The kiln yard at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village is something of a mecca for ceramicists.
You can’t find anything like it outside of an art school campus. With a gravel floor and firewood stacked high to the ceiling, this stable of wood- and gas- and hybrid-fired kilns is the largest of its kind in the U.S. outside of an institution of higher learning. During the Ranch’s summertime sessions, it’s a round-the-clock locus of ceramics workshops and a place where high-profile artists, from Tom Sachs to the Haas Brothers, have fired sculptures.
But through the rest of the year — the Ranch’s offseason that stretches from October through April — the arts center opens its kilns to the local community. Its “Circle of Fire” club — open to all comers — convenes once a month to fire up the kilns and make new work.
The November edition brought out 10 ceramicists from Aspen, Snowmass, the Roaring Fork Valley and art students from as far as Gypsum making the pilgrimage to the Lyeth/Lyon Kiln Building.
“It’s fun to be able to introduce people to this,” said Ranch ceramics studio coordinator Louise Deroualle, who oversees the club. “Most people just hear about it by word of mouth.”
Artists bring pre-glazed work and convene on the kiln yard for a loading day with Deroualle. On an afternoon in early November, she climbed into the kiln known as “V8,” the eighth version of a hybrid wood- and gas-fired kiln originally named “Little Vicky” hand-built by the recently retired Anderson Ranch icon Doug Casebeer.
Nearby on a long table, an assortment of pre-glazed vases, cups, pots, vessels, plates and sculptures were laid out as Deroualle strategized how to fit them all inside. She evaluated them by height and had artists hand them to her, one by one, as she loaded the kiln in a sort of reverse-Tetris process — building a row of pieces, placing a shelf on top, then starting another — until it was filled to its arched brick roof.
“It’s a team effort and it’s a challenge,” Deroualle said.
Jeannie Seybold has been a regular at the community firings for the past three years. During the loading process this time around, the task of “wadding” — placing tiny cylinders of nonstick material on the bottoms of ceramics so they don’t adhere to the kiln — fell to her.
“I’ve been taking workshops for years and I got hooked on clay,” she said.
That night, they turned on the gas to heat it up overnight. In the morning at 8 a.m. Deroualle and the crew began stoking it with wood, monitoring the temperature through burning cones inside and a less-reliable thermometer outside, getting it up to roughly 2,400 degrees for the 48-hour firing process.
The hybrid kiln is a bit less labor intensive than the pure wood kilns, which require artists to be on hand around the clock stoking it with wood and monitoring the temperature throughout the process. During those firings, club members take shifts to keep the fire going steady overnight.
“They are here for fun, but it requires commitment,” Deroualle said, noting that the kiln yard has strict no-drinking, no-music, no-partying rules. “You need all your senses.”
After a day of firing at 5 p.m., Deroualle sprayed this batch with a sodium solution to glaze the pieces a second time. The flame itself also puts a third glaze on the works and creates a unique effect. The fire acts as a collaborator and can be unpredictable, sometimes surprising artists with its effect by the time they unload the kiln, in this case five days after the loading process.
“The wood flame goes around the piece and makes patterns as it licks each piece, carrying ash from the burning wood,” she explained. “Those ashes start depositing on the pots at high temperature and give it another glaze. That’s the beauty of wood-firing.”