has undoubtedly been my greatest source of stress in a generally stressful season. The actual closing on the house was an unmitigated disaster (but makes for a rather long and dull story). When we finally got the keys, the power had been shut off for a week such that it was somewhere north of 87 degrees inside and the un-powered fridge had molded over. After a wretched night of bleach-scrubbing, we quickly learned that the previous residents had considered cleaning (of any sort) was really one of those optional things in life, and had opted to not. And so our first month in our new home was spent, not customizing and cozi-fying our space, but scraping and scrubbing and installing and painting and scrubbing again, just to begin to reverse the damage done to house over the past few decades. It’s all cost far more than I had hoped to spend, as well, depleting our savings at an unsustainable clip. 

And the work is far from over, which I why I’m writing about it. House projects fill the margin of our lives, and I find I despise them, unhealthily so.  I wake up on a Saturday morning set aside for house projects, and the will to even leave bed deserts me. I have all these intellectual commitments to the inherent goodness of manual skills, of building a home, of caring for a place. But when it’s actually time to get up and do the work, I balk.

It’s not that I’m afraid of work (though perhaps I am a lazy person); it’s that I lack the knowledge and skills to do the work well, and I hate to do work poorly. I didn’t grow up learning to fix things, or to build things. I hate to be out of my depth, to do things wrong, to learn by trial-and-error, to waste time (e.g. I spent two hours a couple weekends ago scraping unnecessary and ugly tint from giant window, only to break the entire window as I was almost finished).

I want to love manual labor and house-work, but I find I only really love intellectual and relational work. Which I think makes me an incomplete person—we were made by God, to some degree, for work. And that work is inherently tied to the basics of human existence—food and shelter not least. It’s tempting (if not financially feasible) to hire people to fix all the deficiencies of our home. I don’t think it’s right to offload all of those responsibilities to other laborers (though, of course, we’re in this world together).

I should also mention here that Erin has been a champion through all of this, not least though my own internal struggles. She has worked patiently & selflessly to make this ramshackle house a livable home. (Additional shoutouts to my family and Erin’s, and the Bishops, for their selfless hard work in helping us scrape and scrap the mess and slowly, slowly build something better).

I know I need a change of heart, but I’m not sure where exactly God wants me to end up in this situation. Will he teach me to love this work? Does he simply want me to die to self and pick up a saw, a paint brush? Am I supposed to realize my vocation really is to the work of ministry and I should focus all my efforts there? (Did Jonathan Edwards do house projects?) Or am I making too much of all this? 

Lord Jesus, you have gone to prepare a house for us in the presence of the Father. What sort of house should I have in the meantime? Please forgive and discipline my sluggish heart. Make me to see what is good in manual labor, and not bitterly complain about the time that could be better spent. Which is, I guess, to pray that you would show me, by your Spirit, what I should really value. What is time? What does it mean to redeem the time? Quiet my restless heart, help to me to love the home, and to love still more your Kingdom. Amen.

Florilegium Home Life. Uncategorized


This is the place I’ll collect particularly beautiful quotes I gather up from my studies.