Rustic Pottery: Woodfiring

Copyright 2005 St. John’s Pottery

My interest in something I like to call rustic pottery began in high school, after my first visit to the St. John’s Pottery. I was impressed by the idea of harvesting pottery materials directly from nature, but even more blown away by the colors and surfaces achieved by Richard Bresnahan and his apprentices. I bought the book Body of Clay, Soul of Fire and it sat across from my pottery wheel for the rest of my senior year.  Richard’s pottery was glazed naturally by wood ashes and flame that floated through the 87 foot long kiln, painting the pottery over the course of a 10 day wood firing. He learned these techniques during his apprenticeship in Karatsu, Japan. I tried to replicate his glazes and surfaces in our small electric kiln at Xavier High School and this made for some bright colors, but I was thirsty for the juicy wood fired surfaces.

I finally got to experience the use of natural materials during my freshman and sophomore years at CSB/SJU, interning at JD Jorgenson Pottery.  JD, a former apprentice at the St. John’s Pottery, taught me how to use natural clays in both pottery and kiln building.  We built a 3 chamber wood-kiln over 30 feet long and fired thousands of pots in over a dozen firings.  JD’s kiln produced a huge variety of wood-fired surfaces, so I busted out as many little cups as I could to put them in every nook and cranny of the kiln.  Most pottery was loaded as just raw clay, and each firing taught me more about how flame and wood ashes paint the clay surface.


Even my advisor and ceramics professor, Sam Johnson, was interested in wood firing during his 4 years of my undergrad that he spent firing mostly in gas kilns.  Sam built a wood kiln at the University of Minnesota Morris, which fired he his work in occasionally; however, his gas fired pottery (he called it his “whiteware”) was meant to be shown with his dark, wood fired surfaces. Sam’s process really motivated my interest in gas firing, and his critiques of my glazeware helped me find parallels with my wood fired work.


The wood fired surface continued to influence my pottery for the remainder of college and shows up in my current work. Even with glazed pottery that’s fired in an electric or gas kiln, I look for glazes with rustic colors, surface qualities, and variation that occurs during the firing.  Copper Red glazes provide deep, intense color that reminded me of the bright colors and asymmetrical patterns that Richard achieves on his pottery. The Nuka glaze utilizes local wood ash as the main glaze ingredient, and the ashes make for juicy surfaces with rustic tones.  I brush iron onto the glaze, which drips during the firing as gold and brown streaks as it reacts with the wood ashes at 2500 degrees F.


I’m still amazed how elemental pottery can be: water, clay, wood, and fire are used to make tableware for everyday use, and the earthen materials create a rustic, earthen aesthetic.  Wood firing taught me to give up some control and let the process speak.  The pottery you eat and drink from at the Local Blend is fired in a gas or electric kiln, but it’s influence by the wood fired process and surface.

Glaze testing at JD Jorgenson Pottery

I’ve spent the past week and a half firing the small gas kiln at JD Jorgenson Pottery, in order to accomplish a couple things with the Nuka glaze.  At the St. Ben’s ceramics studio, I fired the glaze to cone 12 flat, almost cone 13 (about 2410 degrees F).  At these temperatures, it takes a long time and huge amount of energy to raise even a single degree.  It’s also harder on the kiln, shelves, and clay so it made a lot of sense to try and lower the temperature of the Nuka glaze before my new body of work.

The kiln at JD’s place was made from the shell of an old electric kiln that I salvaged from a high school in Sartell, MN.  They kept the electric box, so JD cut 2 small holes in the bottom of the soft brick to make burner ports.  Firing with gas instead of electricity will also let us test reduction firings very similarly to larger gas kilns.  These practice firings willhelp me for adapting to the Paramount Arts Center gas kiln, which I’m firing for the first time this Monday.  Fresh pots should be out by Art in Bayfront Park the next weekend in Duluth!

My first firing in this kiln was actually the second time JD fired it, and we got some really nice results.  The glaze fluxed out pretty well at cone 10 (that was our goal) but the bottom of the kiln only reached cone 9.  Also, even at cone 10 there were bubbles present in the glaze.  The Nuka contains wood ashes, which are high in alkali.  Something about the alkali cause bubbling in the glaze at high temperature, and the finished pottery had sharp holes and pits.  Problems like this are common when working with earthen materials, but the struggle is well worth the rustic tones and philosophies behind working from a waste stream system.

Here’s a few finished pots from the 2nd kiln firing, as well as some underfired ones.  The pieces on top are almost perfect, except for the bubbling where the glaze pooled.




JD and I learned a lot from these pots, but with a 22 hour firing into the night I wasted a lot of time and energy with the stalled out kiln.  The barometric pressure changes every night, and this generally makes it difficult to gain temperature.  Once the sun went down, we were at the mercy of the kiln to go at it’s own pace.  Night firing makes for some cool pictures, but a miserable next morning.

Right now I’m in the middle of the 3rd firing and the kiln is at cone 5 (almost 2200 degrees F).  Once it gets to cone 10, I plan to soak for at least 2 hours, so the bubbles will pop and the glaze will seal over.  At 6 hours in, we’re really close to peak temp and the soak period so things are looking good…definitely better than another firing into the weee hours of the morning uuhg…and hopefully the pots will turn out looking close to this good!



ROCK! Music that makes the wheel go round.

Rock is definitely my favorite type of music to throw to.  After a few hours of Red Hot Chili Peppers I just feel like I made more pottery than if I had been bobbing my head to Mr. Sunshine on my Shoulders, John Denver.  I do think mellow music can be great for detail work or anything tedious.  For example, when I mix and test new glazes I like some old Coldplay, like High Speed.  Here’s an image from a bunch of testing that I did during my senior thesis in Spring, 2010 on the Nuka glaze:

I’ve never been a fan of tedious work that takes a lot of concentration.  I’ve made tedious work even since freshman year in college, but I like to work fast.  I made this one for a cardboard project in our Intro to 3D Design class.  It was partly the result of a whole lot of Smashing Pumpkins.


In Spring 2009, I went to Northern Arizona University to see 6 artists at a 2 day workshop. Don Reitz really stood out in my head because of his style of working and because his sculptures seemed really fresh.  His process reminded me of drippy paintings by Jackson Pollock.  This is my favorite way to make artwork: fast and direct.  With Abstract Expressionism, you go with the flow and surrender to the process.


For me, the Red Hot Chili Peppers embody this artwork in their music.  Anthony Kiedis belts out catchy vocals and lyrics hidden in random sentences that would be grammatical nightmares.   Flea’s bass lines have a huge presence in every song, and they meshed perfectly with John Frusciante’s melodies and Chad Smith’s loud, fast beats- good luck finding a drummer that hits his drums harder. The band writes each song from jamming- just rockin out together and letting the music flow.  With Frusciante now pursuing his solo career, he trained in little Josh Klinghoffer to live up to his legacy.  After releasing their new single I’d agree with Rolling Stone that their “juicy funk-pop groove” isn’t going anywhere.  I have a feeling I’ll still be throwing pottery and sculpture to the Chili Peppers for decades to come, hopefully with the same energy embodied by their music, Abstract Expressionists and my Mindscape sculptures.

Take it from Dave Grohl, drummer of Them Crooked Vultures and lead singer/guitarist of Foo Fighers.  He rocks with the best of them and knows there are few things in this world that can get you going like a heavy rock song.  Well, maybe a FRESH POT!! 

Pottery Production, Year 2

Guest blog posting by Matt Staz

As of recent, Joel Cherrico has moved from the residency at Saint Ben’s to another studio located in the heart of downtown St. Cloud, The Paramount. Saint Ben’s has been mother’s milk to Cherrico pottery, a refuge for this clay slinging potter, however, as the tides change and the phases of the moon advance, so must Cherrico pottery. The Paramount will become the fortress from where the clay of the earth turns into functional vessels. Before bidding the Saint Ben’s Studio adue, a few projects for his Artist Residency were fired in the kilns at Saint Ben’s. The first included in total: 300 modest slim formed Communion cups, 2 immaculate pouring vessels, 2 pitchers and 2 bowls.

The other project was made for a Saint John’s Groom and Saint Ben’s Bride. Included was a 6 person tableset (6 medium plates, 6 dinner plates, 6 coffee mugs and 6 bowls) for a wedding Registry. Check it out on Etsy– it’s like Ebay, but entirely handmade (entirely awesome):

The new shift to The Paramount will produce new work from the same ilk. The artists’ community found at the Paramaount will bring forth a new threshold to the ever evolving techniques, styles, and form of Cherrico ceramics.

Cherrico’s ceramics can be viewed and purchased at the Paramount Gallery. On the tables of crystal glass, vessels and forms of all kinds sit in await of peoples attention. The Milky Way galaxy swirls of glaze draw people in from the main drag in downtown St. Cloud. Mugz are adorned with a Nuka glaze that begs for you to pour a bold hot coffee into it. And the serving bowls, wide deep as the Continental Divide basin, are ready for use at a summer event at the lake cabin or a get together in your home. Come in, stop on by, check out this display of pottery, and by chance you may meet the artist himself at the Paramount Gallery
The styles that are hatching from the new Residency at The Paramount Center for the Arts are creative and breakthrough. Shapes and forms are being experimented on to best honor the suite of Ceramic enthusiasts. Working all through day, and into the night, the artist plugs into the funky cerebral music and starts another fresh pot of coffee, in order to find forms that can jigsaw worldly tastes.