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