The Pit Fire: the Four Elements, Serendipity, and Me.
When my ceramics teacher, Anita Sinclair, told us we were going to do a pit fire, I was thrilled. And it was at the beach! I had always wanted to turn the earth into a pot as humans had done for tens of thousands of years. The archaeological digs I was part of consisted digging in an ancient garbage pit hunting for shards of pots. Once I found a finger print of a ceramicist who lived 2000 years ago.
Now we were going to bake our clay in an open fire. Or that’s how I imagined it. First, we had to form objects using a special low fire clay. I made: two small bowls, a bigger bowl for succulents, beads, and an oil incense burner. While the clay was still leather-hard, I burnished it with stones. Finding stones that fit my hand and were perfectly smooth was an adventure in itself. The stones that worked best were discovered across the country. A small blue one at a bead shop in Florida, a white one in a friend’s garden, and one, shaped like a heart, discovered in the gift shop at the Luray Cavern in Virginia.
Our pieces would be fired in a metal barrel. Some would be wrapped in aluminum foil which would have evidence of the chemicals (copper wire, salt, cat urine, horse manure, miracle grow) that were encased with it. Others would be in the fire, part of them protected by masking tape, and cow pies, and chore boys.
Early on Saturday morning –at 7 am–we gathered at the studio, part of the Long Beach Department of Recreation classes held at Bixby Park. Cars and vans arrived loaded with ceramics, garbage cans with holes drilled in the bottom, wood, chemicals, ice chests, animal bedding, and a pop-up tent. And food, of course. We drove 20 minutes south to a beach already filled with cars belonging to surfers grabbing early waves. We stacked the red wagon with garbage bags filled with wood and lugged it up a sand hill and toward a fire ring warning hot ashes. We dragged up the ice chest. Each of us brought up our own pots, an assortment of interesting, sometimes bizarre, items to provide color to the ceramics such as: banana peels, copper choreboy, sea weed, string soaked in salt, miracle grow, copper carbonate, urine soaked kitty litter, poop from grass eating animals (goat, sheep, etc.), horse hair, salt. Lots of good wishes.
The sky was a bright blue, the sun already a burning fire in the sky. The surf high.
We pitched the tent. We dug out the fire pits for our garbage cans, stood them up and threw in wood, crumbled paper and animal bedding, gently laying in our pots, adding more wood and more pots. Then we lit it. Flames licked, then caught on the dry wood and paper and sent heat waves from the sand, sea to sky.
We added some of the chemicals – miracle grow, copper carbonate, and threw in the various animal feces, and sea salt. As soon as the wood was burning throughout the canister, we put on the lid. Now it was time for the fire to do its magic and bake the clay, adding the black touches, the miasma of smoke and fire.
Our little red wagon became a table loaded with basil humus, pita chips, and vegies. We sat in the shade of the tent eating the goodies. We built a fire for food, and blazed marshmallows to snack on s’mores. We waited. We walked on the beach gathering shells, stones. We admired our toe nail polish.
Waiting for the embers to bake our pots, we couldn’t resist taking peeks in the canisters.
When we could wait no longer and the embers in the canisters seemed almost dead, we pulled out the pieces, burying them in the hot sand. Would our pieces match our hopes? How much did we trust to the magic of fire? We could no longer contain curiosity about the flame and smoke painted patterns in our work.
A few times, we heard the distinctive, heart breaking ping of a piece cracking, a victim of our impatience. One of my pieces, the pot for succulents, met such a fate. The copper choreboy I tapped to it brushed it with rose glow, the string and fire gently brushed it with black. The beads inside it survived, painted by smoke.
We pulled the rest of my pieces out intact, already glowing from the burnishing and the test of fire. From the still warm embers, we gathered wonderful cups, and a cube with magnificent colors, cylinders, and, pots. Each one with a sense of magic. There’s always a sense of magic when a kiln is opened. Colors we imagined are affected by the other pots, the exact temperature of the kiln, and who-knows-what-else enhancing the element of wonder. Now we left the coloring to the serendipity of the fire. We ruffled through soft ashes for the rest of my beads at the bottom of the barrell, bound with string soaked in salt and on a bed of miracle grow and salt persisting in all their steam punk glory.
We rubbed our pieces in the sand, we walked them into the sea to let it sing out the colors. We lovingly wrapped up our pieces and carried them to the cars for their voyage to our homes. And returned for the now empty food containers, ice chest, struck down the tent. Collapsed chairs. We had left at 7, we returned about 5:30. Exhausted.
The next day, I glued the succulent pot together. Luckily, it was designed to be funky so the slight crack on the outside becomes just another decoration and the epoxy filling the seam will be hidden by dirt. I got furniture bees wax and polished my pieces. Thought about how I was going to string my beads.
This was an adventure in art relying on the elements of fire, water, air and earth. And letting go of control to allowing the elements to give you the present of wonder and magic.