Wood Firing Course at the Rochester Folk Art Guild

A couple of weeks ago I was up at the Rochester Folk Art Guild teaching a wood firing course. Lauren and I went together and had a wonderful time. The area of Naples is beautiful—rolling hills, lots of lakes and wooded areas. The grounds and facilities of the Guild itself are quite amazing, too. I mostly wanted to write this post to show pictures of the Guild and encourage people to go and visit or stay and learn there. Back in its heyday, 40 people lived and worked at the Guild, farming, making art and music. There are studios for weaving, pottery, wood working, black smithing, boat building and graphic arts. They have a meditation hall, a tremendous kitchen, a gallery, a bookshop, a root cellar, an orchard, plenty of farming land and pasture, and I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of other facilities. Oh the best part is the wood-fired sauna, sat up atop the hill, right next to a pond.

Everywhere you look and everything you touch is an intentionally made piece of craft. You can really feel the love that went into making each door knob or bench or cup. It’s a pleasure to use things that have been made with intention and care, softening with age and use. I was very charmed by the aging crafts, whether it is the oily patina developed on a spatula made from a pruned apple tree branch or a few loose threads on a weaving hanging on the wall. The master craftsmen who run their respective studios are also aging with grace. Perhaps they are a little less productive than years ago, but they make beautiful work with finely honed skills. I would really encourage anyone looking for an apprenticeship in weaving, wood working, turning or pottery to contact the Guild. They are looking for people to come and help out in the studios in exchange for teaching what they know. Apprentices come and go but right now they are looking for students.

Here’s a few pictures of the kitchen. I dream of having such a well appointed kitchen…

I just want to give a little history of the Guild for those who don’t know much about it and are interested. These are words from Annie Schliffer, who invited us up, and who currently runs the Guild’s Pottery:

“In 1967 on July 4th we bought the farm. There had been a Gurdjieff group in Rochester with Louise March visiting once a month from NY. Mrs March had been Gurdjieff’s secretary and translator at the Institute for Harmonious Development of Man near Paris, France. She helped to translate his chief work, Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, or All and Everything. When she met with the group she felt it was imperative to focus the attention, using the various crafts as a means. She wished us to farm, garden, and have a relationship with the land and the earth. So the farm was purchased by a small group and the younger ones moved out and began building.

2 feet of chicken manure was shoveled out and the pottery wheels (handmade at first) were moved in. A kiln built. A wood shop built lovingly from old barn wood. And the land cultivated and planted. There was non stop work and the joy that comes from feeling perhaps for the first time a sense of the possibilities that life offers.

The group from Rochester continued to come out for “work weekends” and slowly as the outer work progressed the inner life grew more vibrant. The Gurdjieff work flourished, meetings, sacred dance, meditation, and always hard work.

When I arrived in 1972, the farm was full of people, students, and the weekend people. I was searching for an apprenticeship. I had first taken Ceramics at Skidmore my last year as an elective and was entranced. But the throwing proved too difficult and later even when I was living with a potter in Berkeley, I didn’t take it up again.

It wasn’t until 2 years of Zen Buddhist training that I had the discipline to learn to throw. The training was rigorous, making clay and glazes, throwing hundreds of mugs and bowls daily, trimming or handling them the next day.

I learned that the great value of repetition throwing. The form enters the body, and I am freed from the tyranny of the head. Our goal in this Gurdjieff work is to harmonize the head, the heart, and the body. And the attention that is required in order to learn a craft, helps in this pursuit of a finer attention.”

Here are some of Mrs March’s artworks which hang in the dining room…

Righto, on to the wood firing class. This was the first class I have taught of this sort and I have to say I think it went pretty well on the whole. On Monday morning the students busily glazed and wadded their pots. We managed to get all of our pots wadded and transported up to the kiln before lunch. Loading went pretty fast as everything was already wadded. I had each student load some pots and lay out a layer of furniture too. It was very chilly out so afternoon tea was a welcome event.

Got the door bricked up and lit the fire. I stayed up with it till midnight and then Emma Silverstein took over till 4am (Emma was doing work study for the class and proved very helpful indeed—she is getting an MFA from Ohio State University and regularly fires a catenary arch kiln at school). Everyone took four-hour shifts on the kiln, during which I would pop in to see all was on track, but tried to let them get on with it. I wrote out a schedule so their job was to try and keep us on track. All was plain sailing through Tuesday and into Tuesday night. 8-midnight was our reduction shift and then the goal was to slowly gain temp and have medium reduction from then on. Wednesday morning we were battling for temperature, adding soda when cone 8/9 went down top and bottom. We put in 11lbs soda, at first just sprinkled on top of wood and then wrapped in newspaper as burritos. We soaked at top temp around cone 10/11 for a few hours and called it quits around 2:30pm.

After our firing was over I went and took a swim in the pond up the hill. It was instantly refreshing. The water was very cold but felt glorious after the past three days of fire.

Whilst we waited for the kiln to cool we got in the studio and did some wet work. It’s a beautiful studio. First I had the students make cylinders as a warm up and then we moved on to teapots. It was nice being around pots left by previous potters who have worked at the Guild.

On to the unloading. It’s always nerve-wracking unloading a kiln, particularly when you are in charge and have led the thing. Thankfully we got some very nice pots out. The soda really made a difference, and I want to experiment more with it.

Here are just a few pictures from the gallery at the Guild to end on: