Potter's Wood-Fired Kiln Sparks Friendships Twice a year, potter Naysan McIlhargey and as many as 40 of his friends spend hours firing the plates, bowls, cups, pitchers and vases he makes.
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Potter's Wood-Fired Kiln Sparks Friendships

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Potter's Wood-Fired Kiln Sparks Friendships

Potter's Wood-Fired Kiln Sparks Friendships

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It is Thanksgiving, so of course, for many people the turkey is important, but so is the plate that you serve it on. Earlier this month in southwest Ohio dinner plates were born in a wood-fired kiln - plates for Thanksgiving, and maybe for centuries to come.

Noah Adams was there for the firing.

NOAH ADAMS: A small white house, a work shed and sales room, stacks of firewood around, a 30-foot-long kiln made from firebrick - here is the potter.

NAYSAN MCILHARGEY: My name's Naysan McIlhargey and I'm a potter, wood-fired potter, in Yellow Springs, Ohio.


ADAMS: And here are his plates.

MCILHARGEY: Couple plates here. Typically, what we do is we leave the backsides unglazed so you can stack them on top of each other rim to rim and the flame travels through the plates. And each back and rim will look different, depending on where it is in the kiln.

ADAMS: Naysan McIlhargey - we'll soon find out if all the work he's done in the past six months is wasted. He fires twice a year, and he's been making dinner plates and platters and pitchers and vases. He has perhaps 2,000 pieces inside the kiln. In the next few days, he'll hardly sleep, worried about his pottery, worried about friends who have come to help.

He starts with a small, warming fire to dry out the kiln and build up ash on the pots.

MCILHARGEY: It's just below 200 degrees. We keep it until tomorrow morning, and then starting early in the morning, I'll raise the temperature 100 degrees an hour.


MCILHARGEY: We're preheating with apple trees and peach trees from the orchard that were cut down last year. I don't know the color of the ash, I don't know how it's going to be different from the pine or the walnut or the cherry that we typically use, but it could be interesting.

ADAMS: And that's what makes a wood-fired potter do all this work - it could be interesting. McIlhargey could use gas or load up an electric kiln and walk away for 36 hours. But you wouldn't see the glaze melting bright yellow from pine wood or the darker swirls from cherry, or what about honeysuckle wood? The ash melts on the pots in patterns that no artist could create.


ADAMS: At sunrise, the real burn starts.


ADAMS: And soon the first shift of volunteers.


RICH RETH: We come here, work hard, get dirty and sweaty and have fun.

ADAMS: Rich Reth drove five hours from South Bend, Indiana. He had first come as a customer and got interested.

RETH: We enjoy doing this work - my brother-in-law is with me here - and Naysan's a good friend. We trade services. I help him with his burn and he gives us a couple of pieces of pottery. And at home when you're having dinner and you're sharing with your family and you see this work of art that he created and that you helped with the finishing product, it makes it all worthwhile.


ADAMS: Naysan's crew is about 40 people - two Ohio State professors, an architect, a grant writer, a chiropractor, software engineers... Naysan is married to Jalana, who's a midwife, and she likes to stoke the kiln, but often has deliveries to attend.


ADAMS: The evening of the first day is light and social, lots of food and kids. At the kiln, the wood goes in from the sides as well as the front. The temperature climbs through the night.

ADAMS: 17 Saturday morning, 4:17 AM, and the temperature is 2,160 Fahrenheit.

Just two people are wearing Naysan, wearing gloves, goggles. Their moves are quick and careful.

Unidentified Man: Ready on two.

NANCY PARENT: I'll check out these pots in the corner here. Open.

Man: Open.

ADAMS: Oh yeah.

PARENT: That is so gorgeous. And close, two.

ADAMS: Nancy Parent is a local schoolteacher. She prefers these hours before dawn, before the birds start. It's better for listening to the fire.

When you talk about this fire it's almost like it is alive for you.

PARENT: Yeah, absolutely. For me, it starts in the mouth and then as it moves, it sort of sucks in and breathes. Like, I would consider it this form laying on its back and it's got this exhale and inhale kind of feel. It's actually calming. It's like this creature that has its own entity.


MCILHARGEY: We have Christmas trees from last - that we collected last year, last Christmas in town. We drive around with the trailer, pick up trees off the street. And when you put them in, they just explode. They ignite and they snap, crackle, pop and they just basically combust.


ADAMS: The kiln has a chimney at the back with two stacks. Twin plumes of flame rise and become black smoke. Naysan McIlhargey always calls the fire department before his firings, but sometimes the trucks show up anyway.

MCILHARGEY: So, right now there's two, four, six, eight, ten, 12 people - not counting myself.


MCILHARGEY: And we're still having a hard time getting the temperature.

ADAMS: Almost noon the next day, the crew has been trying to reach 2,400 degrees and hold that for a time. They had been exhaustingly close to the flames.


MCILHARGEY: Somebody used the word liquid, earlier. It appears liquid. It's just, it's always swirling. It's almost like mercury or something sneaking out. And you can see Brendon's really having a hard time because it's so hot in the front of the kiln.

Brendon, don't force it. Brendon, don't force it. Just drop it as much as you can. That's fine.

Lunch is ready.

Man: Lunch is ready.

MCILHARGEY: Lunch is served, everybody.

ADAMS: Naysan's mom and her sister have been cooking lunch - a Persian meal. Brian Hart, who's also down from Indiana, says you don't have to call me twice for lunch. He has been enjoying his cigars.

BRIAN HART: There are victory cigars inside, some nice big fat Cubans, I guess. These are just my common working cigars, just something to keep me going.

ADAMS: The firing ends close to sunset. The kiln is sealed with wet mud-soaked newspaper and won't be opened for days.

It was a 36-hour burn and McIlhargey says he's always overwhelmed by the generosity of his crew, their pride and sense of community. He also understands they're in love with the fire.

MCILHARGEY: You see the pots in the kiln, you see them glowing, you see the flames traveling by them and through them, and you literally can't stop looking at it because it's so beautiful.

ADAMS: A few days later, Naysan McIlhargey reports that he's opened the kiln and he's found that several large platters had been cracked. But, firing number 11 at his Miami Valley Pottery is already set for May.

For NPR News, this is Noah Adams in Yellow Springs, Ohio.


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