I’m standing in front of the biggest kiln I’ve ever seen in person. It’s a “noborigama,” or “chamber kiln” that will be packed with nearly 2000 clay pots that Mark Skudlarek makes over a period of three months. Each pot will be placed on a shelf inside the kiln strategically in preparation for the two-week firing and cooling process. “A wood-fired pot reveals the firing process,” Mark explains. He moves his hands through the air, showing me how the flames will leap to one pot before they dance to the next. Each piece of pottery will bear the unique marks of the flames–which sets wood-fired pottery apart from other firing methods. Over the next several days, the kiln will reach 2350F degrees. It will consume nearly seven cords of wood as it burns steady for 72 hours straight. The wood is chosen specifically for the kiln, the clay, and the humidity levels. The kiln must be monitored constantly. “It’s an intimate process,” Mark says. The potters whole life is wrapped up in every step of the process.
While we sit in his house that Mark had built himself -drinking tea from mugs collected over the years from his friends and favorite potters, Mark explains how he became established as a working potter. After taking pottery classes at St John’s University in Minnesota, Mark interned in La Bourn, France, which is considered the home of traditional stoneware and woodfired pottery. It was there in La Bourn where Mark saw how closely acquainted the potters must be with each aspect of their craft. It was what convinced him to take up pottery as an art–and as his livelihood. Now, it’s easy to see that wood continues to be an inspiring element in Mark’s life.
“A wood-fired pot reveals the firing process”
Wood of all shapes and sizes is stacked or piled all over the property–ready to feed the kiln, which is the heart of the four month production schedule.
“Apprenticeship teaches you the language you need to understand the craft.”
Production begins with preparing the clay and the wood, then throwing (turning) the pots, trimming and painting them, and finally loading and firing the kiln. A crew of four potters take six-hour shifts, taking care that the fire is not over-or under-stoked. Finally, after all three chambers of the kiln have been fired, the kiln is “clammed” (sealed) and left to cool for one week. The final moments in every production cycle are filled with anticipation — after four months’ work, opening the door and unpacking the kiln is a magical experience as each unique pot is handled and viewed for the first time. But immediately after the awe comes the next question – leading the potter back to the beginning of the cycle: What can the potter learn or change for the next time? Each of these points in the process requires precision and intuitive understanding of the science involved. It’s a science that is learned naturally – married to the act of production – allowing for an immediate and direct relationship to the process. I imagine how transformative it is to learn in a community where the work is intermingled with constant conversations of how why and how it all works. This process is obviously so complex. Mark explains the significance of apprenticeship for training as a potter. Under the guidance of a master potter the student is allowed to take more risks, to try new things, but in a safe environment. “Apprenticeship gives you the confidence you need to endure [as a craftsman]. A year or two of classes [at university] doesn’t. It allows you to take more risks,” he says. “Apprenticeship teaches you the language you need to understand the craft.” By engaging this method of training you are initiated a community of practice that can support you over time.
Through his own internship and apprenticeship, Mark traces his skill set to Bernard Leach and Leaches first apprentice, Michael Cardew. Leach – regarded as the Father of British Studio Pottery – advocated maintaining standards of craft the through communities of apprenticeship. These apprenticeships were characterized by constant conversations about the nature of intrinsically sound work. Leach said, “…the artist-craftsman…has been the chief means of defense against the materialism of industry and its insensitivity to beauty.” Efficiency has in many ways cost people their connection to process and thoughtfulness. He strove to develop a criterion of aesthetic values to give potters something to strive towards in their work. He was a kind of potter-philosopher – creating a structure to analyze and consider the form of the pot and the whole process of making. This legacy was handled down to his apprentices. He left an great model of engaging with his whole self – heart, mind and body – into the work. I immediately recognized this same spirit in Mark’s approach to his life and work. Mark is incredibly thoughtful and reflective about every aspect of his own practice. When he tells talks about working with the clay and forming his dishes, he speaks of “turning” the pots rather than “throwing” them. His choice in words comes as a deliberate choice, since many potters instead say that they are “throwing pots” when they are forming them on the potter’s wheel. I know from watching my father at his own pottery wheel that the lump of clay sits on a flat wheel, which spins and spins, while the clay takes shape under the his hands. “Turning” is literally what is taking place. He explains with the detail and passion of a history or linguistics teacher that “thrawan” was the verb used by potters hundreds of years ago. It is Old English, meaning “to twist or turn.” The word changed, as languages often do, to the word “throw.” But Mark prefers using the contemporary word, “turn,” which more accurately describes the action. I imagine that an apprenticeship with Mark would be like this interview — hands-on lessons filled with conversations about the historical, philosophical and scientific context of the craft.
An apprenticeship goes beyond learning about the craft–it stretches into learning the lifestyle and business sense. For so many people starting out trying to unravel a way to make a living at their craft this wisdom is indispensable. Mark’s thoughts on the subject are insightful and offer an effective model.
“You have to work hard, keep your cost of living low, and keep doing the work,” Mark says. “You can’t expect to go on vacation a lot and have a lot of extra income. You can do it, if you keep building as your work makes room for it financially. A lot of my daily practice is just work.”
I see evidence of Mark’s hard manual work everywhere, in the rows upon rows of wood he has chopped and stacked in the studio. In the wood piles along the drive leading to his home. The key is to “put your heart into your work and keep a low overhead,” he says. His first studio was on rented property. His kiln was made of salvaged brick. “This life is simple. You live within your means and stay connected to your community.”
“…the artist-craftsman…has been the chief means of defense against the materialism of industry and its insensitivity to beauty.”
While we’re talking, a car drives up to Mark’s studio. A middle-aged couple steps out and wanders inside. Cambridge is known for its pottery — most of Mark’s sales come from drop-ins to his shop even though the age of the internet removes so many people from the physicality of what they buy. The couple touch a few of the items Mark has for sale in his small shop before selecting some plates. They heft the dishes in their hands and glide their fingers along the plates’ shiny surface before bringing them to Mark for purchase. “I sell a lot of plates,” Mark says after his customers leave. “There’s a bonding action between eating together and the objects we use.” The products of mass-produced ceramics can’t posses the same intimate qualities of these pots. As a potter’s kid the table was the center of our house. We had regular long evenings sitting around the table, talking, eating and laughing with our family and friends. The pottery was always the background and texture to all of this. Every morning I still pause to choose which cup I will hold as I drink my morning coffee. It bridges the process the potter started into another set of intimate rituals – those of eating – of nourishment.
Having pottery like Mark’s in your home offers a reminder that the family meal, an evening with friends or even just your morning coffee can be a pause to touch something layered and beautiful – “an escape into living.”