Johnson County Potter and Friends built a huge kiln in part from Camark’s historic bricks

NEAR OARK – The Little Mulberry Gallery is less than one mile down a dirt road at 215 Arkansas in Johnson County. The stream from which it is named flows nearby and a high ridge rises above it.

The gallery is home to potter Stephen Driver and his wife, weaver Louise Halsey, the 2017 winner of the Arkansas Arts Council’s Living Treasure Award, who makes colorful rugs and woven tapestries on looms in his bright studio next to the gallery. Their dog, Ernesto, also lives here.

The driver’s studio is located in the building next to the house. Dusty shelves contain old utensils, mugs, clay sculptures, plates, and other works; There are tools, a pair of pottery discs and plastic trash cans. Two of the walls are covered with photos, cards, posters and other phenomena. A black-and-white photo from the ’80s shows Driver and Halsey sitting on top of a pile with their toddlers, Ian and Alice.

At littlemulberrygallery.com, where Halsey’s work can also be found, a large sheet of toned paper has been placed as a background to photograph new pottery.

The driver’s ceramics are primarily functional – pots, pans, mugs, vases, jugs, containers, etc. – and some include sculptural images of birds, animals and fish.

On this cold, gray morning of December 18, the 70-year-old driver puts a small fire in an oven in a shed next to the studio. Slightly over 6 feet tall; gray hair is uncombed and although hairless against the cold, it looks perfectly comfortable. Part of his pottery is in the oven, which is closed by a heavy door.

Next to this furnace is a much larger one. This, like most things here, including the cozy house, was built by Driver. It has a wood-burning, vaulted roof and a large chimney – “the engine of a furnace,” says Driver – in the end.

The 5,000-brick large furnace is sloping, has two chambers, two doors, and can hold about 1,000 pieces of pottery.

The lower chamber, which is 10 feet long, is an anagama furnace, a style that originated in Korea and entered Japan in the 5th century.

“This design is inherently inefficient,” says Driver. “You can design a furnace that fires evenly everywhere, but this furnace isn’t designed for that. It’s a struggle, but it can be an advantage, it can do a lot of work in the same furnace.”

The second chamber is a 100 cubic meter noborigama style furnace. The heat from the lower chamber ignites the second chamber, and the Driver introduces soda and rock salt during the firing process, which together with the wood ash create unique surfaces on the ceramic.

“With less wood, you can fire more pots. The first chamber can burn for 60 hours, and the waste heat has heated the second.”

The bricks and other items used to make the kiln were rescued from a kiln by Driver and Potter’s friends and students at the old Camark Pottery in Camden. (See arkansasonline.com/13pottery.)

“That place was like a candy store,” he says.

The large furnace is empty this morning, but several dozen Arkansas potters were traveling for several days in November to travel to the remote and quiet estates of Driver and Halsey to burn out their pottery.

Driver’s phone shows a November photo showing the larger chamber of the furnace, full of pottery.

“I’ve been making pots for a living for 48 years and I’ve been firing for a long time, and that’s still thought-provoking,” he says. “Seeing all the tables full of pots to go into the oven and trying to figure out how to do this is big enough for my mind. It’s like a huge Tetris game.”

Michael Warrick, potter, sculptor, and old friend of Driver and Halsey, professor of art at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He participated in all four fires of the large furnace, which can be dated to 2017. The November firing was after the first two years.

“They built a wonderful place there on that land,” he says. “I call it Ozark Nirvana. Being able to take part in the firing is a huge pleasure and exhausting … there were almost 1,000 pieces of pottery on the last firing.”

After carefully filling the furnace, the potters work around the clock for four days to keep the fire at about 2,400 degrees. In the process, about two to three strands are burned through the firewood chopped by the Driver.

“We work shifts with two or three people, and we seem to burn wood in the furnace every five minutes,” Warrick says. “We’ll raise that temperature for the first three days and then keep it on the last day to equalize. It’s a very amazing performance.”

Halsey was not a member of the November firing crew, but says it was the best. The people who helped with the fire, and Stephen, learned what this furnace needed and had a better understanding of the furnace. It is a joint effort. “

The driver looks at the cold oven and points out some of the remaining work of a potter in Fayetteville waiting to be removed.

“I still haven’t cleaned up the shot,” he says. – Everything is messy and chaotic.

Driver grew up in Detroit and was interested in pottery in high school. He attended Florida State University with a swimming scholarship.

“I was a good swimmer, but not a great one,” he says in an December 11 interview at the New Deal Gallery in Little Rock at the weekend show “Clay & Fiber” and his and Halsey’s works, and the potters Logan Hunter and Hannah May.

He attended some pottery courses at the university, but when he saw a poster of a workshop in Grass Valley, California in 1971, it was a turning point.

“It said,‘ Come to Northern California and build a six-chamber wood stove, ’” he recalls. “I had no idea what a wood-burning stove was, but I answered. I went out and by the time I finished school, I decided I wanted to be a potter.”

He studied in England for a year, and in 1976, with his brothers – Bill, Rocky (“the real hippie in the family”) and Driver’s twin sister Larry – bought 80 acres about 30 miles north of Clarksville in County Johnson. on the edge of the Ozark National Forest. At the time, Arkansas 215 was just a dirt road.

“We’re back on the ground,” says Driver, the last of the four left here. Bill died about 10 years ago; Rocky and Larry moved. she stays when the furnace goes, and Stephen Driver’s sister-in-law, Karen Driver, who was Bill’s husband, is also here.

He met Halsey at the Georgia Designer Craftsmen Annual Meeting in January 1977.

“He taught weaving at this craft center, and I sat down next to him,” he says.

They married in March 1978 and first lived in a tent on the property one summer and fall.

“I attribute some of it to reading too many‘ Little House ’books,” Halsey says. “There was nothing here but a tent, and the building that now serves as a studio was a shared kitchen. I wanted to live a border life.”

Driver and Halsey sold their work in craft demonstrations for about a decade before Driver entered the graduate school at the University of Georgia to earn his degree in fine arts.

“I had to decide if I wanted to continue working with clay or quit,” he says. “I was trying to find myself. It also gave me the opportunity to expand my way of making money. I was able to start teaching.”

He took a teaching job at the University of Brescia, a Catholic school in Owensboro, Ky., Where he taught for 14 years and then returned with his family to Johnson County in the summer.

“We would rent the space here to people we knew and trusted to take care of it,” he says. “I’ll come home in the summer, fix things, and work in my studio.”

He taught at UELR from 2008 to 2013, when he turned 62 and decided to leave teaching. He also began building the furnace that year with the help of Warrick, Hunter (a former student of Driver), May and others.

Almost every piece of pottery from “Clay & Fiber” Hunter and May was fired in the big oven in November. Hunter’s first firing with Driver was in 2010, and he was Driver’s first assistant in firing the large furnace.

Ash from wood burning contributes to the appearance of the work, which makes the process unique and different from the work burned in the electric furnace, Hunter says.

“You don’t know where the ash goes on a pot. As long as the wood burns, the ash accumulates on the pots – wood ash and various salts and vapors that help glaze the work over time. When it reaches a certain temperature, the wood ash begins to melt. Pieces close to the place of the fire usually accumulate the most ash and the most dynamic surfaces. “

Coincidence is involved in the process as there is no guarantee of exactly how the work will succeed.

“There’s a surprise item,” Hunter says. “But you can figure out what your best chance is of getting that surprise again.”

May says she was pleased with the November results and getting together with friends and potters for the burning process is just as rewarding.

“Participating in my work was like icing on the cake, but I like being with the community of people who live in these places. It’s like a secondary family. Steve’s daughter actually calls us her potter’s children.”

Warrick also talks about the community aspect of the shootout, which includes working together and catching up and sharing meals:

“People come from all over the state, and in many cases the last kick was when I last saw them. It’s good to hang out and work at the same time.”

Participants bring food, and cooking tasks are split between the group, says Halsey, whose contribution is to pizza baked in a wood-fired oven under conditions provided by the crew.

But this is not all fun and a feast. For many, they will hopefully sell the work they made when they were fired, so it is an economic incentive for everything to go well. Those who don’t sell pieces still want their work revealed.

“We need people 24 hours a day,” Driver says. “You have to pay attention to the fire. It’s ideal for people to get a job who are involved in the kick. They have skin in the game.”

Halsey said the driver had “invested a lot, and so did the people working in the furnace. He wants people to enjoy the firing, but that’s too much commitment to take lightly.”

Finally, the oven is a way to bring potters together and help them get their work done, says Driver.

“People have been burning big kilns like this for centuries. It’s so laborious and complicated, but if we combine the work, more is possible. To make a group of people make pottery, we have to build a community kiln and share the work and get together. It’s like a community oven. ”

May says Driver and Halsey are inspiring.

“It’s good that Steve took over his experience and brought it back to Arkansas and that he has a place and land where he can live this community at home. Steve and Louise live in a house they make, produce food in their garden, there’s a real ritual of eating. and they actually use their pottery every day. “

Speaking about his friends, Warrick says, “There are two people here who live their lives, not only creating a wonderful family and place on earth, but bringing a high level of integrity into their craft. people in such a project, wonderful. “

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