By Starrla Cray
DASSEL, MN If you’ve never seen handmade pottery that’s been fired with natural ash glazes, now is your chance, with artwork by Tom Spudic of Cokato currently on display at the Dassel Public Library.
For many of his pieces, Spudic doesn’t use glaze to cover the pottery. Instead, the ash from the 2,500-degree firing melts onto the piece, turning into glass.
“The ash really enhances the piece,” Spudic said. “I really enjoy making things that are going to interact with the fire.”
His style is a mix of clean, classic shapes, as well as unique, distorted forms.
“I intentionally put distortions into the piece that will affect the way the ash moves around it,” said Spudic, whose business is called Wheel Works Pottery.
To achieve this unique effect, Spudic uses a wood-fired, single-chamber kiln called an “anagama,” located at Village Ranch in Cokato. The mission of Village Ranch is to serve troubled teens by addressing their spritual, mental, physical, and emotional needs.
“This wood-firing process started as something for the kids I work with,” he said.
Spudic, who helps teenagers with behavioral and family problems, built the kiln with them in 2007.
“Their excitement, their energy keeps this going, too,” he said.
Of the 150 to 200 pots the kiln can hold, Spudic usually has between 20 to 40 of his own pieces inside.
“When I make the piece, I’m thinking, ‘where is this going to go in the kiln?’” he said. The placement of the pottery determines how much ash and how hot it will get.
Even with careful planning, however, firing is different every time.
“When a piece comes out as a success, I can’t produce that again,” he said. “It really is a unique process. It’s like an original oil painting or an original sculpture.”
Sometimes, it’s best to just let the fire do its work.
“It’s quite literally a river of fire,” Spudic said. “The flames lick up against the pieces.”
The process is far from easy, though.
“It’s very labor intensive,” he said.
Each piece Spudic creates on the pottery wheel is usually made in steps.
First, he forms the piece. Then, when it has dried a little, he adds carvings, distortions, handles, or other personalized influences.
Next, the piece is fired for the first time in a traditional kiln. This first firing, called a bisque fire, gives the pot more strength and prepares it for the second firing. If Spudic wants the piece to be glazed, he does it after the bisque firing.
After these steps have been completed, the pottery is ready for five to seven days of firing in the anagama kiln, which constantly needs to be loaded with wood.
“We go through about five to seven cords of wood,” Spudic said. One cord measures 4 feet high by 4 feet wide by 8 feet long.
Firing with this method dates back to the fifth century, when it was first introduced to Japan from Korea.
After reaching peak temperature, the kiln takes about another week to cool off.
When it’s finally time to take out the pieces, Spudic said, “it’s like Christmas Eve.”
Despite many successes, however, usually between 10 to 20 percent are “unacceptable” because there wasn’t enough ash or glaze or the piece didn’t get hot enough for long enough, he said. Those pieces either get sold for less money, are given away, or thrown.
“I’m pretty picky,” he said. “I try to keep a high standard.”
Spudic usually fires between three to five times per year. In the winter, the frozen ground could adversely affect the kiln. Moisture and air temperature also make a difference in the results.
Variations only add to the unique appeal of the wood-firing process, however. When people see Spudic’s pottery and how it is different from their “preconceived idea” of what things normally look like, “it sparks something inside of them,” Spudic said.
When Spudic first started pottery in high school in 1993, he was hooked immediately.
“I was fascinated by the process,” he said. “Just seeing the clay move on the wheel drew me in.”
His skill, however, had to be developed over time.
“I was terrible. It probably makes me a better teacher, though, because I have empathy for people who aren’t very good,” said Spudic, who teaches ceramics at Dassel-Cokato High School.
Even now, Spudic said he is constantly developing his technique and style.
“I’m happy with the successes, but I’m never satisfied,” he said. “It’s an ever-changing process. I’m always trying new shapes.”
Spudic said he looks for ways to keep his artwork alive and engaging.
“Sometimes, artists get stuck in one style. I’m always looking for that next experience,” he said.
Spudic, who is originally from Indiana, travels throughout the country selling his work at various art shows. His goal is to sell at three to five shows each year, and next year, he hopes to show in Minnesota as well.
Spudic’s work is for sale at the Dassel library, with part of the proceeds going to benefit the library.
To view more of Spudic’s work, go to his web site at www.tsclayartgallery.com.