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Pot Head



Published September 17, 2003 at 4:00 p.m.

Robert Compton has been pottering away in the Bristol area for more than 30 years. On his Web site he admits, that "As with many potters, my addiction to clay was both immediate and irreversible." Lack of formal artistic training has done little to hamper his enthusiasm, or success. After selling hanging aquariums and groundbreaking water sculptures, in the early 1990s he switched gears to produce work on a smaller, more personal scale.

Now Compton is a wiry 55-year-old with dark brown hair barely turning to gray, and swift, expressive hands. He's spry, except for an occasionally troublesome back. "They don't teach you to throw ergonomically," he says, stooping over an imaginary wheel. "It's like someone handing you a broom that's a foot long and telling you to sweep the floor."

For years, Compton threw -- or rather, molded -- more than 1000 pounds of clay daily. He still puts in 14-hour days, throwing about 100 pounds of clay with an artisan's eye for quality over quantity.

The vessels in Compton's Bristol showroom have dramatically different appearances. Each one is marked by its firing process: gas, electric and wood-fired kilns, raku or pit-fired. Among these, wood-fired stoneware is emerging as his first love. "Hare's fur" drips in the interior curve of one blue-gray bowl. Drops from the roof of the kiln on a vase form smoky stains -- they're called "potter's tears" in Japan, and in Germany, "kiln shit."

Compton and his wife Christine are putting the finishing touches on a massive, 11,000-brick, 21-foot-long, three-chamber Noborigama wood-firing kiln that will likely require 30 hours of fire and will hold 250 cubic feet of pots. It will be the largest wood-fired kiln in Vermont. Made of sun-colored brick, each vent and doorway has an arch over it, giving the kiln the appearance of a small, roofless church.

SEVEN DAYS: Did you always want to be a potter?

ROBERT COMPTON: I always wanted to be a farmer, actually. But it's a tough way to make a living. If you don't inherit a farm, then you're probably not going to do it. Pottery did a lot of the things that agriculture does for me. You work with your hands, you work outdoors a fair amount, you're self-employed, you make your own hours -- and even if they're all your waking hours, at least you have a bit of control over your own life.

SD: How do you make a living?

RC: We make 90 percent of our income between May and October. I tend to incorporate that into my work routine… I throw all winter and bisque-fire the pots as I get them done, and just store the pieces, so when I go in the spring I have several thousand pots made and bisque-fired. Starting in May when the weather breaks… I work outdoors all summer doing glaze firings.

SD: How do you make your pots?

RC: Most of our kilns are now being wood-fired, and the kiln that we're building currently -- which is about nine times the size of any other kiln we have here -- is perpetuating that movement for us. We're moving over to wood as a fuel primarily because of the effects that the fly ash -- that the firing process itself -- has on the pots. I don't paint flowers and do decorations on pottery… I'm more focused on what the firing process does to the surface of the work and how the firing itself can actually decorate the pots, as opposed to me contriving a pattern.

SD: What is salt glazing?

RC: Salt glazing goes hand in hand for us with wood firing. The pots are left unglazed and, at about 2000 degrees, you throw the salt in the kiln. The heat breaks the bonds and releases the sodium, and the free sodium chemically reacts with the silica in the clay and forms glass. The atmosphere -- literally the vapors in the kiln -- is the flux… It's a very unusual firing method, and one that's not done very often because it eats away your whole kiln. Over time, the whole kiln is like a big glass box when you open it.

SD: What does the salt glaze look like?

RC: You know how they say Eskimos have 20 ways of talking about what snow looks like? Well, salt-glaze potters have about the same number of ways of talking about what salt surfaces look like. If you put a pound or two of salt into a kiln, you're likely to get a bit of flashing on the pot, you can almost see where the flame just kind of licked the pot, it has just a little bit of toastiness to it… If you add more salt to the firing process, you'll get more fluxing action and the surface of the pot might actually start to look like an onion skin; it'll be still rough with the texture of clay, but getting kind of glassy. It has a certain tension, almost like skin… If you continue to add more salt -- more in the realms of what we work in -- you build so much salt on the surface of the pot that it starts to become like an orange peel. The salt starts to build up on the surface of the pot and forms this kind of textural quality that I find very unique.

SD: Is there a lot of trial and error involved in learning how to do… stuff?

RC: When I move into wood-firing, the upfront acknowledgment has to be made that you're going into a firing process where there's less control, and you have to give up a certain amount of control and accept greater losses. If you want consistency, there are other firing methods, like electric firing, where the kiln is very evenly heated and there are no atmospheric conditions, and the pots and glazes come out very consistent. The kiln itself will not modify the glaze from one side of the pot to the other.

I think the variegation of wood-fired pieces is beautiful, but you pay a price for that… We're probably going to lose 15 to 20 percent of the pots in each firing because of the bad effects.

On the other hand, I'm expecting to get 15 percent, maybe, of the pots out that are going to be zingers -- ones that are really, really blessed by the kiln in a way that won't ever happen in a non-atmospheric firing process. So in that respect, wood firing is like mining coal looking for diamonds.

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