In the Studio with… Melissa Woodburn


A Day at the Beach

By Melissa Woodburn
Golden Gate-Marin Branch, California

Handmade "beach vessels" by Melissa Woodburn

Handmade “beach pots” by Melissa Woodburn

Come spend the day with me at the beach in Northern California. We’re going to use the beach as our kiln and pit-fire a group of handmade vessels.

I love the feel of a clay vessel forming in the palm of my hand. As the vessel grows, the walls must dry out enough to support its weight but remain pliable enough to shape. I let each vessel tell me what shape it wants to become.

As the vessels dry very slowly, I burnish each with a rubber rib and a smooth stone. Sometimes I brush on a thin layer of terra sigillatta, a very thin clay slip that develops its own shine and will be particularly sensitive to the fumes of the fire later.

The vessels air dry and are bisque-fired at a very low temperature in an electric kiln. This helps them withstand the thermal shock of the fire later.

Then on to the beach for a day of firing!

Beach day is an all-day group event, with everyone bringing art work, combustible materials, kindling, shovels, and potluck lunch.

Dillon Beach

Spending the day at Dillon Beach

We start about 8:30 a.m. by digging a shallow, round pit about 3 feet deep, throwing the sand up around the sides as we go to make a berm. The pit is layered with a few inches of sawdust. The pots are prepared as each artist desires, with materials that will catch the fumes of the fire: copper gopher mesh, dried banana peels, eggshells, vitamins, tea bags, coffee grounds. No traditional glazes are used. 

Pots in a pit on the beach

Pots nestled close together and surrounded by seaweed are place in a pit.

Into the pit they go, nestled close together and surrounded by seaweed (which gives orange colors) collected from the shore. Copper carbonate powder (which gives reds and pinks) is sprinkled around the vessels. The whole pit is covered with a layer of dried cow-dung patties, which will hold the heat later to encourage colors to develop.

Beach pyre

The pyre is lit.

Kindling and wood scraps are gently added, building a pyre. With a short prayer to the pit fire goddess, the fire is lit.

Then the waiting begins. We must wait for the fire to burn down completely and the vessels to be cool enough to touch by hand. If we take them out too soon, they will crack in the cold wind.

Time for lunch, waiting, walks on the beach, waiting, chatting with friends around the fire, waiting, waiting, waiting.

Pots emerging

Pots start to emerge.

As the fire burns down, pots start to peek out. The colors come and go from their surfaces as the wind blows. Waiting to touch them is very hard.

About 4:30 p.m., the fire is usually burned down enough to start taking out the vessels. It’s so exciting to see what colors have emerged. Because there are no traditional glazes used in this type of firing, all the colors are transferred to the vessels by the fire: alchemy! 

Since each pit firing depends on variables such as how hard the wind is blowing, what kind of scrap wood has been used, and the amount and variety of other combustibles used, each firing is a unique event.

Each vessel is truly one of a kind.