I set fire to my first building on my 28th birthday. It wasn’t something I got out of bed in the morning and spontaneously decided to do for the fun of it. It just kind of happened. I’ll never forget the acrid stench of creosote covered roof beams going up in smoke.
I should say right here and now, that it’s not what you’re thinking. I was actually a hippie potter living on an old farm in upstate New York. I had started a pottery studio with a buddy of mine from Colorado. I’ve heard that the best business partnerships are struck between adversaries. I really didn’t know what that meant until I went into business with a friend. We started the studio together as best of friends. We parted ways under quite different circumstances. But that’s another story for another time. Let’s get back to the burning building.
We were firing the large stoneware kiln on a blazing hot day in late July, July 27th, to be exact. I remember because it was my birthday. That kiln was fired by propane up to temperatures reaching nearly 2300 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a lot of heat, fire, smoke and flame, in case you’re wondering. There are a couple of times during the process where the air supply is choked off in order to create certain types of effects with the clay and glazes. This is called putting the kiln “into reduction.” When this is done, it creates a rather dramatic outpouring of flame and black smoke. The fire seeks oxygen, and as a result, flames were licking our through every crevice and crack in the bricked up door and out of the burner ports. To the uninitiated it looks literally like a house on fire. However this looks a lot more dramatic and dangerous than it really is. Except if there happens to be anything flammable near the kiln. In this case, there was, and it happened to be the roof of our kiln shed. The shed was constructed from old building materials that had been salvaged from a warehouse demolition. The roof beams were precariously close to the kiln and that was the day they caught on fire. The only thing that prevented the whole structure and studio from going up in flames was that the aged and weathered beams had been treated in creosote. At one time it was a common practice to treat telephone poles, railroad ties and building timbers with creosote as an actual fire retardant.
Our fellow potters congratulated us as having officially “arrived.” There is a bit of folklore that all potters are closet pyromaniacs and that you aren’t really a legitimate potter until you set fire to your first building. As time went by I repeated my flirtation with fire by accidentally setting fire to my gloves, bandanas, and my hair. I even started a wildfire when I plunged a red hot pot into the dry grass. My wife was nine months pregnant at the time and I’ll never forget the sight of her in that delicate condition beating back the flames with a blanket.
It was not until years later that I performed my crowning achievement in this arena. I was teaching Ceramics at a local college. It was towards the end of a long firing and I put the kiln into reduction, which produced the expected conflagration complete with dramatic amounts of flame and thick black smoke. This process could take as long as half an hour. I was expecting guests for dinner that evening, so I thought I’d have enough time to run across the street to my house and get a couple of things done. As I worked in my kitchen, I heard the sound of sirens approaching, but it really didn’t consciously register. A few minutes later as I left my house to return to the studio, I saw that fire trucks and emergency vehicles had cordoned off the entire block. Much to my dismay I saw a crew of burly firefighters in full turnout gear advancing towards the kiln yard with a fire hose.
I sprinted balls to the walls, across the soccer field between my house and the kiln yard, screaming at the top of my lungs for them to stop. I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to cover the distance and barge through the crew of firefighters and emergency personnel to reach them just before they hit the kiln with a torrent of cold water. It would have created an unimaginable cataclysm of steam, exploding bricks, burst gas pipes, shattering pottery and kiln shelves and God knows what else.
“Stop! Stop! What are you doing?” “Stand back! We got a report of a structure fire! That brick shed’s on fire! We gotta put it out!” “No! That’s a kiln – it’s a pottery kiln – that’s what’s supposed to happen – everything’s under control!” “ Where’s the main shut off? Turn it off!”
I complied by turning off the main gas supply. The flames and smoke receded and the interior of kiln glowed red hot through the cracks in the bricked up door. “Twenty three years on the force and I ain’t never seen nothing like it – you’re lucky the security guard spotted the fire and called it in. You coulda burnt down the whole college!” I offered apologies and assurances, insisted that there never had been any real danger and that I’d see to it that everything was safely turned off and locked up. They looked at me like I was from Mars. I looked over in disbelief at the security guard who seemed full of himself with the heroic act he thought he had just performed.
I waited for every one to leave and I also pretended to leave. I locked the gate and went into the Art Building. After I was sure that everyone had left and the coast was really clear, I did the only thing any self-respecting potter and firebug would do. I finished the job. You can’t do that properly without plenty of heat, fire, smoke and flame. I started the kiln back up and finished the firing.