PPP: From the Heart of Ohio

March 1, 2009
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Owned and operated by Cary and Elaine Hulin, Holmes County Pottery produces hand-thrown, wood-fired stoneware.



Near Big Prairie, Ohio, situated in the heart of Amish country about 20 miles west of the commercial Amish district, is a thriving, self-supporting pottery named simply Holmes County Pottery. Owned and operated by Cary and Elaine Hulin, the pottery produces hand-thrown, wood-fired stoneware. Every function of the operation is shared between the two: Elaine does everything in the production and sales process except throw, while Cary does everything in the production and sales process except accounting.

Cary and Elaine met at Bradley University, where Cary graduated with a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in ceramics and Elaine earned a master’s of fine arts degree in printmaking. In retrospect, the path to Big Prairie seems like a well-planned journey, each stop along the way helping to achieve the end. The couple spent the first three years after school at Union Rockdale Pottery in Wisconsin, where the pay was based on piece work. The ability to throw repetitive shapes with accuracy and speed is vital to the success of any full-time potter, and Union Rockdale was where the Hulins acquired and honed those skills.

Cary spent the next four years at Cornwall Bridge Pottery as an apprentice with Todd Piker, a master potter of the English tradition, and the subsequent three years as master potter at Westerwald Pottery in Pennsylvania. In total, Cary spent 15 years as a student, an apprentice and a journeyman before the kiln was built and he and Elaine fired their first piece of ware at Holmes County Pottery.

Table 1.

Body Preparation

An accomplished potter has an innate need for the ultimate clay body, and, as Michael Cardew once said, the ideal solution to finding the perfect stoneware body both for throwing and firing is to find one in the natural state that contains the perfect blend of fluxes, silica and clay. While such naturally occurring clays certainly exist in the U.S., using a single-component body is not always possible or practical.

Using a modified approach, the Holmes County clay body is 80% clay with a base composed of Cedar Heights clays (see Table 1). Modifications have been made to suit the forming and firing conditions. In this sense, Cary has taken a modern approach to reach an ancient end. The body Cary throws with is plastic and formable, and this has much to do with his clay component selection.

Nearly as important, however, is the method of clay body preparation, which should be apparent. Ceramists have always known the advantages of aged and tempered clay, which seems to give it formability not possible with fresh mixed clay. Holmes County Pottery uses a blunging process that exposes the clay particles more fully to the mixing water. Upon drying, the aging process is accelerated and continued.

Blunging the body components together.

The clay body preparation is a simple process devised and perfected by another legendary potter, Brian Van Nostrand. The principles and end result are similar to the filter press preparation method that has been employed by larger production potteries for over 100 years.

Components of the clay body are blunged together with water in a 55-gal drum mixer. The mixer is constructed using bearings, steel and a motor. After mixing and blunging, the clay slurry is pumped into drying trays constructed of 2 x 6 lumber with bottom screens of common hardware mesh. Sheets of fabric are laid over the screens prior to pumping, and a fair amount of dewatering is accomplished within a few hours of the initial filling of the drying trays.

Cary and Elaine draining the last of the slurry into a de-watering tray.

The trays are covered immediately after pumping, and the clay is left to age and de-water. The dry-out process is monitored closely, and the clay is cut into rectangular blocks and wrapped in plastic when it reaches the proper moisture. The de-watering stage can take two to four weeks, depending on the weather. At this point, the clay body can either be stored or processed further for throwing by passing it through a de-airing pugmill extruder.

Cary raising the cylinder. The finished piece will be similar to those on the wareboard in the background.

Forming and Glazing

The ware is all hand-thrown with speed and precision. Cary’s skill is evident as shapes seem to emerge from the wheel effortlessly. Ware is stored on traditional wareboards; all ware is air-dried with no forced air drying. Handles and knobs are also hand-formed and applied in the near-leather-hard state.

Elaine performs most of the decoration, which is subtle and aesthetically very pleasing. Since the ware is single-fired, glazing is done in the raw state. The glaze palette is fairly simple, but the application and firing conditions produce some truly striking effects. The colors range from golden browns to cream, celadon greens combined with orange flashing, a few subtle blues, muted whites with iron or cobalt designs, etc., as well as unglazed pieces that are left to the wonders of the ash from the flame.

Stoking the sides and middle front of the kiln late in the firing.

Firing

The kiln is a long tubular design, constructed of super-duty hard firebrick, and it holds about 2½ tons of unfired ware. Holmes County Pottery fires three times a year, and the process is a major operation that requires three to four days and several helpers. The initial fire is usually lit early Thursday. It burns slowly through the day and into Friday with the front door half open.

Early Friday, Cary and Elaine brick the door completely closed, and the remainder of the day is spent slowly and methodically building the temperature to the 1000-1200°F range. Elaine always takes the 10:00 p.m. Friday shift with two helpers, and this is where the serious firing really begins. By the time Cary takes over at 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning, the temperature in the kiln has climbed to nearly 2200°F.

During the Saturday firing, cones in the various sections are watched closely to ensure that the kiln achieves the proper soak. Front and side stoking proceeds at roughly 5-10 minute intervals, depending on need, until most sections have dropped a cone 10. This can be as early as 9 p.m. on Saturday night, but there have been occasions when the firing required stoking long after midnight. A short ritual of sealing the cracks and holes with newspaper soaked in thick clay slurry follows, and the kiln is allowed to cool slowly.

View inside the kiln just prior to unloading.

Sales

Ware unloading usually starts on the Wednesday after firing is complete. Each firing is followed by a three- to four-day open house the next weekend, so some hustle and as much help as possible is required to unload all the ware and get it sorted and priced.

The Hulins send out a large mailing list well in advance of the open house. A pottery showroom is located at the front of the main building, and ware can also be purchased nearly any workday of the year. The choicest pieces are always snapped up early during the open house, however, so visitors are well-advised to get there early.

The ware produced has a subtle balance and beauty that is truly appreciated with each use. It’s gratifying and inspiring to experience the results of years of training, experience and cooperation that are a part of each piece produced by Holmes County Pottery.

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