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From Ashes to Brilliance
by Dee Axelrod, Contributing Writer
Bainbridge Island Review, December 18, 2004
The artifacts and oddments on walls and in corners of an artist’s studio are often clues to the sensibility.
A favorite photo torn from a magazine, a stone, a shell – the objects that mean enough to hold a place of honor on a windowsill sometimes point the way into the body of work.
For island artist Jenny Andersen, whose ceramic vessels and sculptures are on view at the Island Gallery this month, the primary artifact is a photograph of a Mexican potter.
In the picture, Juan Quesada kneels before a tin pail that doubles as his kiln. The upended bucket reveals the rounded contours of the pot inside, exquisitely inscribed and burnished in southwest Native style.
“He’s firing his beautiful pot that he dug the clay for, glazes with the pigments just around his place, in a bucket, “ Andersen said. “He’s been my inspiration because look what he does with nothing.
“There’s so much that you can gather from your environment and use. You don’t have to have a lot of money and equipment. If you really want to work, you can work.”
For years, Andersen threw pots and hand-built forms without a studio or high-tech kiln, looking to the natural world for materials. Wrapped in seaweed, they might be fired in a garbage can, but the results were visually sophisticated forms that leaned to closed vessels, chests with lids, and sensitively rendered wildlife.
Born on Vashon Island, Andersen studied art at Seattle’s Cornish College in the late 1960s, but says her real education began after school.
“I don’t think anybody really knows anything about art until they start really doing it on their own,” she said. “Most of what I do now I taught myself. But I’ve been at it a long time, like 35 years.”
While she raised a family, Andersen worked in the basement – the children’s footsteps overhead a distraction. Now, she has her own south Bainbridge studio but fires her ceramics in Seabeck, sharing a wood kiln with like-minded potters.
Their Santatsugama Three Dragon Wood Fire Kiln is a traditional anagama kiln, from a process developed in Japan.
The Santatsugama is fired about four times a year, a process that demands a week-long marathon by about eight potters; working in tandem, they stoke the fire to the 2300 degrees Fahrenheit needed to bring the clay to the stone-like density of the finished product.
The kiln features an 18-foot long tunnel with a firebox at one end and a chimney at the other. Construction of the kiln took two years, and the current show marks the 31st firing – a process that depends on teamwork.
“I enjoy the wood fire,” Andersen said. “It’s like a team sport for potters…you have to chop seven cords of wood and you have to feed one another. You sleep there and you eat together and you just do everything together for a week.”
The ash flying around inside the kiln forms the natural glaze for the finished pieces. When the pots get hot enough, the ash sticks, forming earth tones that follow the form. But the ash also tends to make pots stick to surfaces, and the vessels may distort in the high heat sustained over the days of firing.
Andersen says it took her several attempts to get good results. Today, she produces elegant, clean forms, works often inspired by architecture.
Her standards are high; potters will often break substandard works, but Andersen doesn’t just destroy malformed vessels; she disposes of ones that are technically perfect but lack personality.
“I’m not interested in making just a clay pot,” she said. “I’d rather have something that reflects the joy I have in making it, for one thing, and where the geometry and the volume and line all come together to make it something that has presence.”