Sawtooth School for Visual Art will expand its ceramics program by building two wood-fired kilns through a partnership with the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.
With the financial support of The Windgate Charitable Foundation, which has provided a $100,000 grant, Sawtooth will construct an outdoor kiln pavilion that will house a wood fired train kiln and a wood/soda fired catenary arch kiln.
Sawtooth, at 251 N. Spruce St. in downtown Winston-Salem, will build the pavilion and kilns on the SECCA campus at 750 Marguerite Drive in Winston-Salem and will hold wood-firing classes there. The new facilities will offer opportunities for community firings, special workshops with visiting artists and ongoing classes related to wood-fired ceramics.
Plans are to break ground on the project this fall and have it completed in early 2022.
Amy Jordan, the executive director at Sawtooth, said in a press release that the wood-fired options will diversify Sawtooth’s program and broaden its reach in the region.
“There are no functioning community wood-fired kilns within two hours of Winston-Salem,” Jordan said. “This new firing technique will enrich the offerings at Sawtooth, enabling our longtime students to expand their portfolios and exposure to new art forms.”
She said that the new kilns would provide an option to do outdoor firings as a safe alternative for people who are not comfortable coming back into the studio amid these COVID-19 times.
People would have to go through classes at Sawtooth to use the wood-fired kilns.
Among the various art programs at Sawtooth, the ceramics program is a popular one.
“It’s very well attended,” Jordan said in an interview. “We have wait lists of students every session.”
She said the wood-fired kiln project will offer an alternative firing for students.
“With that wood-fired kiln also comes new programming, new instruction,” Jordan said.
Her hope is that this project will attract more people from inside and outside the local area.
The Sawtooth community already extends beyond Winston-Salem.
“Our Sawtooth community comes in from Durham and Charlotte and all the surrounding areas,” Jordan said. “We have online students from as far as Paris and Algeria.”
On-site at SECCA
Although Sawtooth has held some of its programs at other locations in the past, this will be the first time it will build a large-scale facility at another location to do programs.
William Carpenter, the executive director of SECCA, said he and Jordan have talked in the past about the need for art organizations in Winston-Salem to form partnerships and collaborations.
It was about a year ago that she floated the idea of the kilns, he said.
“We’ve been having ideas of how we can make the grounds at SECCA a lot more interactive and welcoming, so this partnership seemed like a natural fit,” Carpenter said of SECCA officials.
His goal is to make the grounds at SECCA a place where people want to “sit, stay, work, play.”
“We want folks to be able to come and feel invited, feel welcomed, feel like there’s something interesting around corners and around trails, that it’s a place where families can spend time together and that we can bring our educational stuff outside and really be welcoming to as many people as we can,” Carpenter said.
The wood-fired kiln project will be built in the front area of SECCA at the end of its long parking lot.
“It will be in view of the historic Hanes House,” Carpenter said.
He expects the kilns to bring more people to the grounds at SECCA.
“I think, too, that it will provide our patrons something interesting to see and spark their interest in making something and understanding the processes that are involved,” Carpenter said.
Because Sawtooth doesn’t have any land around its premises, school officials looked at different locations to build the kilns, including private locations and other places downtown, before teaming up with SECCA.
Jordan said she thought a partnership with SECCA would work because of Carpenter’s vision for the museum’s grounds.
“(SECCA) has been wonderful to partner with,” Jordan said. “We couldn’t be happier.”
Seth Charles, Sawtooth’s director of ceramics and longtime wood-fired artist, will lead the project and oversee its operations once the kilns are constructed.
Charles, who is also the lead programming director for Sawtooth, has built seven wood-fired kilns at multiple schools and clay centers across the United States.
Currently, Sawtooth has electric, gas and raku kilns.
A unique feature of the wood-fired kiln is the fact that people do not apply an exterior glaze to the surface, unlike they do with electric or gas kilns, Charles said.
“For the wood firing, we’re relying heavily on the kiln to impart a unique path of flame on the piece as well as the ash melting on the piece,” Charles said.
He said that the process for wood-fired ceramics has been developed and refined over multiple continents for thousands of years.
“It used to be that firing with wood as a fuel source was the only means to vitrify clay,” he said. “Today, with the evolution of electric and gas-fired kilns, heating with wood is no longer a necessity and instead becomes a deliberate voluntary act. It is a choice made by artists whose aim is to produce surfaces only possible through this ancient process.”
He said the wood-fired train kiln and the wood/soda-fired catenary arch kiln that will be built at SECCA will each leave a different surface on the students’ work.
“We’re going to be able to use the same wood fuel source to fire two different kilns and be able to get two distinctly different looks on the surface of the pottery,” he said.
A typical firing in the new kilns will take 36 to 48 hours of around the clock labor.
Although all students will help load the kilns with pottery, crews of about three people will be working in shifts once the kiln is fired.
“The work will be loaded in the kiln either unglazed or with a simple glaze that is receptive to ash and flame,” Charles said. “Similar to geologic actions, heat and pressure will be exerted on the work.”
He said that during the firings, the draft created by the chimney will pull wood ash and alkaline vapors released by the heat of the fire through the kiln.
Then the ash will be deposited on the pieces in the path of the flame based off the choices students made loading the kiln and during the firing process.
Once the firing is finished within about 48 hours, the kiln will cool naturally for another 48 hours.
Then all the students will gather to unload the kiln and evaluate their results and talk about such things as loading strategies and what can be improved the next time.
“One thing that’s really unique about the wood-fired kilns is that you put the pottery in anticipating certain results, but you never know exactly what you’re going to get,” Charles said. “You then analyze those results at the end, and you compare and contrast it to what you were expecting. It’s an always evolving, learning, educational tool.”