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Local potters use ancient technique to fire pottery ahead of annual sale

A small group of Kamloops potters has turned to the ancient ways in their latest creative endeavour, pulling beautiful works of art from piles of ash buried in the ground. But that beauty was not guaranteed.

A small group of Kamloops potters has turned to the ancient ways in their latest creative endeavour, pulling beautiful works of art from piles of ash buried in the ground.

But that beauty was not guaranteed. The process, called pit firing, involves wrapping unfinished clay forms in various kinds of combustible debris and foil, burying it underground and setting it ablaze for a number of days.

The process is a risky one, with the benefits of intense colouring weighed against the risks of breakage, as the fire burns up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and pieces shift and fall within the pit.

"As the material burns and the pots fall on each other. You try to put the lightest on top, but depending on how violent the fire is, there could be explosions and things like that. With a pit fire, you accept something like 25 to 30 per cent breakage," said Anne Rurak of the Thompson Valley Potters' Guild.

Rurak, who has five decades of experience in pottery, was teaching and helping with a recent pit firing in Barnhartvale, along with student Glen Jealouse and fellow potter Donna Bowie.

The firing was done in advance of the annual Thompson Valley Potters' Guild pottery and craft sale, which will take place on Saturday, Nov. 6, at St. Andrews on the Square, 159 Seymour St., from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Pit firing is not a quick process. The works pulled from the Barnhartvale pit on Oct. 29 were placed there six days earlier, with other variables such as wind and wet weather also playing a part in the pottery production.

Bowie has been a member of the Thompson Valley Potters' Guild for 14 years, and after a break from pottery, she recently returned to the craft during the pandemic. She saw the pit firing as an opportunity to produce something unique.

Although she wasn't too happy with her results this time, the prospect of pulling something beautiful from the earth will keep her coming back.

"With pottery there are so many unknowns — just with traditional pottery — and with pit firing, my passion and excitement comes with the fact that the unknowns are even bigger," she said.

Jealouse, meanwhile, was excited to see what would be pulled from the pit, located just next to his Barnhartvale house.

"I've never experienced this before, so everything is new to me. I'm expecting some, potentially different colours, just from what is developed from this type of firing," Jealouse said just before the works were unearthed.

The process involves surrounding the clay works with various kinds of natural combustible materials. In this case, a number of things were used as colourants, including walnuts, copper wire, corn on the cob, crab apples, sawdust, coffee grounds, bananas and even horse manure.

"The chemicals in those pieces, as they burn off, will give off different oxides, which are the colourants," Rurak explained.

Jealouse was firing works of his own and those of his wife, who could not attend the firing that day. They've been at the craft for about a year, and have benefited from the teachings of Rurak.

Upon pulling his works from the pit and seeing bursts of purple, red and blue on his pieces, Jealouse said he was "ecstatic."

"I'm quite pleased with all the results. My wife would be jumping with joy, for sure," he said.

Jealouse said along with his plans to join the potters' guild, he also plans on holding more pit firings in the future.