Fire of the Kiln
Story and Photographs By Lauren Lipscomb
A Studio session with Stanley Smart and Jeff Purcell
This is part one of a two-part story of Livingston, Montana potters Stanley Smart [of Heart to Hand Creations] and Jeff Purcell [of Purcell Trading]. Much of their minimalistic earthenware is designed with the intention of providing artistically functional homeware. Their work is emboldened by an effort to encourage individuals to connect with local artists and producers, as well as reacquainting ourselves with the quality of items we select for our homes.
The trademark winds of Livingston Montana are at work on this sunlit February afternoon. The car pulls to the curb before the teal stucco home.I’m led through a chainlink fence and directed to the side yard where I am met with the view of Jeff hollering towards the large brick kiln as he passes ceramic pieces to the set of hands and legs extending out from the opening, belonging to whom I can only assume to be Stanley. They are preoccupied by their work of balancing shelves and retrieving the remainder of the batch of raw ceramic pieces for the firing they will begin that evening.
These two men together make quite a motley duo, a mentee and mentor with at least 20 years between them. Jeff is 6 feet tall with a burly frame, full beard, and shaggy long hair that frames wild eyes. He’s dressed in layers of flannel and denim and well traveled boots and a deep boisterous voice. If you are imagining any historical depiction of a mountain man, then you can imagine Jeff Purcell. In contrast, Stan is shorter in height with a stocky build and a face weathered by years as a roofer with glassy, tender eyes. His face adorned with salt and pepper stubble and hints of a once blonde mustache. His expression is serious and gentle, but as Jeff cracks jokes under his breath, Stan laughs with his entire being.
Meghan, Jeff’s wife, begins giving me a tour of the studio and sharing stories of Stan and Jeff’s time working together, of past firing days when they’ve held barbecues for friends to join them during the long hours of feeding the wood burning kiln. As we walk through the studio, which sits at the front of the house (at one time was the entry and sunroom of the house), we are joined by Deborah, Stan’s wife. She talks of the history of their home and the slow development of the studio and of the towering brick kiln connected to the back of the house, adjoining the chimney.
Due to its placement in the neighborhood, the chimney stands tall and clear as day, reaching eyes up to several blocks away; a feature that contributed to much alarm in the beginning days of the kilns use as flames could be seen licking the top edges of the chimney. The kiln is an element of pride and joy as its construction spanned years of collecting bricks here and there until coming to fulfillment through the hand labor of its assembly. It is a beautiful sight. The large boxy structure stands with a rounded cement roof, its frame built from bricks of various coloring of tans and reds, the edges charred from the flames that inhabit its belly. Down at the base, an old farrier’s horseshoe forge blower is connected to stoke the firebox. There is a circular ornament, adorned with a colorful geometric pattern located above the opening of the inner chamber. The placement of the plaque reminds me of a talisman or an ornament of luck and blessings often seen hung on the doorways of homes, as if to honor the creations within.
During our time in the studio, my eyes instantly begin scanning the walls and shelves and tabletops that fill the space. Every inch of the space is fully adorned with mugs, bowls, bits of broken pots, aprons and flannels, glaze brushes, stir sticks, books of stars and the West, power tools, incense, propane tanks, stacks of of Wilcox Ice Cream tubs filled with clay, notebooks, funnels, dish soap and sponges,, a moose antler mount, sketches of cathedrals, reading glasses, and photographs of children and the virgin Mary. All is touched in varying amounts by a soft layer of clay dust. The space is in no way organized to a newcomer's eye, yet everything seems in its place; a beautiful array of chaos, each a piece of a personal collection and a direct representation of its finder.
Once the kiln is filled and in the final stages for beginning the firing, Stan and Jeff join us in the studio to spend some time on the wheel. The energy between the two men is exuberant and joyful as they prepare their spaces, two separate wheels sitting across the doorway from one another. Then at once, as they sit down before the wheel, a stillness falls as they each become absorbed with the task at hand. There may be music playing overhead but the soft whirring of the wheels fills the space with a rhythmic humming as the pace slows or quickens.
Meghan and Deb stand off to the side in silent observation of the work beginning, an act they both seem accustomed to, a tender watchfulness of their partners and the work that unfolds before them.
Occasionally they speak to share of the technique they are using, one which Jeff has learned and been practicing under Stan’s teachings. It is Japanese practice known as ‘throwing off the hump’, a style which allows them to sit down at the wheel with a large, singular mound of clay before them on the wheel, forming and cutting away consecutive pieces from the batch without interruption. It can create for an enhanced rhythm to the throwing process. Since the potter forms pieces upon the mound of clay as opposed to the surface of the wheel, one must learn to create the appropriate pressure to construct a piece with a strong base, as well as learning the process of cutting and removing each piece as you go.
The remainder of the conversation during their time at the wheel is reserved for the cracking of jokes between the two of them. It’s calming just to observe their subtle actions of reaching for the water dish to dampen the sponge, using tools for shaping, the cutting away of a finished piece to begin another, working by memory and skill while being met with inspiration. Once finished, the bowls are moved to the damp box to await a future round of firing.
Stan leads me into the living room of the house to a corner lined with shelves. The shelves are filled from floor to ceiling with Stan’s creations. There are a few Sacajawea’s - a personal favorite of Stan’s - matching the ones in the kiln- as well as bowls and pots of various sizes, dishes, tea pots, and more. Many range in tone and designs as they have been created over his years in the studio.
He pulls out a few select pots to share examples of different techniques and glazes, a collection of favorites. One piece in particular, a medium sized pot with pale shades of blue with small iotas of clay placed along the body. The glaze depicts a movement within its design and spectrum of tones. A dark sea-blue band delicately wraps its center. Stan references this as his never-sell piece. The design and execution of this particular piece sits so deep with him that to replicate it would be near impossible.
He pulls one last piece, a small sandy colored bowl. At first glance it appears simply tan, but upon closer observation, pinks and blues and deepening shades of browns, perhaps even purple emerge, softly interwoven within the glaze - a magical chemistry that occurs between the clay and the glaze, determined by the heat of the kiln and the time for which it is exposed to that heat. Stan insists that I hold it, feel its weight with my own hands. I am surprised at its light weight, though I'm told its durable structure is sound enough for even the microwave and dishwasher. It's even soft to the touch. He describes to me about how each piece becomes connected with its future owners in a very personable, interactive manner. Someone could be passing by at a market, only to become entranced by a specific bowl or tea pot, even if it looks similar to the ones around it. And when you hold it in your hands, feeling how it fits within your grasp, you will know. It's as if that piece was meant just for you.
For Stan and Jeff, their work often takes them down different paths once it leaves the studio. They each pursue their own routes of teaching and distributing their work through craft fairs, artist walks or a select number of local brick and mortars in the Livingston and Bozeman region. Regardless of these separate endeavors, they are both met with the support of a large creative community that encourages the development and and growth of its local artists and entrepreneurs. It is through these outlets that their coming together even occurred in the first place. They both share a deep sense of gratitude to this local community and in turn strive to contribute their own efforts and energy into sustaining its well-being.
It is an endearing dynamic these two men share as mentor and mentee and friend. Though the both pursue diverse paths within their craft, their time in the studio together undoubtedly expands and absorbs the energy and perspective they receive from one another, influencing what their work has and will become. It is rare to find partners of this nature within the creative world, working closely under the same roof, cultivating the same medium. It is often a solo pursuit of dwelling over questions or obstacles, pulling inspiration from the self. But it is noteworthy to witness the give and take of a collaborative environment, one that will ultimately accelerate the growth of each of these artisans on their individual pursuits.
"There is almost unlimited possibilities with the glaze chemistry and different firing processes. For me it heals my soul in ways that other art doesn’t. It’s very hands-on."
(an excerpt from our coming interview)
Stay tuned for more of Stan and Jeff's thoughts and experiences within their craft in an interview coming soon.
You can find more of Jeff Purcell's work at Purcell Trading's online shop here and see updates on available pieces through their instagram @purcelltrading. You can also find a limited selection of pieces through Cactus Blossom Collective in Livingston, Mt and Wilder Goods in Bozeman, Mt.
Stanley Smart can be contacted through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.