Kristin Muller in her anagama hybrid kiln built in 1995 by Okazaki Takao. Photo by Jacklyn Scott, 2016.

Let’s face it: wood-firing is hard work. Days and weeks of sawing, splitting, and stacking wood, cleaning shelves, and making pots to fill the kiln. Then come the long hours of loading and firing—hot, laborious, physically demanding work. And, this is after the heavy lifting of bricks, mortar, rocks, and steel required to build the kiln. The sheer effort it takes to get a fired pot, let alone a good one, is heroic. It’s not for the faint of heart. And historically, in U.S., it’s been a man’s world.

Since the 1960s, women in the United States have been wood-firing against the odds. They have persevered through such challenges as discrimination, child-rearing, marriage, divorce, education, apprenticeships, aging, and the intense physical effort that it requires. Some have done so quietly, building their kilns in the backwoods with little or no help, making and firing in relative obscurity. Others have fired with the help of fellow potters, friends, family, or neighbors. Still others have become mentors and teachers, passing the torch to subsequent generations.

I recently had the great honor of talking to many contemporary American women wood-fire artists about their experiences. Of course, there are many other women that I did not have the chance to speak with, and their contributions to the lineage of wood-firing are equally important. Each makes the collective light of the fire grow brighter, and each has a few intrepid women—our godmothers—to thank for bringing the flame to our shores and lighting the way.

 

Godmothers

Karen Karnes in front of her salt kiln, 1976. From SP Vol. 5, No. 2.

While firing with wood has been one of a few ways to finish pots for thousands of years (and in many countries, the only method), wood-firing as an artistic choice is relatively new in the U.S. Many believe it started with the importation of the Leach/Hamada aesthetic in the 1950s and the influence of early adopters of the Asian style. But, by some accounts, it was a woman who ignited the interest in wood-firing in this country and two other women who advanced its popularity.