Since 1996 I have worked as a traditional potter, making over 50,000 pieces of stoneware as Frog Hill Pottery. With Under the Tree, I am maintaining my traditional methods, while expanding my sense of color and form. The leatherwork has brought me joy, which I have tried to share with the clay! I hope you can feel the rhythms of an unfolding life tuned to the land, my family, and a constant pursuit of new skills and ideas in the pottery I share with you.
I see myself firmly rooted in the timeless human tradition of creating objects for daily use by hand, and I take this role quite seriously. I strive to make pots that are true to the process, the materials, and which raise human connectedness and awareness for both me and you. Like anything intrinsic to our human nature, this requires hard work but is joyful and exciting too, and I will share a little bit of what I do here.
All of my work is thrown on a foot-powered wheel, using soft clay and slow speed. My entire body is involved, and my hands respond to subtle signals from each ball of clay as I shape it, so that each piece has its own unique gesture. At any one time I am working on around 200 pots at various stages as they dry, often with a particular shape or curve in common, so that they relate to each other, and form a unified expression. Or perhaps I am making someone a set of dishes, or testing materials and new formulas. These groups of pots usually take a week or two to finish to the point where they can dry, and it takes five or six groups to fill the kiln. When they are all dry, they are ready for the fire.
My kilns are my most important tools. I have a gas kiln and a wood kiln, both of which I built and rebuilt until they fit my needs. The wood kiln is truly special and unique: built of over 6,000 firebricks and clay mortar, it is the successor to seven previous kilns, shaped to perfectly fit and direct the flame. Twenty five feet long, it climbs a hill inside its own building. It is loosely based on a traditional japanese noborigama design. Three chambers, with a volume of about 250 cubic feet, hold around 1,000 pots. It takes a week to load, as I place each piece to receive maximum benefit from the flame and deflect it onwards towards the next pots in line, the way a river flows around the rocks.
We fire the wood kiln just once a year now, which makes it pretty high stakes. After a slow overnight preheat, Crystal and I carefully bring the temperature up using the wood we have prepared, burning about two cords over the course of a long day. By noon we are stoking large slabs in the main firemouth, and bundles of thin strips in the second and third chamber fireboxes continuously. It is hot, exhausting, exciting work that requires full attention and every ounce of energy we have. When the second, largest, chamber reaches 2300 degrees, we throw in bundles of salt, a medieval german process that creates a bright, durable glaze through the interaction of sodium vapor with the molten clay. After salting this chamber is brought to the final 2380 degrees, and we begin to finish the final chamber. This third chamber uses preheated combustion air from the cooling lower parts of the kiln to efficiently burn a very small amount of wood in a 2600 degree firebox (a bluish-white heat, requiring welding goggles to safely observe). This chamber is salted, brought to temperature, and the kiln is set up to cool for 3 or 4 days.
Unloading so many pots is aways exciting and sometimes devastating. The risks are high with this way of working. I place the most sublime pieces on the studio tables to just look at for a few days, but I also often park the wheelbarrow at the kiln door for the failures. The value of the pots that make it must include the work that went into those that didn't.
Pots destined for the gas kiln have a better chance of survival, for although they are fired to the same 2400 degrees, I have fired that kiln over 300 times, 200-300 pots/load, over the last 15 years and I usually have a good deal of control. My work here is all about capturing the fleeting effects as artificial opal glasses I formulate melt and transmute under the action of the flame. Over the years I have done thousands of careful tests, formulated hundreds of potential glazes, all in studio logs which I go back and reference years later. I am slowly building as complete an understanding of my materials as I can. I get really geeky about it. I insist that every glaze combination I invent has to use the clay from our farm as a featured element. That clay is complex, wonderful, and frustrating, but it is unique to this valley on earth and I want to see all it can do. Rich in calcium and devonian shale, with a little feldspar and mica from up north, it is what is left of the pre-ice age landscape, ground up and settled out in a lakebed by the ice. As a glaze, it flows, flashes bright iron color, creates phase separation in glasses, ruins pots, and creates sublime once-ever effects.
I work long hard hours, but I think I am especially lucky to get to spend my life doing this, thank you all for the support.
Scott Van Gaasbeck