By RJ Walters / For the Jackson Citizen Patriot
No matter what the thermometer reads, it’s always hot in Albion come October.
Utilizing the largest anagama style kiln — a Japanese term meaning “cave kiln” — in the United States, Ken Shenstone of Albion and other artists wood fire more than 2,000 pieces of pottery for 10 straight days each fall.
There are easier, more convenient gas and electric methods preferred by most 21st-century artists. But for the past 23 years, Shenstone’s 55-by-14-foot brick-built extraordinaire has been the centerpiece of what the Albion College graduate calls “sort of a subdued party atmosphere that lasts for 10 days.”
Shenstone, his 22-year old assistant, Anne Beyers, and artist David Nelson of Manchester tend to the fire 24/7; for their time and effort, Nelson and Beyers are provided large portions of the kiln to fire their work.
Shenstone and David Habicht also recently built a 4,000-square-foot studio at 29005 Albion Road to go with the kiln.
The kiln is heated entirely by wood, which can be burned up as quickly as a one face cord — or a 4-by-8-foot load — per half hour at the kilns most intense heat. The wood is donated by Albion resident Rusty Hull, who receives artwork in return.
Other artists will bring meals, split wood or help supervise the fire, in return for a small space in the kiln.
“This kiln is designed to be a collaborative project,” Shenstone said, noting camaraderie is part of its charm.
“Conversations go on in here that people realize are going to go on for 24 hours a day. It’s not uncommon to have an interesting conversation, go to bed, wake up eight hours later and that conversation is still going on.”
When the 240-hour cycle is over, it’s not just good dialogue people are talking about. Breathtaking pottery is the ultimate aspiration. What goes in as plain sculpted earthenware clay comes out looking like inspired masterpieces that took days to carefully articulate.
Wood ash settles on the pottery during the firing, and the complex interaction between flame, ash and clay forms a natural ash glaze.
Shenstone said he likes the end results because “just like life, it’s unpredictable.” One piece can come out dark yellow, with a variety of textures, while another will end up with a smooth light teal finish, depending on its placement.
After waiting almost two weeks for the kiln to cool down, the artists hope to start cashing in — especially important since Shenstone said the kiln is lit only once or twice a year.
On Nov. 13-14, the artwork will be for sale at the studio. Shenstone said prices range “from as low as $8 to hundreds and hundreds.”