Home & Garden

  Pet Pages

  Home Finder

  Job Finder

  Apartment Finder


  Today's Youth


Athens Life

UGA Life


Prep Stars


Athens Music





On Site
Contact Us

Help / FAQ


Athens Magazine

Advertising Info

Privacy Policy

Jobs with Us

Web Design



Athens Seed Co
Story last updated at 10:16 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15, 2002
Subscribe to the newspaperE-mail the editorSend to a friendForumsPrint-ready versionDragon's breath: Wood-fired kilns take days to glaze

By Wayne Ford

Photo: athenslife
 Barry Palevitz, left, and Geoff Pickett stoke a giant, wood-fired kiln recently at Pickett's home in Farmington.
Travis Long/Staff
   FARMINGTON -- The time for 'super heat' had come. Late on the afternoon of April 30, four men working a kiln behind Geoff Pickett's pottery studio in Oconee County began feeding slabs of wood to the gluttonous fire.
   Through a few cracks in the chimney bricks one could glimpse the raging firestorm that burned through the 16-foot-long, two-chambered wood-fired kiln. The fire -- originating in a firebox at one end -- coursed through the kiln washing the pottery in a bath of searing red-orange flames.
   One chamber was already more than 2,300 degrees hot. Now was the critical time to bring the second chamber, simmering at less than 2,000 degrees, up to that same frenzied heat.
   This operation would mean boosting the heat in the middle of the kiln by feeding narrow slits of wood through a small opening in the middle. It had to be done just right.
   These four sentinels of the fire monitored the thermometers that gauged the temperatures inside. Up and down the degrees bounced. They stoked the fires often. They occasionally opened small air pockets, all the while trying to build the inferno.
   Pickett, the stocky Englishman, with the thick wavy crop of hair and burly beard, supervised the labor along with Jeff Bishoff, another Farmington potter. These men were experienced in the ways of fire in this kiln, modeled after a type used by 19th and early 20th century potters to glaze their work.
   Most pottery today is glazed before it is heated, but in this kiln, the ash and fire creates the glaze. Pickett also uses a gas-fired kiln for much of his personal work, but twice a year he and others work this giant kiln. There is not another one like it in the Athens area.
   Helping this day was Michael Pierce, a Farmington painter and sculptor, and Rob Sutherland, a novice potter from Athens. Others had helped at earlier times, usually in six-hour shifts, as this labor-intensive task began April 23 by filling the kiln with pottery before it was sealed. The fire was set on the evening of April 25 and it would not be allowed to die until well into this night, five days later. Then it was cooled until May 11 when it was unsealed. Only then were they able to see what colors and blemishes the fire had dealt.
Photo: athenslife
 The kiln heats to more than 2,500 degrees and can consume 24 pick-up truckloads of pine over several days of tending.
Travis Long/Staff
Late in the afternoon, with the heat finally rising to 2,176 degrees in chamber two, Pickett leaned against a metal rail in a temporary moment of rest during the pitch to raise the heat.
   ''It's been worse than this. It's a swine to get it over the hump, you know,'' he commented. ''We've got a bit to go, but once it achieves that fairly hot level it's all right.''
   Their goal was to boost the temperature to near the 2,400-degree zone, or as an engraving over the main firebox states ''set the controls for the heart of the sun.''
   But Pickett admits, ''We don't have it figured out without a lot of fussing around.''
   And while the kiln trapped the raging firestorm, the nice thing about this late spring day -- when blackberry and honeysuckle bloomed in earnest -- was the overcast weather. A cool breeze often swept its welcome way under the open tin-roofed structure built to protect the kiln from rain.
   Once when the first chamber began to lose heat, Sutherland, 29, turned to the master potter and asked ''Why can't we stoke the main box?''
   Pickett, his eyes looking down, and running his fingers through the beard on his chin, replied, ''It'll smoke like hell. You can't do both at the same time.''
   Later, however, they did feed more pine boards to the main fire box. Within minutes, Pickett walked beyond the structure and announced that the fire was coming out the top of the 29-foot tall chimney.
   Everyone walked to the outside. The flames were visible against the gray sky. The dragon's breath had breeched the surface.
   ''It's beautiful at night,'' Bishoff said.
   The flames licked the air without billows of black smoke.
   ''It's not smoking because everything is pretty well engineered,'' Pickett explained.
   Pickett likes the effect that a wood-fired kiln gives pottery.
   ''You need to burn wood over a long period of time to get this fire ash effect,'' he said. ''In my gas kiln the pots are totally glazed and the average fire is about 14 hours, but when you rely on fly ash they tend to be fired for a lot longer.''
   The old time potters used materials that they had on hand, he said.
   ''One of the things readily available was wood ash, of course, clay, and fieldspar,'' he said.
   The 22-foot-long kiln was built about eight years ago and has been a learning experience.
   ''This is dealing with a lot of fairly complex variables. They start at the beginning with the storage and drying of the wood. Then the physical design of the kiln and the repairs, like air leaks. The way it is packed, the rate of stokes and the rate of increase in temperatures. We struggle with it constantly to try and get better results and a better average of success,'' he said.
   ''It's better to have a long kiln like this. If it's too short, the flames zip through and you're heating up the sky. So bigger kilns for wood burning makes sense.''
   Pickett enjoys meeting people, mostly collectors, who appreciate pottery made this way.
   ''There are quite a few people who have acquired a good eye for it,'' he said. ''They can tell it is wood fired. They appreciate the various subtleties in the piece and that is thoroughly encouraging to me.''

Englishman finds rural Georgia home
   Geoff Pickett, the native of England who has plied his craft for more than 10 years in the rural setting of Farmington, makes his living shaping clay.
   ''There's nothing like it a-tall,'' Pickett said as he engaged in a conversation with fellow potter Jim Bozeman, a Greenville, S.C., native, who lives in Hull.
   ''We're made out of dirt anyway, so it's like you're working with what you are. You know what I mean,'' Bozeman replied. ''I can't think of any more down to earth kind of way to make a living.''
   Pickett has come a long way in establishing his earthy trade. He grew up in northern Devon County, England, in a port city that during the Colonial period was a shipping center for goods, including pottery, going to the American colonies.
   Pickett came to America in 1981 with intentions of visiting.
   ''I just wanted to look around. I just did it for a lark really,'' he said. ''I traveled around the country, went to all the good places and stumbled on this area.''
   He ended up going to the University of Georgia in 1984 for a master's degree where he studied under art professor Ron Meyers, who is known for his pottery. Pickett obtained his bachelor's degree from the Bath Academy of Art.
   He returned to England in 1987, where he has two sisters and a brother, but returned in 1988 when he was hired to teach pottery at Berea College in Berea, Ky.
   ''It's a bit like Berry College. The kids all work for the school, so they had a pottery program and I worked there for two years.''
   He also met his wife, Lisa, who is originally from Chicago. She was a volunteer for the Christian Appalachian Program. After marriage they decided to move to a place with more opportunities, so Pickett suggested the Athens area, an area he knew had a history of pottery and was close to a large metropolitan city.
   They moved to Farmington in 1990.
   ''We were lucky enough to find a shack on Salem Road and I got set up there. We were there basically for 10 years.''
   Not long ago they moved across U.S. Highway 441 into their new home and studio. Unusual as it may seem, their Victorian home was once on Prince Avenue in Athens, but was purchased by a doctor and moved to Farmington.
   Pickett saw it, made a deal, and had it moved to his property -- his ''down to earth'' place.
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Thursday, May 16, 2002.

Šopyright 2002 Athens Banner-Herald