PPP: Perfecting the Art of Pottery

March 1, 2004
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Production potter Jerry Wagner combines his engineering and artistic skills to produce flawless works of functional art

Wagner
Jerry Wagner was standing at the back door of his house, one of a row of tan brick suburban style homes half a block off the main drag in downtown Uniontown, Pa. His was different from the rest, with large open patios and other individual touches, but I suppose I had been expecting a farm house or a barn nestled in the wintery slopes of this former coal town. As he led me through his ceramics-filled home, I wondered if we'd be packing up and heading out to his studio someplace else. But he said his studio was this way, and we cut through the flagstone patio and into a building that, from the outside, looked like an ample two-car garage.

Inside, in a precisely organized and mercifully uncluttered 30 x 30-ft workspace, invisible to the neighbors, is the studio from which issues ceramics of the size and quantity you'd assume require factory facilities to produce. The room is dominated by the green 8-ft cube of his kiln (64-cubic-foot stack space). Its stainless steel chimney, poking up through the roof, is the only clue to the outside world that this is a production studio.

Wagner built the kiln, and as he pointed out details he is justifiably proud of, I commented on the flat roof. "Arched roofs," he explained, "allow the heat to circulate, defining paths. They allow for hot and cold spots to develop. A flat roof forces the heat to mushroom. It generates turbulence and mixes the air, and you get an even distribution of heat."

He showed me the three platinum temperature probes set into the kiln at its back. He wants to know exactly what's going on inside his kiln at any moment. "I love fire," he said. "Cones are meant to melt at a certain temperature over a specific time. They don't really tell you much. I can make an adjustment in the draft and, with the temperature probes, know what the effect is in less than a minute. With cones, I won't know whether I've gained or lost heat for hours."

Small open vase forms.

A Love for Firing

Wagner's desire to imagine himself inside his kiln and precisely control what's going on inside it came only after a long period of foot dragging. Early in his career as a potter he "unloaded kiln after kiln right into the dumpster." The glazes were coming out "like boogers-green." I asked why, and he shrugged and supposed direct flame contact. Whatever it was, he didn't know what he was doing and didn't actually want to, not yet. "Potters love the contact with clay," he said. And for years that was all he cared about. As an undergraduate at Alfred University, Alfred, N.Y., he finished his work by spraying colored Portland cement over bisque. Later he gave up firing altogether, applying tempera paint to a fiber-body greenware. It was only after working as the glaze-and-kiln guy in the early years of the now-famous Campbell Pottery in Cambridge Springs, Pa., that Wagner began to develop both an understanding of (and a love for) firing as an integral part of creativity.

"What's the single most common mistake potters make?" I asked.

Without missing a beat he answered, "Building their own kilns."

The kiln's 2600ºF fiber insulation is 8 in. thick and is installed at a 12 lb/cubic foot density. Destaco compression clamps are used to keep the door in the closed position.
Wagner finds most of the kiln-building information in books useless. And there is a dearth of information in the technical literature as well. The lack of either a body of engineering data or much deep interest on the part of potters to focus on this most important step in their work has created a specialist category of one-and that one person is Wagner himself. Though he has no engineering degree, he makes his principal living traveling the world, installing and troubleshooting massive production kilns for brick, glass and tile companies-300-ft-long monsters firing at 3185°F, beasts so powerful that if (when) something goes wrong, there is very little time to fix it before it starts to destroy itself. A failing blower can quickly become a chimney, sucking superheated air. Wagner has to be ready at a moment's notice to take off across the country in an emergency; he'd even warned me that, while Sunday was as good a day as any for an interview, he couldn't guarantee anything.

The result of his 17 years as a self-taught kiln engineer is a fascination with control and efficiency. His studio is testament to that. Tucked neatly into available corners are a rolling palate of mixed glazes, a lathe, a spray booth and a glazing sink he made by stripping a red enameled mechanic's tool sink and fitting it with a vertical PVC fountain faucet, driven by a pump and a foot switch he jury-rigged from an overhead garage door opener. The sink sprays glaze into the interiors of his bisqueware, allowing him to do in three hours what had formerly taken eight.

While the studio is a masterpiece of tinkering and the kind of careful arranging of equipment you might normally expect of a man fitting a kitchen into the galley of a sailboat, the kiln bears no signs of having been thrown together. Its green paint, now four years old, is as clean as the day it was applied. Heat does not get out. Fiber insulation prevents steel from touching steel, and the big rolling door is held in place with adjustable compression clamps.

The kiln features four venturi burners per side firing at 55,000 BTUs each, a double labyrinth radiation seal for car-to-bench sealing, and a sand seal to minimize air infiltration into and out of the kiln. The kiln car is rolled in on the 20 lb/yd railroad track shown in the foreground.

An Engineering Ethic

Wagner fires in an oxidation atmosphere to achieve bright colors. His wife once told him to "make something women will want to buy," so he did.

His work is based on the simple juxtaposition of a few basic shapes used in various combinations. His signature design is the result of an accidental composition produced one day when he set a broad platter on top of a small oval bowl. The combination of the two produced a form at once floral and decorative-almost an abstract sculpture free of the requirement of utility-with a vase that, if it did not exactly beg to be used, certainly allowed itself to be, suggesting any number of possibilities. This is what first struck me about Wagner's work-that it forces the viewer to come into direct confrontation with objects that are both pure sculpture and utilitarian design, and yet neither. Wagner's glazes reinforce the feel of floral sculpture, and his compositions rest on a razor edge between art and craft more tightly than anything I have seen before. What is surprising is that, while ceramics is both art and craft, decoration and function, the split between the two worlds is usually clear even-or particularly-in work in which the two elements are both obvious and integrated.

As I was considering the aesthetic elements of the result, I found myself again directed to the process. Just as everything about Wagner's practice has been honed to an assembly-line ethic, everything about the finished work has been honed to position itself exactly between our contrasting requirements of ceramics.

Of course, now I know enough about the process that it's hard to look at Wagner's work-I own two pieces-without being aware of the steps involved in producing it. I look at a vase and no longer see the integrated abstract floral design. I see the three compositional components. I see the foot, turned on a Formica palate and left to dry off, rather than being cut-an accidental discovery Wagner made when he was too hurried one day to remove a foot with a wire. Returning once it had begun to set up, he found it too hard to cut, and so abandoned it. But once dry, it slid free from the surface, revealing a bottom so perfectly flat that when put into practice, it reduced cracking and loss of pieces from something like 30% to almost zero. I keep looking at the foot and now-because he told me-I see the reservoir.

The bowl shape sets into an indentation in the foot designed to catch running glaze. Glaze is all that connects the bowl to the foot, and the platter shape to the bowl. At one point Wagner was trying to keep the glaze field separate, preventing the underside of the platter from running over the seam between the platter and the vase surface. Now he's more comfortable letting the glaze go where it wants. While he says potters should not want to be surprised when opening a kiln, he has the process so under control that even when he's not exactly sure what he will find when he looks in, he knows it will be within his narrow but genuine tolerance for the random play of flow and color.

This engineering ethic struck me as shrewd in all kinds of ways. As a production potter, of course you'd want to produce a constant product with no screw-ups. As an artist, ironically, you actually want the same thing. Maybe the delightful surprise is kind of fun when you are feeling your way toward your work, but a mature artist should not count on dumb luck, especially when all the really hard work has already been done. The balance point is sharp, and Wagner sits atop it comfortably.

Yellow ash and raspberry rimmed vase, 10 in. high x 19 in. wide, fired in cone 10 oxidation.
Editor's note: Jerry Wagner began his wholesale pottery operation, Wagner Pottery, in September 2001. He currently divides his time between producing pottery and building kilns for potters and industrial customers as a construction supervisor at SBL Kiln Services Inc., Bridgeville, Pa. He can be reached at (724) 438-6957 or wagnerpottery@atlanticbb.net.

About the Author

John Edwards writes art and literary criticism for the Erie Times-News Showcase magazine. He has been heard on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, and his creative nonfiction is included in In Brief, Short Takes on the Personal (W.W. Norton). His essay "Prison Man Gets Out" will appear in The Common Review. He is the co-author of Coming Clean, The Terrible Truth About Sex, and is represented by the Ellen Levine Literary Agency. He runs several writers' workshops in the Erie, Pa., area (http://www.paper-jam.com) and is owner and publisher of Cambridge Springs Press (http://www.cambridgespringpress.com). His recent publications include The Middle Distance, creative nonfiction by the Villa Writer's Workshop; My Twentieth Century, the autobiography of Donald P. Murch; and, under the French Creek Books imprint, Why I Write, by Barbara Grippe. He can be reached at Box 105 Venango, PA 16440 or by e-mail at csp@cambridgespringpress.com.

SIDEBAR: Balancing Art and Function

We live in an age of deep appreciation of texture. We are hyper-conscious of the complex beauty of surface, process and erosion and are bored with the polished, perfect surface. We want nature to have its say.

Jerry Wagner lets nature have its say. Apart from its beauty and skill, his work shows that there is a razor edge between subject and object, and that one can stand on it. His bowls and platters are utilitarian objects masterfully shaped and glazed. But as sculpture, their usefulness only seems to blur their narrative form. Holding a salad, the platters would be kitchenware. Hung on a wall, they'd be mandalas.

In Wagner's forms, the hypnotic pull of the disk itself is further enhanced by its funnel-like shape, drawing us down toward the darkness into which run subtle shades of rusts and green/blues, in various configurations. The addition of funneled depth to circular surface makes Wagner's major form a potential vortex, as well as a mandala-and vortices draw on a human unconscious in equally powerful and archetypal ways.

Wagner's structures move from the geometric to the organic. If we imagine Wagner's complex glaze work laid out on a canvas, or his ceramic forms presented 20 ft tall, they might be mere design. Yet, because these are both craft and art, Wagner achieves the best of both worlds. He has produced both abstract sculpture with that strong organic narrative-the blooming floral tension between becoming and being-and craft of dizzying control. He allows, or forces, a critic to apprehend beauty in an age when art is meant to be confrontational social criticism-ugliness as honesty, as realism-at the same time that he forbids us, even if we own one of his vessels, from ever using it solely as a thing to eat out of-even as you eat out of it.

My partner owns one of his vases, but although she keeps saying she's going to put actual flowers in it, she also claims not to have found "just the right ones yet." It's been months. But the Wagner vase is never put away because it's "empty." Its emptiness proves the credibility of the experiment. It is prominently displayed as art, and virtually everyone notices its beauty, even in a large space filled with art that has no utilitarian purpose.

-John Edwards

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