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Spinning Charm on a Wheel

November 13, 2007|By DAVE THOMPSON

Photography by Dave Thompson and Coles Pottery

The last thing Boonsboro area potter Allison Coles Severance wants her customers to do is take one of her creations home and place it on a mantel.

"I don't want my pots displayed on a shelf. I want them pulled out of the cupboard every day for use in someone's kitchen," she said. "It's important to me to carry on the tradition of creating functional pottery."

That tradition stems in part from the influences of medieval European pottery on Severance's work.

"The forms of medieval pottery appeal to me," she said. "There are tall, curvy pots that are meant to be used."

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This love of the traditional and functional carries over to the process Severance uses to create her pottery. Eschewing modern methods, she fuels her large brick kiln with wood and allows the unpredictabilities of ash and salt to work their will on her pieces.

"I finish my pots in my wood salt kiln because I love exploring the element of controlled chance," she said. "And I have always been with, and admired and respected the mystical surfaces of pots decorated by fire, ash and salt."

Severance's kiln, featuring a 45-cubic-foot chamber, was designed for her by Bill van Gilder, a fellow potter whom she calls "my mentor and colleague." He is a full-time potter who lives in nearby Gapland and has more than 30 years of experience.

Generally, Severance fires her kiln about every five or six weeks after she's finished enough plates, bowls, pitchers and other items to fill the big chamber. It takes several days to carry the work from her two-story stone studio to the kiln and get them stacked just right.

Her husband, Rick Henry, uses big hardwood logs to start a fire in the kiln's preheating chamber, then keeps an eye on the fire, which burns overnight.

"He usually just takes a couple of cigars and a couple of beers down there and has a good time with it," Severance said.

After the preheating, Severance starts the main firebox early in the morning, using an assortment of dry wood her husband has cut to 4-foot lengths. She's usually helped by a friend, as firing the wood kiln is a labor-intensive process that requires adding wood every few minutes. Firings often run 16 hours or more (not counting the preheat) and consume almost a cord of wood.

At one point in the process, she likes to employ a reduction (low oxygen) fire. This creates a reaction with iron oxide in the clay to produce an underlying reddish-brown color.

During the early stages of a firing, the kiln is stirred frequently to send ash swirling through the chamber. The ash comes down on the pots in varying quantities and melts, leaving drip patterns on some surfaces and little or nothing on others. This ash glazing process was discovered by the ancient Chinese.

Near the end of the firing, Severance uses slabs of wood to add table salt (usually about 8 pounds) to the chamber over a period of time. The kiln is stoked to a temperature of almost 2,400 degrees F. Severance says salt glazing is believed to have originated in Germany in the 14th century. The salt vaporizes in the tremendous heat of the kiln and deposits a rich sheen on some pots, while leaving only small deposits on others.

Once the firing is over, it's a matter of waiting for the kiln to cool until the brick "door" can be removed, and the results can be observed. Opening the kiln is an exciting time for Severance as she is never quite certain what she'll get.

The firing cycles and rich earthen tones of much of her work reflect Severance's artistic philosophy.

"As an artist, I feel a strong need for expression, and I express myself or speak through the rhythms of earth, water, air and fire," she said. "I'm drawn to the cycles of wood firing, making pots, decorating and glazing, gathering wood, firing and resting - like the seasons.

"Nature inspires my work and influences the ways I choose to decorate my pottery. I incorporate leaves and seashells as often as I can."

The pottery is produced in the lovely surroundings of Searchwell, Severance's circa 1800 stone home at 18839 Manor Church Road. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was featured in the book, "Architectural and Historical Treasures of Washington County, Maryland," by Patricia Schooley. The house features much of the original chestnut flooring and wood trim. Also intact are several stone outbuildings, including a bake house, a smokehouse and a springhouse.

Severance's studio is located in an exquisite two-story stone structure that once was a cottage for servants. She laughed as she said, "My mother keeps telling me I should make this into a guest cottage for her. I tell her no, it's my studio." The building was renovated to include electricity and baseboard heat.

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