In the summer of 1971, a group of young Northern California artists hosted a week-long workshop to build a six-chambered, wood-fired climbing kiln at the Woolman School, a Quaker high school just outside Nevada City.
The leaders of the project included Richard Hotchkiss, who currently teaches ceramics at Sierra College; Doug Tweed, who graduated from Woolman in 1969; Rimas VisGirda; and Ted Menmuir, former head of school at Woolman.
The original kiln-building workshop attracted more than 40 students of all ages and levels of experience. The kiln, built by those first-year workshop students, is still being used for community firings in the spring and fall of each year.
This year, students and friends of Hotchkiss will meet at Woolman Oct. 25-27 for the 123rd firing of the “dragon kiln.” This is an intense process of building a fire in each chamber and waiting for it to reach the optimal temperature before building the fire in the next chamber.
Workshop participants work in two-hour shifts around the clock to stoke the fires for the three days of the workshop.
The inspiration to build the kiln came after three years of wood firings by the group at the Hotchkiss studio in Grass Valley and from Robert Sperry’s 1962 film, “The Village Potters of Onta.”
The goal of the ambitious project was to build a kiln in the style of the Noborigama wood-fired climbing kilns of Japan. These kilns have several chambers and are built on a slope, with each chamber higher than the one before it. Such climbing kilns have been used in Japan since the 17th century. The temperatures inside the chambers can reach 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. The fires create ash that settles on the ceramic pieces during the firing. The interaction between flame, ash and the minerals in the clay form a natural ash glaze.
“Due to distance and other commitments, the major players from the original gathering cannot always attend the firing festivities. However, the original players are sometimes seen lurking at the fringes, smelling the smoke, feeling the spontaneity of the dry cedar exploding in the fireboxes, the white heat, the flat-cone twelve — the experience is truly mesmerizing,” said Hotchkiss.
Ten years ago, the Woolman school was transformed into a semester program. High school students come from across the country to enroll in The Woolman Semester School’s peace, justice and sustainability studies program.
On Oct. 25, the students and staff of the school will be hosting a communitywide celebration of the kiln’s 123rd firing.
Hotchkiss, himself a master potter, will be giving a presentation on the history and significance of the kiln. He sees kiln-firing as a collective spiritual process.
“It involves the mind, the body and the spirit,” he said. “It’s a total giving to the fire.”
Hotchkiss’ lecture will be followed by a contra dance with live calling and music by Rudy Darling and Barry Angell, and a special performance by Beyond Fire Tribe, a unique group of fire performers and acrobats hailing from Nevada County.
Woolman students will be working hard, as they did years ago, on their kiln’s construction. However, this time they will not be laying bricks and molding clay. They will be serving their community in a different way: by selling hot cider and pie to benefit the school’s Diversity Scholarship Fund.