By BETSY BETHEL
Associate Life Editor
Adena potter Ben Steffl Thompson creates much more than just functional, earth-toned vases, cups and bowls. He crafts little pieces of the Ohio Valley.
Each of Steffl Thompson’s pieces involves a process – from the raw materials to the wood that fires it – incorporating the rich history, culture and landscape of this area.
“Local materials are a big part of what drew me to wood-fired ceramics. I use local materials to develop a personal relationship with place, through direct interaction with what physically makes up this area,” said Steffl Thompson of Silver Fox Pottery.
His most recent work will be on display throughout November at the Main Street Gallery, 145 Main St., St. Clairsville.
Those local materials include Ohio clays, flint pieces extracted from Flint Ridge near Newark, Ohio; fracking sand salvaged from beside the railroad tracks near his home; oak and sassafras leaves for imprinting the clay; and iron-rich water from a nearby stream.
In addition, each piece is one of a kind because of the random nature of the lengthy and arduous wood-firing process that takes place within the large kiln.
Between a wooded knoll and a narrow, winding stream in the old mining hamlet of Ramsey in Jefferson County sits a 15-foot-long, low-slung brick hut with a 15-foot chimney at one end.
In mid-October, this handbuilt hut – called an anagama kiln in the ancient traditions of China, Korea and Japan- was loaded with about 300 ceramic pieces, most of which Steffl Thompson threw on a wheel in his home studio about a mile away.
Also stacked tightly on heat-resistant shelving inside were pieces sculpted by his wife, artist and Mount Pleasant native Melanie Steffl Thompson; and pieces created by community members who participated in a popular pottery workshop Ben Steffl Thompson led at the MITCH Collective in Martins Ferry in September.
The actual firing – which is only done once or twice a year – involves feeding six cords of wood into the kiln every five to seven minutes for 60-70 hours straight in order to reach the necessary firing temperature of 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, said Steffl Thompson.
He and his wife took turns manning the kiln over the course of 62 hours from Oct. 14-16. They slept (or attempted to) in a small tent near the kiln. This is only the third time they have fired the kiln since finishing its construction in spring 2011.
It took the couple three years to build it, mostly using 6,000 bricks salvaged with permission from the rundown former Scio Pottery factory.
It is not lost on the Steffl Thompsons that they live in a region once known as the pottery capital of the world.
“For a potter, it’s a dream. There are a lot of raw materials there,” Ben Steffl Thompson said.
The kiln roof is made of two layers of brick covered by a thick mixture of cement, clay, sand and sawdust. Insulation is key to ensuring the kiln fires properly. The wood is fed into a 3-foot firebox at the opposite end of the chimney; in the 12 feet between is where the work is stacked, said Steffl Thompson, who is originally from Oregon and apprenticed there under potter and anagama kiln expert Richard Rowland.
The couple cut and split the wood themselves, using trees from the one-acre property where the kiln is located as well as scrap wood from an old house on the property they tore down this summer. They also shoveled some local coal into the firebox from time to time, in homage to Ramsey’s coal mining heritage.
“This is where we live. It just seemed to make sense,” Melanie Steffl Thompson said.
It is during the firing process when the “magic” happens. Unlike commercially produced pottery or even gas-fired pieces, wood-fired pottery is a product of the atmosphere inside the kiln. Wood ash floats through the kiln, randomly landing on the ceramics and creating markings on the glaze. The pots are all heated to the proper temperature for firing but some pieces, or parts of pieces, receive more or less exposure, causing different shadings. The flint and sand in Steffl Thompson’s pieces melt during the firing, creating random blotches and drips.
After the kiln has been kept at 2,400 degrees for between 12 and 24 hours, the kiln is left to cool down naturally, which takes several more days. In fact, it was more than a week later when the Steffl Thompsons began unloading the kiln to discover their transformed work.
“In a lot of ways,” Ben Steffl Thompson said, “it’s not about the specific piece of pottery at all. The one mug is just such a small piece of the whole process.”
Phil Cole, landscape architect at Hays Landscape Architecture Studio where the Main Street Gallery is located, said Steffl Thompson’s work is best appreciated when taking this process into account.
“I, along with several others, have had the opportunity to witness the humbling process from raw clay to finished product,” said Cole. “Each piece has its own unique identity by their reaction to ash and other natural elements during the wood-firing process. No two pieces are alike, which provides a tremendous variety of color and texture all within the same firing.”
The Steffl Thomspons met at Bowling Green State University but moved to Ben’s native Oregon after they married. It was there that he discovered pottery and the anagama method from Rowland, who taught a class Melanie was taking and took Ben under his wing as an apprentice. Before that, Ben had never even considered being a potter.
The couple returned to this area four years ago because of the region’s rich pottery heritage and a desire to contribute to the community.
“We came back here because we believe it’s beautiful here and there’s something worthwhile here,” Ben Steffl Thompson said.
“We want people to be proud of what’s here. We wanted to do something positive for the community here,” said his wife, whose aunt used to own the property where they built the kiln. Their plan is to build a cabin and studio on the land eventually. Melanie is a full-time artist – primarily a painter – while Ben works as a server at The Farm Restaurant in Mount Pleasant and plays the Irish bodhran drum in a local group called the Gypsy Cowboys when he’s not throwing pottery.
Ben’s work is for sale at various local shops, including the Black Sheep Vineyard in Adena, Mulberry Corner Gift Shop in Mount Pleasant, Dr. Dan Jones’ office in Colerain, the Wheeling Artisan Center and the Main Street Gallery in St. Clairsville.
Said Chris Villamagna of the Wheeling Artisan Center: “(Ben’s) work is unlike any other clay artist’s in the shop. We carry it … for this reason as well as its beauty, quality and the fact that it is locally created. His pieces are beautiful and earthy and parallel pottery made thousands of years ago. The work has a connection to the land as it is wood-fired and I really love that. “
Added Cole from Main Street: “Personally, it’s been a pleasure being a part of such a unique and exciting project driven by an inspiring couple in the Ohio Valley. We are excited to showcase Ben’s latest work at the Main Street Gallery (starting) on Nov. 1.”
An opening reception for the exhibit, which is titled “Resilience,” will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday. The Steffl Thompsons will be on hand to answer questions about their work and the kiln. Refreshments and musical entertainment will be offered.
For information, call Hays Landscape Architecture Studio, 740-695-6505.