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Earth, Fire and Community

An artist passionate about woodfiring creates a sense of camaraderie in Fairhope.

The word passion does not do justice to the way Fairhope artist Zach Sierke approaches his craft. The ceramicist turns pottery into an obsession where the material is sourced locally from stream beds and is fired at temperatures you’re more likely to find on the sun. Sierke tends a giant woodfired kiln on his farm twice a year, and that lighting has become more than just a step in his art process. It is a real barn-raising. “Woodfiring ceramics brings together geology, ecology, the roots of human industry and technology, and community. It brings these worlds together on a human scale that empowers everyone who participates.”

Sierke is a natural teacher. A simple question about how he digs his own clay morphs into a 15-minute lecture on geologic history, local topography and their dominant role in the area’s long association with potters and potteries.

Sierke’s next lecture is about chemistry and the heat-related molecular bonding qualities of the clays and slips he uses. A single coffee cup he shows me elicits an explanation of how its position in the kiln (relative to the fire boxes and to its neighbors) combined with internal thermodynamics, flame quality, intensity, direction, and a thousand other variables to produce its unique surface texture and design. What appears to the untrained eye as a glazed surface actually is the result of its exposure, for several days, to the molten earth elements released from wood burned at extreme temperatures.

Such knowledge, he points out, is as essential to the creative process as is throwing and trimming the pot itself. It’s all interrelated.

Creating Volcanic Temperatures

Large firings in a massive kiln are inherently inefficient, but Sierke relishes the community that has sprung up around the practice. Each firing is an exhausting two-week communal event. Some 20 volunteers, spread across four six-hour daily shifts, support the three-day span in which volcanic temperatures must be maintained. “Everybody that comes here takes days or even weeks out of their lives to convene. And it takes every single one of them,” says Sierke, before showering thanks and praise on those currently filling that role, not the least of which includes Sierke’s partner, Leigh Bancroft. She not only assists with the entire creative process, but she documents it as well with her photographs.

But before the volunteer shifts can begin, prefiring preparations culminate in meticulously loading some 600 pots into a kiln that produces radically different surface designs based on that placement. It’s mostly Sierke’s work, but several participants have added pots to the mix (including students from the University of South Alabama and the University of Southern Mississippi).

“Loading is sort of like a 3-D Tetris puzzle. You want to fill up all of the space, but in filling up that space you are setting up the patterns for the way the flame is going to hit each pot,” he says, comparing it to water flows around boulders in a stream. “At the volcanic temperatures, which we hold for about three days, all of the ash from the wood used as fuel, all of those earth minerals become molten and blow through the kiln and coat everything in its path. So as we load, there’s a windward and a leeward side,” Sierke continues. “And in order to create a dynamic surface on the pot, I nest pots within one another to mask certain sections. I’m extremely protective of that ritual. But for the last firing, Mark Rigsby (chair of the Department of Art and Design at USM) came down and immediately found a place helping me load the kiln. He’s awesome at it.”

The firing lasts some six days, according to Sierke. “As soon as we finish loading and bricking up the doors, I light a little preheat fire in front of the kiln, in a separate firebox. I maintain oven temps, 200-400 degrees, to dry everything out and to coat the inside of the kiln with a layer of fine soot and a very light dusting of ash.”

Then the kiln’s two internal fireboxes are ramped up, raising temperatures to between 2,200 and 2,400 degrees. Zach’s conversations become snippets interspersed with frequent interruptions. His crewmembers regularly shout out temperature readings from various sections of the kiln. He adds them to a ledger and responds with instructions, such as “four pieces of wet wood in the front” — specifying wood split in the past day or two that hasn’t dried. It slows things down a bit.

As one person pulls aside a thick metal cover, another tosses wood through the opening. Similar activity occurs around the kiln’s back opening.

Continuous monitoring and quick responses to the internal conditions are essential. “In the beginning we had an 80 percent loss rate in this kiln — the first two firings where everything was overfired in a big way,” explains Sierke, who has since learned to restrain the process. “I’ve gotten it dialed in pretty well. It’s more like a 20 percent loss right now.”

The postfiring cool down adds another six days. He actively downfires for the first 14 to 16 hours. Still, says Sierke, “as we unload the kiln at the end of the process, there will be live coals. It will still melt the bottoms off your boots when you walk in there.”

Roots in Fire

Homer Howard, who was Sierke’s great-great-grandfather, operated a pottery near Baldwin County’s Clay City from 1870 until his death in 1900. For Sierke, reviving the family tradition wasn’t exactly planned. He entered Eckerd College focused on writing. “I took a clay class in second semester. I got hooked,” he says, “like absolutely hooked.”

After graduation, he returned to Fairhope expecting to build a small kiln on land owned by his parents. His inability to find the local bricks long associated with area potteries changed everything.

He contacted an industrial firebrick supplier, sparking cheap access to materials left over from massive construction projects. He could now build the kiln of his dreams. He cleared an acre of the piney woods surrounding the dilapidated 1870s farmhouse he then called home, salvaged a large tin roof, bought reject telephone poles for $10 apiece, and started construction.

A decade later, it’s all under roof and the framing is in place, but nothing has been walled-in, so no heat or air conditioning, which restricts studio time.

“Even with everything still very much incomplete here, people are coming to me. I’m building on that. I really like the camaraderie of community studios,” he says, likening it to his time at Eckerd. Bancroft, adds, “Zach is not the hermit potter. He loves the fellowship with other artists and the collaborative spirit. I think knowing a dozen or more people are counting on him to have everything ready keeps him on task. And it all somehow miraculously comes together.”         

Sierke doesn’t sell his works immediately after the unloading. “There’s a lot of finish work to be done,” he says. “And I spend at least a week or two organizing the work, studying it and gathering information from what happened in the kiln. I loaded every piece with an intention. That deserves reflection time and information gathering: I learn from every single piece.”

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