On a cold, early December day, potters and artists from around the country gathered at the Woolman campus of the Sierra Friends Center in rural Nevada County as they had for four decades.
Friends and colleagues took turns stoking a massive blaze that burned inside a rare multi-chambered ceramics kiln built on the slope of a hill known as a “Noborigama.”
They came for the 129th firing of the kiln first built as part of the Earth Air Fire Water program in 1971.
Three and a half cords of dry and split cedar and pine are consumed in 20 hours, reaching temperatures of 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit inside the chambers. Waiting for transformation in the belly of the inferno are 700 original pieces, some made from native clay and others carried from afar. The interaction between flame, ash, and minerals in the clay form a natural ash glaze.
“Many of these people are old hands at doing this,” said Richard “Dik” Hotchkiss, a retired Sierra College ceramics professor and director of the day’s activities.
A legend to those who know him, Hotchkiss is the founder of this project but shrugs off publicity of any kind as something distasteful. He sits quietly in the corner, directing folks to the tasks at hand.
“You have to know what you’re getting into. You have to work,” he said.
The crew had spent the day before chopping and stacking kindling in the rain and woke up early to start the fire at 4 a.m.
He began to share stories. He remembers the first time he learned about the “Noborigama” nearing five decades ago.
It was the fall of 1969 when the young 20-something art student had his mind blown by a 26 minute-film directed by Edith Sperry called “Village Potters of Onta.” The film documents the ways of life of Japanese folk potters in Onta, a remote village in the mountains of North Central Kyushu, Japan. The potters use techniques originating from Korea that have remained relatively unchanged for more than 250 years.
Hotchkiss, a Nevada County native and son of organic farmers, has a life-long penchant for fire and wood chopping. He was transfixed by the Japanese potters. With the help of his friends, Hotchkiss set out to re-create the multi-chambered kiln in their Northern California backyard.
“One thing led to another. We were an enlightened group of young adults with like minds. We copied an idea without a blueprint and made a design by the seat of our pants,” said Hotchkiss. At the time, he lived in a place on Powerline Road known as the Tin House where he and cohorts were already practicing the art of throwing clay.
“I paid rent. Everyone sacked out there when they could,” he said.
Among the tribe was Doug Tweed, a 1969 graduate of the John Woolman School; Rimas VisGirda; and Ted Menmuir, a former head of school and art teacher at Woolman. The thing that held them together was their love of fire.
“I was the local rep. I had a saw and a truck. I was an outlaw,” said Hotchkiss. With encyclopedic memory, he recites mathematical formulas for the BTUs given off for each kind of wood – from sappy bark beetle pine to the Sierra Nevada summer-cured cedar snags — he uses for the kiln’s fire.
The band of friends began formulating an idea. With a connection to the Woolman property, the young artists had secured a site for their ambitious project. A kiln-building workshop began the summer of 1971 and posters made with a hand printing press began to circulate art schools across the nation. More than 40 art students from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico were attracted to the idea. For $250, students had access to all the clay they could use and all the food they could eat. Soon as many as 60 people were living in A-frame cabins and tents on the property. Pottery wheels were set up in the glade, lights were strung up and the ceramics studio was open round the clock.
“Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg would come to read poetry. The environment was so infectious. Everyone wanted to come and stay here. It was the place to be,” said Milan Young who first set foot on the Woolman campus when he was 18. Now he’s 67.
Woolman School gave the original members a lifetime membership to use the kiln. It’s still being used for community firings each spring and fall. Friends old and new return year after year when Hotchkiss sends out the invitations. The fervor has yet to be extinguished.
“He’s like a pied piper. So many people gather around,” said Teru Simon, a potter, sculptor and printmaker from Vermont. She came out twice to Nevada County for the project — once three weeks earlier to throw 50 pieces using native clay filled with small sticks and stones, and again for the firing. She says it takes years to understand the science of the glazes.
“I’ve been waiting all year for this. There’s kind of this excitement in not knowing if the pieces will survive,” said Casey Sugie as she stoked the fire. Sugie was a ceramics student of Hotchkiss at Sierra College many years ago. She is now a graduate student studying chemistry in the Bay Area.
The next day, after the kiln has cooled, the group lines up to unload hundreds of unique art pieces. Still warm, the pots and sculptures, mugs and bowls are carefully handed down the line, until arriving in safe rows on tables in the classroom.
“Everyone has a story. This is kind of like common ground. You can’t get this kind of education anymore,” said Milan Young, who inspects each piece before passing it on. Young’s heart was lit the first year the kiln was fired. He returns as often as he can.
This winter, the ceramics classroom will re-open for experienced potters who want to take an extensive workshop with Hotchkiss. It’s one of many community programs like camp, outdoor school, teen leadership, venue and cabin rental, organic gardening research, science-based learning and more offered by the nonprofit group dedicated to Quaker values of peace, non-violence and social justice for a better world.
Learn more about this and other exciting developments going on at Woolman at Sierra Friends Center by visiting: https://www.woolman.org/ or follow on Facebook and Instagram.
For tickets to the Advanced Ceramics Studio (seven week series from Oct. 13 through Nov. 29) and the Earth, Air, Fire, Water Firing of the Noborigama Kiln, visit: https://advancedceramicswoolman.bpt.me.