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Some Very Old Techniques Used for Modern Pottery

"Sometimes I'm surprised that everybody doesn't do this… and I'm glad they don't obviously… I'm glad that there are engineers and surgeons and architects,” muses the owner of Tyre River Ceramics in Amherst, Virginia.

Kevin Crow produces about 3,000 pieces of handmade ceramics a year. Most of which is sold right from the kiln.

For Kevin, his ceramics are a livelihood but also a means of communication with the consumer, whom he expects to take time to contemplate what they say about the artisan.

"Every piece reflects the mood that you're in that day, whether you're thinking about getting a car over to the garage or getting the kids to the soccer game, it all comes out in a pot. There are nuances, but they're all different. All plates are the same size,” says Kevin. “I threw a series using the same weight of clay but they are all a little different. As time goes by, you spend more time on each pot. And now I like to think of the pots as being from a family, they're not identical twins anymore. They look like they're from the same neighborhood. I like that."

A wood-fired kiln plays a central role in individualizing the ceramics. It's actually a combination of two kinds of traditional Japanese kilns of the 8th and 12th centuries. Kevin studied the Japanese art of pottery making, but learned how to make the Japanese hybrid kiln during a trip to France. It was a break-through.

"…. It was the first time I'd ever seen anything like this hybrid kiln. It excited me and it took me about 10 years to build one and there were a couple of fellows from the U.S. and they also built similar kilns."

Now, the kiln sits in his yard. It is fired up twice a year. Preparation for the firing takes a month and a good-sized team of family members and friends. The firing process by itself lasts a whole week. Through most of this period the temperature inside the kiln must be kept at a constant level of 1200 degrees Centigrade by re-stoking wood every ten minutes for four days… 24 hours a day.

“Falling asleep would really destroy the project. So you just have to stay awake, just maybe take a nap beforehand," advises one of Kevin’s neighbors.

The kiln helps to produce interesting surfaces on the ceramics. All shades of brown -- the result of only partially-controlled wood firing.

"The atmosphere of fire storm, ash, and resins from the wood going through the kiln actually creates the surfaces of all the pots," says Kevin.

Operating the kiln based on ancient Asian concepts, which in the old days involved the collaboration of entire villages, inspired Kevin to create a small community of ceramic artists. In return for their help, Kevin offers the pottery makers free access to the firing chambers of the kiln.

" As a kiln it requires a community. I can't do it by myself and I have probably eight to 10 people that had been firing with me since 2001. They are a great team; they're careful, they are funny, and they cook fantastic and I couldn't do it without them… and a very patient wife…"

Linda Crow is the patient one. "People that come here are artists and pottery artists and it's not strictly business for them and it's not strictly business for us ether. It's a way of life, really, as opposed to a job that you go to every day and you leave behind when you come home. It's a part of our daily life."

Linda Crow and her husband see pottery making in philosophical terms: Pots should attract our attention and allow us to slow down our hectic lives.

"When you are making pots, we are actually making the ritual pieces that we use in our daily life,” says Kevin. “What I'd like for people to do is to be able to sit down with the pots that we make and think about how you're eating, what are you eating, why you're eating, who's not eating and how come they're not. It's slowing down. I'd like to think that we're partners with the slow food movement. And it matters whom you're eating with and that eating together is important. A sense of community is what keeps us together and pots, I think, or hand-made pots, are a big part of it."

And it matters to Kevin to have the freedom to incorporate ideas from other cultures.

"A lack of a long tradition of ceramics in this country gives us a lot of freedom to borrow from different cultures, to borrow from different histories, so I find it very exciting to be a potter in the United States…"

Kevin Crow's pottery represents the melting pot of American ceramics, and it's a hand-made pot.