NEAR OARK — The Little Mulberry Gallery is less than a mile down a dirt road off Arkansas 215 in Johnson County. The creek for which it is named flows nearby, and a tall ridge rises just beyond that.
The gallery is home to potter Stephen Driver and his wife, fabric artist Louise Halsey, the 2017 Arkansas Arts Council's Living Treasure award winner who creates colorful rugs and woven tapestries on looms in her bright studio just off the gallery. Their dog, Ernesto, lives here as well.
Driver's studio is in a building next to the house. There are dusty shelves of old pots, mugs, clay sculptures, plates and other works; there are tools, a pair of potter's wheels and plastic garbage cans filled with the makings of clay. Two of the walls are covered in photos, cards, posters and other ephemera. One black-and-white photograph from the '80s shows Driver and Halsey sitting atop a woodpile with their young children, Ian and Alice.
A large sheet of toned paper is arranged as a background to photograph new pottery for sale at littlemulberrygallery.com, where Halsey's work can also be found.
Driver's pottery is primarily functional — pots, dishes, mugs, vases, pitchers, containers, etc. — and some feature sculptural imagery of birds, animals and fish.
On this cold, gray Dec. 18 morning, the 70-year-old Driver stokes a small fire in a kiln in a shed next to the studio. He is a little over 6 feet tall; his gray hair is uncombed, and though he is coatless against the chill, he seems perfectly comfortable. Some of his pottery is in the kiln, which is sealed by a heavy door.
Next to this kiln is a much larger one. It, like most of the things here including the cozy house, was built by Driver. It is wood-fired, has an arched roof and a large chimney — "the engine of a kiln," Driver says — at the end.
Made from 5,000 bricks, the big kiln sits at an incline, has two chambers, two doors and space for about 1,000 pieces of pottery.
The lower chamber, which is 10 feet long, is an anagama kiln, a style that originated in Korea and was introduced to Japan in the 5th century.
"That design is inherently inefficient," Driver says. "You can design a kiln that fires evenly everywhere, but this kiln is not designed for that. It is a struggle, but that can give you an advantage; you can do a wide variety of work in the same kiln."
The second chamber is a 100-cubic-foot noborigama-style kiln. Heat from the lower chamber fires the second chamber, and Driver introduces soda ash and rock salt during the firing process that, along with wood ash, create unique surfaces on pottery.
"With less wood, you can fire more pots. The first chamber can fire for 60 hours, and the waste heat has heated the second one up."
Many of the bricks and other items used to make the kiln were salvaged by Driver and his potter friends and students from a kiln at the old Camark pottery plant in Camden. (See arkansasonline.com/13pottery.)
"That place was like a candy store," he says.
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The big kiln is idle and empty this morning, but for several days in November it was packed with work by about a dozen Arkansas potters who made the trip to Driver and Halsey's remote and quiet property to have their pottery fired.
On Driver's phone is a photo from November that shows the larger chamber of the kiln packed with pottery.
"I've been making pots for a living for 48 years and I've been firing for a long time, and this is still sort of mind-boggling," he says. "To see all of those tables filled with pots to go in the kiln, trying to figure out how to do it, it's a scaling up that's pretty big for my mind. It's like a giant game of Tetris."
Michael Warrick, a potter, sculptor and professor of art at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is a longtime friend of Driver and Halsey's. He has taken part in all four of the firings of the big kiln, which date to 2017. The November firing was the first in two years.
"They have built a wonderful place there on that land," he says. "I call it Ozark Nirvana. Being able to participate in the firing is a sheer delight, and exhausting ... there were almost 1,000 pieces of pottery in the last firing."
After carefully loading the kiln, the potters take round-the-clock shifts over four days to maintain the fire at about 2,400 degrees. In the process, they burn through about two or three cords of firewood chopped by Driver.
"We work in shifts with two or three people and we're stoking wood in that kiln every five minutes it seems like," Warrick says. "We're bringing that temperature up over the first three days and then holding it the last day to get it all evened out. It's a pretty amazing accomplishment."
Halsey wasn't part of the crew for the November firing, but says that it was "the best one. The people who helped fire, and Stephen also, have learned what that kiln needs and understand the kiln better. They have evolved more to work with the kiln in a more successful manner. It's a joint effort."
Driver is looking at the cold kiln and points out a few leftover pieces of work by a Fayetteville potter waiting to be picked up.
"I still haven't cleaned up from the firing," he says. "Everything is messy and chaotic."
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Driver grew up in Detroit and became interested in pottery in high school. He attended Florida State University on a swimming scholarship.
"I was a good swimmer, but not great," he says during a Dec. 11 interview at New Deal Gallery in Little Rock during "Clay & Fiber," a weekend-long exhibit and sale of his and Halsey's work along with that of potters Logan Hunter and Hannah May.
He took a few pottery classes in college, but seeing a poster for a workshop in 1971 in Grass Valley, Calif., was a turning point.
"It said, 'Come to Northern California and build a six-chamber wood kiln,'" he remembers. "I had no idea what a wood kiln was, but I responded. I went out there and by the time I finished school, I decided I wanted to be a potter."
He apprenticed in England for a year, and in 1976, he and his brothers — Bill, Rocky ("the true hippie in the family") and Driver's twin, Larry — bought 80 acres about 30 miles north of Clarksville in Johnson County on the edge of the Ozark National Forest. At the time, Arkansas 215 was just a dirt road.
"We were back-to-the-landers," says Driver, who is the last of the four remaining here (Bill died about 10 years ago; Rocky and Larry moved. A nephew, Brahm Driver, who is a civil engineer in Rogers, still has a place down the road where the firing crew stays when the kiln is going; and Stephen Driver's sister-in-law, Karen Driver, who was married to Bill, is also still here).
He met Halsey at the Georgia Designer Craftsmen Annual Meeting in January 1977.
"She was teaching weaving at this crafts center, and I sat next to her," he says.
They married in March 1978 and at first lived in a tent on the property for a summer and fall.
"I ascribe part of that to reading too many of the 'Little House' books," Halsey says. "We had nothing here but a tent, and the building that is now the studio was a shared kitchen. I wanted to live the frontier life."
[Gallery not showing? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/131driver/]
Driver and Halsey sold their work on the craft show circuit for about a decade before Driver entered graduate school at the University of Georgia for his Master of Fine Arts degree.
"I had to decide if I wanted to keep working in clay or quit," he says. "I was trying to find myself. It also gave me a way to expand the way I made money. I could start teaching."
He took a teaching job at Brescia University, a Catholic school in Owensboro, Ky., and taught there for 14 years, returning with his family to Johnson County in the summer.
"We would rent the place here to people we knew and trusted to take care of it," he says. "I would come home in the summer and fix things and work in my studio."
He taught at UALR from 2008 until 2013, when he turned 62 and decided to leave teaching. That was also the year he began building the kiln with help from Warrick, Hunter (a former student of Driver's), May and others.
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Almost every piece of Hunter and May's pottery at "Clay & Fiber" was fired in the big kiln in November. Hunter's first firing with Driver was in 2010, and he is Driver's first assistant at firings of the big kiln.
The ash created from wood firing contributes to the look of the work, which is what makes the process unique and different from work fired in an electric kiln, Hunter says.
"You don't know where the ash is going to land on a pot. The whole time the wood is burning, the ash accumulates on the pots — wood ash and different salts and vapors that help glaze the work over time. After it gets to a certain temperature, the wood ash starts to melt. Pieces up close to where the fire is tend to get the most ash accumulation and the most dynamic surfaces."
Chance is involved in the process as there is no guarantee exactly how the work will turn out.
"There is a surprise element," Hunter says. "But you get good at guessing at what your best chance would be of getting that surprise again."
May says she was pleased with the results from November, and that gathering with friends and fellow potters for the firing process is just as rewarding.
"The turnout of my work was like icing on the cake, but I love getting together with the community of people that we have at these. It's kind of like a secondary family. Steve's daughter actually calls us his pottery children."
Warrick also speaks about the community aspect of firing, which includes working together as well as catching up and sharing meals:
"There are people from all over the state, and in a lot cases the last firing was the last time I saw them. It's nice to hang out and work at the same time."
Participants bring food, and the cooking duties are shared among the group, says Halsey, whose contribution is pizza from her wood-fired oven with toppings provided by the crew.
But it's not all fun and feasting. For many, the work produced at the firing will hopefully be sold, so there is an economic incentive to make sure all goes well. For those not selling pieces, well, they still want their work to turn out.
"We need people 24 hours a day," Driver says. "You have to be paying attention to the fire. It's ideal to have people who are part of the firing to bring work. They have skin in the game."
Driver, Halsey says, "has a lot invested, and so do the people who have work in the kiln. He wants people to enjoy the firing, but it's too big a commitment to take lightly."
In the end, the kiln is a way to bring potters together and help them produce their work, Driver says.
"Firing large kilns like this is something people have been doing for centuries. It's so labor intensive and complicated, but when you combine the labor more is possible. For a group of people to make pottery, you have to build a community kiln and share the labor and come together. It's like a community oven."
May says Driver and Halsey are inspirations.
"It's great that Steve has taken his experiences and brought them back to Arkansas, and that he has a place and land to have that community here at home. Steve and Louise live in a house they made, they grow food in their garden, there's a real ritual around meals and they actually use their pottery every day."
Talking about his friends, Warrick says: "Here you have two people who live their lives creating not only a wonderful family and a place on the land, but who have brought a high level of integrity to the craft of what they make. What they stand for, not just in their lives but their work, and passing it along to people in a project like this is pretty amazing."
CORRECTION: Johnson County potter Stephen Driver uses two or three cords of wood to fire his kiln. An earlier version of this story had the wrong amount.