Fred Olsen

Fired-In-Place Kiln/Sculpture

Saddleback College, Mission Viejo, California

April 23-29, 2001

This project grew out of previous collaborations between California artist and kiln-builder Fred Olsen and large-scale sculpture artist Nina Hole of Denmark. The plan was to create a sixteen-foot long kiln/sculpture using a double-walled clay construction method. The sculpture was constructed on-site in the form of a twin-fire, downdraft kiln, to be later re-assembled as two eight-foot high standing sculptures. This is the first time such a kiln has been constructed, and the first time Fred has fired a kiln-load of work within one of his sculptures.

The project began by leveling the site, laying the firebrick foundation and digging the ash pits and trough for the downdraft chimneys. Fred designed caternary arch forms for the kiln sections, and construction was started with the center two sections.

The slab construction method used provides a double-walled structure with openings and channels throughout, to aid in drying and firing evenly. This was accomplished by forming 6" slabs 10"-12" long into a "J" shape, and stacking them on edge along the length of each section. After completion of one row, the following row is stacked in the opposite direction so that an open cylindrical channel is created to run the span of the arch.

Volunteers enthusiastically built the sides of each section, but as the two walls reached their meeting point a silent changing of the guard took place, and it was Fred and Nina who built the top section of each arch. At times it seemed they were hand-making twisted, convoluted pieces to repair an incomplete puzzle.

As the two center sections were being built on the ground, the fireboxes were being built on nearby tables. These needed to be built as early as possible to allow them to dry completely before the firing. As this structure would be fired green, slow steady drying was critical.

As each section was completed, the templates were removed, and the inside glaze was applied. Two cone five glazes were sprayed and splattered on the inside of the kiln, to provide a finish for the sculptural context of the piece once it was fired and re-assembled. After the glaze application, students began stacking the work inside the kiln, continuing to glaze and stack each section until complete.

The kiln was candled with a tiny fire just outside each firebox overnight to aid drying, and in the morning the entire kiln was wrapped in ceramic fiber. The kiln was stoked slowly throughout the day, still keeping the fire mostly within the fireboxes. By early afternoon, stoking was increased in amount and interval, and the kiln was brought up to temperature.

While we were heading for cone 5-10, poor cone placement and a poorly timed, intrusive photo shoot caused an erroneous judgement of temperature and over-stoking, leading to a stalled firing before reaching temperature. Of course, all this is hindsight, as all looked like it was going well at the time.

As the kiln was opened 2 days later, oohs and aahs abounded at the colors and textures achieved, both in the kiln and on it. While work near the center of the kiln did not mature, both ends produced several very nice pieces, about 1/3 of the way into the kiln on both ends. All in all it was a wonderful experience, an exciting experiment, and a pleasure to work alongside Fred and Nina as they created this fascinating kiln from start to finish. It was unanimous among the students that we'd all love to do this again next year.

Facts of the project are as follows:

2 1/2 tons of clay extruded, scored, slipped and sealed into place.

Over 50 volunteers from the Saddleback College ceramics department students and faculty, plus several visiting artists, students and faculty from neighboring colleges and universities.

Number of people on site during initial lighting: 4

Number of people on site as the kiln breathed fire the following night: 50+