On a slope in West Stockbridge, the air smells of wood smoke and frost and the unmistakable, clean sour scent of reduction — fire pulling oxygen from clay.
Karlene Jean Kantner is feeding a split ash log into an open pit in the earth. She is gauging the heat of the embers, and curved shapes embedded in them are glowing deep orange-red.
She is wood-firing handbuilt ceramics in a pit she and her partner, Chris Powell, have dug themselves, on their own land. And she will show her earthenware vessels at Berkshire Botanical Garden, from January 20 to February 26.
This kind of pit firing is new to her, she said, but she has known wood-fired pottery since her college days.
“In Montana, where I’m from and where I studied ceramics, I fell crazy in love with wood firing,” she said. “We fired in an Anagama kiln.”
It was a Japanese kiln in a tradition hundreds of years old, and holds hundreds of pots. It was formed from a sloping tunnel dug into a mountainside.
‘We fired it for a week, seven or eight days, and we would have someone up there 24-seven — it was a group effort, and participation in it … made deep relationships.’ — Karlene Kantner
“We fired it for a week, seven or eight days,” she said, “and we would have someone up there 24-seven — it was a group effort, and participation in it … made deep relationships. My college professors gave me a hard time for it. They said there were easier ways. But I love it. It feels natural to me.”
She began her own wood-fired practice here because she loves the slow process and the beautiful unpredictability of it, she said over coffee on a winter morning in Stockbridge. And she also came to it because, when art centers were closed around her, she needed a kiln.
She and Powell came to West Stockbridge in the pandemic. He grew up here, and his family lives here. They came here almost by accident, she said. She came East for an artist residency in Rochester, N.Y., and a series of unexpected events, in the already uncertain time, moved them to the Berkshires.
“We were pushed by life to make a change,” she said. “We came (here), to Chris’s home place, and we were warmly greeted.”
They have been making a home here; he has been working on the house, and they have been putting in gardens. In a time of transition, she said, it has mattered — feeling safe together and at home, and putting in the work and time to endeavor to be comfortable. The work she has made from this time holds a sense of survival.
“It feels deeply personal,” she said. “It holds moments of memories and direct relationships to people I love, family, and the relationship between feeling homesick and eager to grow in a new place.”
‘It feels deeply personal. It holds moments of memories and direct relationships to people I love … feeling homesick and eager to grow in a new place.’
She calls this body of work the bramble series, rooted in her new home.
“Pruning the blackberry patch became my first act in the land, to connect with where I was,” she said. “And the work itself, the texture of the clay bodies, reminded me of brambles, in the detail and the texture.”
From her pit firings, she will bring 11 pieces to this winter show. She calls them the bramble collection, she said, and they take their forms from the plants and the life around her.
‘Pruning the blackberry patch became my first act in the land, to connect with where I was, and the work itself, the texture of the clay bodies, reminded me of brambles.’
She coats them in terra sigillata — very fine, creamy slips — clays thinned with water and applied like glazes. They pick up the action of the flame, she said. The heat, the ash and the smoke can leave varied patinas on the surfaces of the clay. And she can burnish some of her work to smooth sheen.
They are all earthenware, made from local clays. When the first botanical garden invited her to think about this show, she walked through in early fall and gathered flowers and grasses and seed pods to dry, to make winter arrangements for her vessels to hold.
Now she also has an electric kiln, and she can make larger, glazed sculptures. She has made planters for her own garden, and she will bring some of these works to BBG as well. They will hold some of the same organic energy, she said — “earthy, rough, subtle — like a secret”
“What drew me to ceramics,” she said, “what helped me to fall in love, was touching it, working with it in a particular way.”
She enjoys the feel of the clay in her hands and the quiet rhythms of layering and playing with form. She enjoys the preparation, mixing dried clay and water until she has the right balance of wet and dry, rough and smooth.
“It lets me loiter and think about what I’m doing,” she said. “… it’s a great way to manage anxiety and purpose.”
‘What drew me to ceramics, what helped me to fall in love, was touching (the clay), working with it …’
She will wedge the clay (like kneading dough) until she has the consistency she wants to work with and roll out smooth sheets, teasing smaller pieces free with her fingers and pulling them into natural forms.
She feels a sense of relaxation in the time and purpose she brings to make each piece.
“It’s a loving act of attention,” she said.
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle’s feature pages — my thanks to Jennifer Huberdeau.