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Custom-built kiln gives students unique educational experience

Published August 7, 2014

For seven years, David Swenson and Dan Siverson of the NDSU visual arts department planned. They consulted. They designed. They labored. They bought materials when the department had money for it. They labored more.

In spring 2012, they stood back and looked at what they built: a custom-made wood-fired kiln that gives students greater insight into the process of creating one-of-a-kind pottery and experience working together to achieve a larger goal. A wood kiln is a rare find in college art programs.

“I wanted it to be really thoughtful and really well planned out, so it would last a long time,” said Swenson, associate professor who specializes in ceramics and sculpture. He drew on his experience from five previous kilns he built or helped build.

The NDSU Wood Kiln is located on the ground floor of Renaissance Hall, home of NDSU’s visual arts and architecture and landscape architecture departments. The building showcases work of faculty and blossoming artists and architects. The kiln, too, is beautiful and functional, a carefully crafted work of art.

The visual arts program emphasizes using local materials and environmental responsibility. The orange brick covering the outside of the 26-foot-long rectangle is from Hebron, a town in western North Dakota known for brick produced there. Much of the kiln’s innards—a layer of common brick and a layer of insulation brick—are salvaged materials. The builders used bricks from an old kiln and a discarded step from another building on campus.

Meg Roberts, BFA ’12, ceramics, was involved with construction of the kiln starting in 2009. She hauled and stacked brick, mixed mortar and laid bricks. It was repetitive, physical work, but she learned some important lessons. Attention to detail was a major emphasis.

“If you laid a brick kind of wonky and said to yourself, ‘good enough,’ it could have a noticeable impact on the next row you lay and so on,” she said. “That one brick has the potential to help or harm your future work. There were many times that we’d lay a row and come back the next day only to have to take it apart and start again.”

Brick by brick, the kiln and its builders’ investment in the project, grew. That sense of community and cooperation is what the visual arts program works to foster in students.

Every student takes a turn working in the basement of Renaissance Hall to turn vats of fine soil particles into smooth cakes of clay. The soil, like the brick of the kiln, is from western North Dakota.

The program could buy bags of prepared clay, Swenson said. But then the students “would miss out on a level of developing a relationship with the material.”

NDSU’s visual arts department designed and built a wood-fired kiln to give students a unique, hands-on learning experience. The custom-made tool immerses students in the process of creating one-of-a-kind pottery and provides experience working cooperatively to achieve a larger goal.

Firing the kiln

The inaugural firing of the NDSU Wood Kiln was in October 2012 during NDSU Homecoming. Students, faculty, alumni and local artists brought their work to go through the two-week firing process.

Students are involved in every step of the firing, from stacking wood to taking four-hour shifts on a team monitoring the kiln. “It’s a community-building thing,” Swenson said. “Students learn they can accomplish more together than by themselves.”

More than a 1,000 pieces are stacked every which way in the kiln’s two chambers—one for green ware and the other for glaze ware. The way the pieces are arranged is called tumble stacking, which is akin to wedging as many dishes as possible into a dishwasher. The tumble stacking is one of the factors that affects how the finished product looks. The pattern is created by the way each piece is licked by flames or touched by ash.

Then the kiln is closed.  It takes a couple people, with the help of a pulley, to guide the massive door into place. It is 9 feet wide by 10 feet tall and is similar in weight to a mid-size SUV at 3,800 pounds. The door is sealed with clay to keep out oxygen.

The lighting of the NDSU Wood Kiln is an event, as kiln lightings have been since ancient times. The American Ceramics Society says the first ceramic figurines were made as early as 24,000 BC. Swenson said the lighting of the fire has traditionally been a ceremonial event of spiritual significance in many cultures.

At NDSU, the lighting of the kiln is celebrated with brief speeches about the work of the artists and a sparkling cider toast. The inferno is dramatic and awe-inspiring.  It exceeds 1,100 degrees, making it nearly as hot as lava. The fire is watched and stoked for a week. Then it cools for a week.

The artists don’t know what they will find when they open the kiln. The size and shape of the pots, the way they are stacked, the weather, type of wood and the length of time the work is fired all affect what the final product looks like.

Michael Strand, head of the visual arts department, describes the opening of the kiln as a big, warm present. Swenson describes it as a contemplative time, like looking for pretty rocks in a lake.

The kiln has been fired seven times. An eighth firing is planned for this fall.


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North Dakota State University
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