When experienced potter and artist Sandy Early of Hoquiam decided to take a break from teaching pottery, she was thrilled when award-winning potter John Benn answered the call. “I have been teaching for 30 years,” Early says. “I wanted to take the summer off to work in my studio and so I placed an ad. … I was very happy when John Benn responded and agreed to teach at the guild during the summer. We are now also talking about fall.”

The Grays Harbor Potters Guild, which opened its doors in November 2020 at 2222 Simpson Ave. in Hoquiam, began with a group of potters from Studio 6 of the North Beach Artists Guild in Ocean Shores. These artists formed their new non-profit in the more central Hoquiam location to open a gallery and to focus on teaching.  Early taught the first set of “Pottery 4 All” classes. John Benn demonstrating a technique to students in a class at the Grays Harbor Potters Guild in Hoquiam. (Photo By Christine Vincent)

John Benn demonstrating a technique to students in a class at the Grays Harbor Potters Guild in Hoquiam. (Photo By Christine Vincent)

She is excited that Harborites have had the opportunity to take the newly named “Clay 4 All” class from Benn, a ceramic artist and potter whose remarkable work has been featured in national and international exhibitions and books. An adjunct professor of ceramics, drawing, painting and design at Olympic College in Bremerton, Benn’s pots are highly sought after by collectors. Teaching pottery online because of Covid-19 hasn’t been easy, Benn says, noting how much he misses the personal contact with his students. That’s why the opportunity to teach face-to-face in the guild studio has been especially rewarding.

Benn is known for his wood-fired pottery which receives its complex beauty from the firing process. In the studio of the Grays Harbor Potters Guild, he teaches the basics of shaping clay and glazing, which precede any kind of firing technique. While learning to wheel-throw or hand-build their pieces, students are exposed to their teacher’s vast knowledge and love of pottery history and philosophy. In the guild studio, the students work is fired in a brand-new electric kiln purchased with a grant from the Grays Harbor Community Foundation.

While his specialty of wood-fired pottery is mind-blowingly complex, Benn waves his arm around the guild studio: “(Creating pottery) can be very simple.  Here, it is all about the students. They can do whatever they like starting with very simple shapes fired in the electric kiln.” Benn is married to Colleen Gallagher, an award-winning ceramic artist, who is a professor of art at South Sound Community College in Olympia. Together, they have built their lives around the two great wood-fire kilns that Benn has constructed in a former boat shed on their Harstine Island property.

Benn with a student in the class in Hoquiam. (Photo By Christine Vincent)

“Here, in the guild’s studio, we place the pot in the electric kiln and the work is done,” he says. “With wood-fired pottery, the hard work begins with placing the pots in the kiln.” Benn uses a beautiful figure of speech: “I paint with fire.”

An electric kiln is used at the Grays Harbor Potters Guild. (Photo By Christine Vincent)

In imitation of the ancients, Benn creates large round-bellied vases, a foot or more in diameter, with stunningly complex surfaces. Gazing at them, one discovers entire universes of colors, textures and shapes, often mirroring the seashore from which they received much of their beauty. Amazingly, these pots have never been touched by the artist’s brush. They have been truly painted with fire!

Then comes the wood – a lot of wood! Benn and Gallagher own a wood splitter, which is very much needed, considering that it takes eight cords to stoke their 25-foot, two-chambered kiln. The couple has named the enormous wood stack, which occupies a large area of their workshop and their lives, the Wood Palace.

It takes a week to get the large kiln up to firing temperature of 2300 F.  Then, to maintain this heat level, a bundle of wood needs to be added to the fire every three to five minutes! The kiln requires constant attention. Benn and Gallagher have assembled a reliable firing crew for this task. Not surprisingly, the kilns are only fired three to four times each year and always in the winter because of the fire danger.

Wood-fired pottery is a community effort by people who are willing to dedicate a lot of time to serving the fire.  Wood-fired pots cannot be made in isolation, nor can the process be controlled. Unlike factory-made pottery, the finished pieces are alive with the labor of the potters and their crew in their interaction with the forces of nature.

An electric kiln is used at the Grays Harbor Potters Guild. (Photo By Christine Vincent)

Different trees draw different kinds of minerals from the soil which are vaporized in the extreme heat of the kiln creating patina on the clay surfaces. The wood ash settles on the pots creating colored glazes. Benn and Gallagher use only dead wood from their land. Occasionally, neighbors donate different types of wood for the potters to play with.

Japanese tradition is particularly focused on the appreciation of wood-fired pottery. It became popular in the United States when American soldiers saw and loved Japanese pots in World War II and brought the techniques home with them. In Japan, pottery pieces are valued for the way in which they engage the senses and induce mindfulness.

Benn explains the irregular shape and texture of a “chawan,” a tea bowl, used in the ritual tea ceremony.

“Not only the look is important; the feel of the uneven lip, which I allow to form naturally, draws attention. Even the sound created by the shape of the bowl is important.”

The Grays Harbor Potters Guild is currently offering the opportunity to study ceramic arts with John Benn at the beginner and intermediate levels. Register at GraysHarborPottersGuild.com. 

Pottery by John Benn and Colleen Gallagher is currently on exhibit at Childhood’s End Gallery in Olympia. Visit their website to see photos of their pottery and of the kilns:

John Benn and Colleen Gallagher: Woodfired Pottery.  http://benngallagher.com