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Two unique kilns fire away at Ozark Folk Center

By Angela Spencer

This article was published May 11, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

john-perry-works-on-a-piece-of-pottery-in-his-studio-at-the-ozark-folk-center-in-mountain-view

John Perry works on a piece of pottery in his studio at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View.

MOUNTAIN VIEW — Nestled in a town of artists and musicians holding onto the idea of “the olden days,” fire stirs as clay hardens into pottery.

John Perry and Judi Munn work together in the pottery shop at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View. Visitors watch as the husband and wife create usable and decorative pieces while answering questions from curious tourists about clay, glazes, technique and history.

Two kilns at the folk center stand out, giving the pottery unique looks. One kiln was there when Perry and Munn arrived and has been modified, and the other was built on site after Munn secured a grant.

The groundhog kiln burns wood, giving the pottery an ash-influenced glaze that adds a level of unpredictability to the final product.

“It really is different than an electric or gas firing,” Perry said. “It’s what potters would have fired with a century ago in the South.”

Munn wrote a grant proposal to have Lowell Baker from the University of Alabama go to the folk center and host a workshop on how to build a groundhog kiln. At the end of the weeklong workshop in May 2002, the group had built the kiln and fired it for the first time.

The bricks used to build the kiln had been donated a year earlier by Acme Brick, Perry said, and there were three “brick sorting parties” to get the 8,000 bricks up a hill to the pottery shop from the parking lot.

“The first one we had 30 people, and the second one we had eight people; but by the last time, we only had three,” Perry said. “We were doing that in the middle of the summer, so it was really hot.”

In contrast with an electric or gas-firing kiln, the wood-burning kiln produces ash that helps colorize and glaze the pottery.

“A lot of the ash that makes the glaze comes from the bark,” Perry said.

Between the micro-ash that hits the pot and the heavier deposits that melt during the firing, the color and glaze of the pottery that comes out of a wood kiln can be unpredictable.

“Those pots, you never know how the flame and the ash will affect them,” Perry said. “There are a lot of unknowns in wood firing.”

Another kiln at the folk center not only produces good results but is environmentally friendly. Perry modified the kiln that was designed to burn propane so it would burn used vegetable oil from local restaurants.

“The real reason I did it was to use a food byproduct that has no more food value,” he said. “Environmentally, it’s way better.”

Using used vegetable oil is “carbon-neutral firing,” having a net zero carbon footprint. Perry said the system puts off a lot of heat, therefore takes less fuel than other kilns.

“I’m taking that oil, and I’m pumping it and preheating it, and as it moves through the burner system, it’s being blown into the kiln as a mist that I ignite with electrodes,” he said. “It actually has a lot more heat value than propane.”

Perry knows of a handful of other vegetable-oil kilns, but not many. He said it might be a good option for other potters who want to be environmentally conscious.

“If other potters can adopt it, it may be something that they can use beneficially,” he said.

Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or aspencer@arkansasonline.com.

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