The Supermud wood fired kiln at Walton, New York, in the foothills of the Catskills started out with my need and desire to have access to a tool that would enable me to make the kind of pots I love. Then it became a building project that I was eager to try and that my boss agreed to finance. It gradually became part of my mission as a studio manager at a small urban community arts center in the upper west side of Manhattan.
Many people at Supermud describe the pottery as a haven from the pressures of urban life; from the demands of school, families and jobs; and from the constant bombardment of noise. The trips to build—and later to fire—the kiln provided a retreat from the stressful pace of New York City.
Maxine Krasnow, owner of Supermud Pottery, and I share a background in community organizing. This experience sparked the drive to give city people a chance to be a part of the camaraderie and labor of love that raising a kiln and firing with wood can provide.
Supermud aims to make participation in the pottery possible for people who would not otherwise be able to afford it financially. Under our apprentice program, up to one-third of the adults using the studio barter their labor for classes. I don't mean to give the impression that Supermud is a studio of the urban poor; we still have far to go, even as one small institution, to become more accessible. Nevertheless, our efforts include working with public schools, nursing homes, special education programs, day care teacher training classes and a Puerto Rican women's group from a neighborhood cultural center.
For the past several years, I've been promoting this Supermud kiln. I feel as though I've talked about it constantly. I've been teaching about woodfiring in my classes; taking students on a firing trip; showing slides and videos; soliciting money, tools, cars and hands.
Each kiln has its own genealogy; this one is no exception. I received a tip from the potter Mark Shapiro to go to Penland and take Douglass Ruggles and Will Rankin's class in kiln building. In the past two years of firing with Mark and the Stonepool Pottery crew, I've learned a great deal about how to use the tool I learned to build at Penland. I've tried to emulate the way Douglass and Will organized their class into crews that enabled each of us to work on different stages of the process regardless of the level of our skills. I've followed Peg Udall's computer model— it's been a tremendously helpful guide, and the perfect teaching tool.
In firing the University of Hartford's kiln with Lisa Stinson, I learned first hand some of the advantages of a smaller kiln—a timely lesson, given our limited funds. Filling a smaller space means we can fire more often. Spending less time in stacking, firing and cooling will make the kiln more available to people with hectic urban schedules.
As we dug drainage trenches, scraped salvage bricks, and built the shed that housed our kiln, it occurred to me that the intense involvement was a result of an already highly motivated group of students and apprentices. The cooperative nature of Supermud seems to draw people in a way that doesn't often happen in an academic setting. Why do these students keep coming back for weekend after weekend of camping on rocky ground, without flush toilets or running water, and for long days of backbreaking work?
Perhaps working together on this project is an antidote to alienation. We witness our hard work turning into a concrete pad, a sturdy shed, and, soon, a beautiful kiln. It is easy to get accustomed to slick finished products with no understanding of, or participation in, the process that created them. Now we are part of the process, and it is such a relief. Hands on involvement at every step of the way is a large part of what firing with wood means to me, and making that experience accessible to city people is what Supermud is trying to do.