Barry McNamara  |   Published June 04, 2021

Art at 3,000 Degrees

Recent grads Dawson, Quick ‘feed the beast’ at Adamah Clay Studios in Wisconsin, accompanied by art professor Janis Wunderlich.

HOT STUFF: Some of the finished pieces from the wood firing in Wisconsin. HOT STUFF: Some of the finished pieces from the wood firing in Wisconsin.MONMOUTH, Ill. – Having the Memorial Day holiday in the rearview means that temperatures in west central Illinois are sure to be on the rise.

But for two Monmouth College students, a “real feel” over the century mark won’t be all that bad. Ryan Dawson and Rebecca Quick recently participated in a project where the temperature reached well into four digits.

The May graduates took part in a wood-salt firing workshop led by Monmouth alumnus Gary Carstens ’77. The workshop was held at Adamah Clay Studios in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, which has a catenary-arch wood-salt kiln that can hold up to 700 ceramic pots in each firing. Accompanying the two art majors at the three-day event was Monmouth art professor Janis Mars Wunderlich.

“The workshop began with a full day of loading,” said Wunderlich. “It took an entire day for participants to load nearly 600 works of ceramic art into the kiln.”

COLLEGE'S CLAY QUARTET: In Wisconsin, Gary Carstens '77 (seated) welcomed, from left, Reb... COLLEGE'S CLAY QUARTET: In Wisconsin, Gary Carstens '77 (seated) welcomed, from left, Rebecca Quick '21, art professor Janis Wunderlich and Ryan Dawson '21.Because wood ash and sodium from salt is inserted into the kiln’s atmosphere during the firing process, the entire surface of the kiln, including walls and shelves, gets a glassy finish. Therefore, said Wunderlich, every item going into the kiln must be “wadded,” using a refractory material to keep the ceramic works from sticking to the shelves.

“The wood and salt fumes, combined with a reduction atmosphere in the kiln, cause a beautiful, varied and somewhat unpredictable glaze surface,” she said. “Glaze results can include lovely flashes of color, ‘orange peel’ texture and crystalline formations on the surface.”


Working the night shift

Quick and Dawson assisted with loading and stoking the kiln – “feeding the beast” – as its temperature rose to over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit in the 30-hour firing.

“It is a very hands-on, problem-solving experience because there are many small adjustments that must be made in order to reach the desired temperature and have an even firing.” Janis Wunderlich


“Ryan and I signed up for the 1 to 9 a.m. shift and got the fun time of talking throughout the night to stay awake,” said Quick. “We ended up sticking it out for a few more hours than anticipated because one section of the kiln wasn’t reaching 3,000 degrees. When that cone pack finally reached cone 10, we called it quits and stoked the fire one last time before throwing salt into it. When that happened, fire was shooting out of the peeps like no other and we had to evacuate to avoid the chemical inhalation.”

Wunderlich said the firing process calls for constant attention and revision.

“Gary expertly guided participants through the process of firing this large, fully manual kiln, which included constant stoking, adjustment of air dampers and manually checking the temperature,” said Wunderlich. “It is a very hands-on, problem-solving experience because there are many small adjustments that must be made in order to reach the desired temperature and have an even firing.”

“I didn’t realize what Janis was getting me into, but I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my weekend doing anything else. Overall, it was a blast, and I would love to do it again in the fall.” Rebecca Quick


While only two Monmouth students were able to participate in person, several other students in Wunderlich’s 200-level ceramics class sent their pots to be fired in the kiln. In all, Monmouth students had nearly 200 pots in the firing. Wunderlich said the results “were absolutely stunning.”

Quick called the firing “a phenomenal experience.”

“I didn’t realize what Janis was getting me into, but I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my weekend doing anything else,” said Quick. “Overall, it was a blast, and I would love to do it again in the fall.”

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