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Ceramics professor hopes to apply what he learned in Hungarian kiln-building residency
Nov. 13, 2015
Standing in front of a gas kiln behind the pottery studio at the CCRI Flanagan Campus in Lincoln, Associate Professor Mazin Adam pulls out one of the bricks – labeled “peep” – from the door. The kiln roars, the heat blowing and crackling inside as the red-hot temperature continues its climb.
“Those cones are standing straight up,” said student Brady Monk, who twice today has helped Adam disassemble, brick by brick, the kiln’s door.
“We’ll get there, Brady,” reassured Adam, explaining that the cones are a tiny mohawk of clay spikes inside the kiln that help the potters measure time, temperature and pressure. When the first two are right, the cones will start to melt.
Adam said understanding how to construct kilns – a timeless technology – is all part of a bridge from past to present. The kiln and how it is fired is every bit as important as learning the techniques of throwing and glazing. When he saw the opportunity to attend a master kiln-building workshop this spring at the International Ceramics Studio in Kecskemet, Hungary, he jumped at the chance.
“It’s very important that you know your tool, that you build your tool,” he said. “It’s of the utmost importance that my students learn about what a kiln is, what an inefficient kiln is and what an efficient kiln is, so that they can put best practices into use when they leave here.”
During the residency, Adam worked with nine other potters under the tutelage of Fred Olsen, whom Adam calls “the godfather of ceramic kilns. … I think he’s built a kiln on every continent,” he said.
Over the course of the residency, Olsen worked with the artists to build a super-efficient wood-firing kiln. Although the technology of the wood kiln is not new – some in China and Taiwan are at least 8,000 years old – there is ample room for improvement in terms of increasing their efficiency, which often pales in comparison to gas kilns.
Olsen’s technique makes it possible for a wood-burning kiln to fire, or reach necessary temperature, at less than half a cord of wood, whereas a typical wood-burning kiln requires four times that much. Ultimately, Adam said that the plan is to build a wood-firing kiln at the Knight Campus in Warwick with a small experimental class.
“Green is the new word. Efficiency is the new way. We need to train our students in how to do these things; they can’t be as wasteful as some of us were,” he said.
Until that time comes, Adam and his students have use of the gas-fire kilns in Lincoln and Warwick, as well as electric kilns – big drums that resemble Crock-Pots – in the Lincoln studio.
Ceramics is an ancient art, one that far outstrips its practitioners. When societies fade some of these artifacts will survive for anthropologists and archaeologists to puzzle over. It was this aspect that attracted Adam to what eventually would become his life’s work, he said. His parents, who moved the family to Detroit from India via Europe when Adam was 7, initially had other expectations for him: “Indians like me, we’re usually doctors or engineers. That’s what we’re conditioned for, stereotypically,” he said, laughing.
“I have a bachelor’s degree in anthropology,” he added. “Then I took a ceramics class as an elective. I had always been studying pottery in anthropology; it’s the oldest way of figuring out humans, looking at their pots. Maybe in retrospect I can say there was a union of sorts, but when I was in college, they were really two different things.”
He found that he had a passion for the physicality of the work and for the duality of freedom and restriction inherent in clay: You can do so much with it, he said, from cosmetics to ceramics, but you can’t do certain things, such as fire it too quickly or at the wrong temperature. After Adam spent more and more time in the studio, his professor encouraged him to consider a career in the art. “I laughed at him,” he remembered. “How was I going to do anything? But it’s like anything, you scratch the surface and there’s a whole new world underneath.”
For Adam, that world was expansive, leading him to a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts in ceramics, then to work for nonprofit pottery studios such as Pewabic Pottery in Detroit and the Clay Studio of Philadelphia as a ceramic technician. After seven years teaching at CCRI, where he was recently granted tenure, he has happily married the practice of his art and through teaching, passing it on.
“So many students are surprised when they relate to clay. I like it when I have a nursing student or a physical therapy student – anybody, really, who is not an art student – who is at first daunted by this thing. It’s dirty, it stains, it can be hard to control. But they learn to overcome it by learning the material, spending a lot of time with it. There’s a real primal thing about touch,” he said. “I always talk to my intro students about how they don’t have to be scared – everything we’re doing here is thousands of years old.”