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Cummington potter’s wood-firing process a collaborative effort

  • Eric Smith's wife Jill Figlozzi keeps an eye on the temperature gauge, and inserts wood into the kiln during the firing at E.M.Smith Pottery studio in Cummington.<br/>LAURA RODLEY

    Eric Smith's wife Jill Figlozzi keeps an eye on the temperature gauge, and inserts wood into the kiln during the firing at E.M.Smith Pottery studio in Cummington.
    LAURA RODLEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>Eric Smith's friend, Alan Henderson from Philadelphia Pennsylvnia, wearing the white T-shirt, assists potter Eric in pouring the pure salt that is blown in the kiln towards the end of firing.   <br/>LAURA RODLEY


    Eric Smith's friend, Alan Henderson from Philadelphia Pennsylvnia, wearing the white T-shirt, assists potter Eric in pouring the pure salt that is blown in the kiln towards the end of firing.
    LAURA RODLEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Students at Berkshire Trail Elementary School are taking part in a musical program this month in which each Thursday, they get a chance to tap  rhythms using drums from around the world.<br/>Laura Rodley

    Students at Berkshire Trail Elementary School are taking part in a musical program this month in which each Thursday, they get a chance to tap rhythms using drums from around the world.
    Laura Rodley Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eric Smith's wife Jill Figlozzi keeps an eye on the temperature gauge, and inserts wood into the kiln during the firing at E.M.Smith Pottery studio in Cummington.<br/>LAURA RODLEY
  • <br/>Eric Smith's friend, Alan Henderson from Philadelphia Pennsylvnia, wearing the white T-shirt, assists potter Eric in pouring the pure salt that is blown in the kiln towards the end of firing.   <br/>LAURA RODLEY
  • Students at Berkshire Trail Elementary School are taking part in a musical program this month in which each Thursday, they get a chance to tap  rhythms using drums from around the world.<br/>Laura Rodley

Family and friends flocked to potter Eric Smith’s Cummington home Friday, Nov. 9, to keep the fires burning during the second firing in his handmade outdoor kiln at his Nash Road home business, E.M. Smith Pottery. His crew included his wife, Jill Figlozzi, Gus Perkins of Chesterfield, Goshen potter Michael McCarthy, Pete Lang of Cummington, Sean Kimball of Windsor and Smith’s friend Alan Henderson from Philadelphia, Pa.

According to Smith, firing pottery this way takes a lot of trust — trust that his support crew will keep the kiln stoked while he sleeps and trust that his skill will give rise to a good product.

“You never know. It’s a risky way of firing. You could lose it all, putting all your eggs in one basket,” he said. Among the risks are the idiosyncratic nature of kilns and the temperature variations involved with wood heat, he said.

“Wood heat fluctuates wildly,” said Smith, so you need to raise the temperature up steadily and slowly. “It’s very unpredictable. The kiln is different every firing.”

But it’s what he waited five years to do, the time it took to build a roofed shed over the kiln and the kiln itself, using 4,000 high-heat bricks, some recycled from Kohler Porcelain Company in Ohio. “It’s a very exciting way of firing,” he said.

Given all the things that can go wrong, he said he leaves as little as possible to chance.

For this firing, which began on a Friday, shelves inside the kiln were lined with 500 pots that Smith started making eight weeks ago.

Smith follows a protocol to bring up temperatures very slowly during the firing: He stokes wood through the kiln’s front door and maintaining a steady 200 degrees to drive out moisture, get the pots dry and warm up the bricks. It’s important to get a good draw going, just like with a wood stove, he explained. By finish time late Sunday, temperatures reach 2,400 degrees and the process has burned up to five cords of wood. “Our gloves sometimes catch on fire,” he said, laughing.

“It’s a very orchestrated event,” he said. For this firing, “we had a lot of new people who had never done this before.”

Fortunately, his wife knows the ropes.

“I’d trust my wife, Jill, with any kiln,” he said. “She does the midnight to 6 am. Sunday morning shift to bring the temperatures up, 150 degrees an hour.”

On Sunday, the final day of the firing, Figlozzi, her long hair tied back and covered with a baseball cap, said she loves tending the kiln. Donning sunglasses and asbestos gloves, she eyed the temperature gauge to the right of the kiln door and called out “going in” as she feeds logs to the crackling flames. Potters used to tell temperatures by the fire’s crackling before they began using gauges, she said.

Sunday noon, the process intensified as Smith blew 99 percent pure salt — no iodine or additives — into the kiln’s potholes using a modified leaf blower to form his signature salt glaze on his pots. A naturally occurring added benefit, he said, is that wood ash lands on the pots and melts, making for some “spectacular” pieces. He waits five days for kiln and pots to cool to view them.

Taking as good care of his customers as he does his pots, Smith holds his annual Holiday Show and Sale on two weekends, Nov. 23, 24 and 25 and Dec. 1 and 2.

•••

Musical opportunities

Berkshire Trail Elementary School principal Lorraine Liantonio is pleased that the PTO earened a matching grant from the Sheffield-based Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. The $1,200 will be used to fund a musical program this month by Aimee Gelinas, owner of Tamarack Hollow for Boreal Forest and Cultural Studies in Windsor, culminating in a performance Nov. 29 at 10:30 a.m. in the school gym.

Each Thursday, students get a chance to beat out rhythms using drums from around the world brought in by Gelinas and her partner, Daniel Cohen.

Laura Rodley can be reached at lrodley.gazette@gmail.com.

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