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Ancient Embers Awe and Ash by Joan Koerper

The Gulf Coast breeze fanned the flames of the gas burner leading into the raku kiln struggling to reach a temperature of over 900 degrees Celsius. Nearby, the flames of the open pit fire leapt 20 feet in the air, as a plank of wood succumbed to the fire. Large, red hot embers crashing down atop the once-fired pottery carefully nestled in sawdust sounded like bellows of thunder gods. I wondered if any of the pottery would come through the ordeal intact.

After six weeks of calling forth rounded vessel forms from wet, grog-laden, white clay on the potter's wheel and painfully, tediously, hand burnishing my wares, I was experiencing my first open pit and raku firing. I knew I would be bearing witness to sacred fires transforming shaped and dried clay into an almost indestructible material-- pottery. Yet by night's end, I had seen a shaman's dance and heard the whispers of ancient women intently tending the first fires. I realized the primal ritual had transported me through time, transforming the clay of my soul as well.

My art pottery studio-mates and I were gathered at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center in Dunedin, Florida, for an all-day and all-evening working feast. In the outside portion of the studio, we built a 5' x 5' x 3' above-ground, cinder block pit and charged up the gas raku kiln.

A few feet in front of the raku kiln, we helped each other prep second-stage reduction kilns - trash cans lined with crumpled newspaper. Rushing against time, nervous laughter, chatting, excitement, and anticipation filled the air.

The awe I experienced partaking in my first raku firing re-surges every time I think about it. At the moment the kiln temperature peaked, our leader, Scott Aubrey, quenched the fire as I helped to manually lift the lid and set it aside. Swirling back toward the kiln, I suddenly gasped in astonishment and joy. The pottery was alive; molten glazes danced in the heat. I, too, wanted to dance, but it was time to work quickly.

Wearing heat-resistant gloves and wielding a set of long prongs, Scott rapidly removed the pieces one at a time. Lid in hand, I was perched anxiously by my kiln in protective clothing, including my apron announcing "Don't Expect Miracles." As soon as Scott lowered my sizzling piece into the receptacle, the combustible material caught fire and flames leapt into the air. Seconds later, I parried with them to tightly cover the can.

During the repeated rounds of raku firing, everyone was expected to take his or her turn brandishing the prongs. I was struck by "fetch and fly" anxiety as I contemplated the responsibility of carrying someone else's flaming ware at neck-breaking speed safely through mid-air, over cement, to its destination. Smooth graceful movements, proper timing, balanced strength, and total concentration were critical. Yet when Scott handed me the prongs, I sprang into action.

As I waited patiently for my can to cool, questions abounded. What would I find when I opened the kiln? Did the integrity of the pot hold? What colors would emerge?

Still garbed and masked, I carefully removed the lid. Sputtering with glee, I grinned ear to ear and marveled at the brilliant copper-blue, gold, and green colors as I took my piece from the kiln.

While the raku kiln was reheating after each use, we were lifting and arranging planks of wood over the pit as fuel for the next round of firing.

At the height of the flames, Scott would begin a dance at the edge of the pit, and, in my mind's eye, I saw the shamans of old and new chanting to the kiln gods to guide and protect the fire. His arms rose in bird like motions, then thrust forward as he aimed straight for the pots, throwing chemicals mixed with salt into the fire. If the kiln gods were kind, the mixture would generate rich colors on the exposed portions of the pots in contrast to the oxygen-deprived black bodies. Scott resumed the ritual. Again and again, he raised his head to the sky, then bowed to hurl in the next spray of salts. Firefly rainbows arched then toppled as they hit the flames. "Hiss! Hiss!" the fire responded.

Each round of the blazing pit fire was more spectacular than the one before, as the day edged into night. The palm tree branches swayed gracefully in the breeze, playing tag with the flames. In those sudden, quiet moments when the fires paused, I heard the gentle, rhythmic, chorus of lapping water caressing the Gulf shore.

After the last embers fell, we covered the pit. It would remain smoldering until our return. Exhausted and covered in soot, I headed home for a well deserved shower.

Sleep eluded me. I was too excited about the provocative events I had experienced and the mystery of the pit fire that had captured my heart. Would my pieces make it through the firing?

Two days later, I met my classmates back at the Center. The pit was still searing hot as we began to break it down. Wary of the heat-damaged cinder blocks crumbling around our feet and threatening to topple onto the fired wares, we moved cautiously. Gradually, my pots surfaced from the ash and debris.

When my pieces were cool enough to handle, I cradled each in my palm, turning them inch by inch, not wanting to breathe.

My burnished wares were intact. Some were spectacular with varying hues of golden brown, iron red, orange, copper, and silver, where the salts had settled.

I gave thanks to the kiln gods. Like my ancestors 30,000 years ago, I had made offerings and placed them in the fire as sacrifices, imploring the kiln gods to leave my other pieces untouched.

That night, by witnessing the molten glaze, experiencing the intensity and immediacy of the leaping flames, and exercising the imperatives of patience and supplication, I glimpsed what it must have been like when humans first discovered fire. It provided a profound realization that I am part of those first fires--the first kilns, the first transformations of clay into pottery. I am part of an ancient community of women who discovered how to make and fire pottery. Women who made offerings and chanted to the kiln gods. Women who stood in awe of the transformation of their wares and how their unearthing of pottery transformed society by allowing them to carry and store necessities, and cook more successfully. Women who understood--as I had just learned--that the firings transformed the clay of their souls.

Each firing in which I participate renews and intensifies that sacred, visual and awesome connection. I experience it as a community ritual solidifying us present and past through an ancient indigenous archetype of transformation- fire sprinkled with stardust glaze. I bow in deep gratitude for the day I heard ancient souls singing in the clay and became a potter.

BIO: JOAN KOERPER, Ph.D. is a writer, potter, educator and licensed psychotherapist. She received her doctorate in Humanities from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and wrote her dissertation on "Singing Over the Bones: Pottery and Writing as Expressions of Soul as Artist, A Work of Creative Nonfiction."

She can be reached at

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