Photos by Marlena Sloss
Monte Young stands at a table in his 30-by-40-foot home studio and carefully inspects each piece. “A,” he says about one piece of pottery. Another, “C.”
“Two firings ago was a lot better,” the 57-year-old Jasper potter says. “This one was OK.”
Monte measured the width of a teapot in order to make the correct-sized lid at his studio on March 8.
It was Feb. 15, five days after firing his latest round of pottery in his wood-fired kiln — the ninth firing since he built the oven. This time, one side of the kiln didn’t get hot enough.
“There’s some real stunners in there,” he says, “but some pieces didn’t get hot enough to melt.”
When the kiln — basically, a brick oven powered by wood — is fired, Monte says the ash from burning wood is blown onto the pottery and becomes silica, which turns to glass. That glass sticks to the pottery and melts, self-decorating the pots.
Monte calls the firing process in a wood-fired kiln “uncontrollable control.”
While he can put as much artistic flair as he can into constructing his clay pieces, mixing the glazes, and feeding and stoking the wood-fired kiln, ultimately, the kiln decides each piece’s fate.
The number of pieces and their placement in the kiln matters, as does how hot the inside of the kiln gets and how long it stays at that temperature.
“If you think you’ve made the best pot of your life, don’t put it in a wood kiln,” Monte warns.
Monte had the kiln built in 2013, shortly after he and his wife, Julie, moved back to Dubois County. The couple lived in Jasper from 2000 to 2006 before moving for professional reasons.
Monte worked on the potter’s wheel in his home studio March 8. For Monte, creating pieces on the wheel is second nature. “It’s so subconscious — making pots. It’s what I do,” he said.
They moved back to Jasper because their daughter — the Youngs have three children — and five of their six grandchildren (their seventh is on the way) still live there.
Moving back also finally gave Monte the chance to build his own wood-fired kiln.
“I could never build a wood kiln because we couldn’t move it,” Monte said, adding that he and his wife have moved seven times and have lived in four states during their 20 years of marriage. Monte works as a sales representative for Mid Continent Cabinetry, a brand whose manufacturer, Norcraft Companies, was acquired by MasterBrand in 2015.
Monte has always had his own electric kiln and fired pots in fellow potters’ wood-fired kilns when given the opportunity.
“It just gives them (pots) more character,” he said.
His 8-foot-tall, wood-fired kiln — a cross-draft kiln designed and built by a potter in Kentucky — sits under a shelter in the side yard of Monte’s Jasper home. It was constructed with nearly 3,000 bricks and the inside is 60 cubic feet.
Monte allowed his granddaughter, Clara Letterman of Jasper, 7, to use the blow torch to help dry the roof of her clay house in order to hold its shape March 19. “When they’re out here on weekends, the first thing out of (Clara’s) mouth is, ‘Can we make pots?’” Monte said.
Monte fires it several times every year; the February firing was the first of at least three firings planned for 2018. Last year, he fired it four times.
Monte first took an interest in pottery when he was 13 and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in ceramics with a pottery emphasis from the University of Northern Iowa in 1984. He got his start as a production potter making about 200 wheel-thrown pots — pots created on a potter’s wheel — per week for a potter in Iowa.
Creating pots for a living was Monte’s full-time job until his first child was born (with his first wife) and he started working in factories to support his family.
“Being a potter is a great life as long as you don’t need anything,” he says with a chuckle.
Monte placed a ball of wet clay to hold the next shelf in place as he loaded his wood-fired kiln Feb. 8. Loading the kiln with the 200 pieces of pottery took the group of three potters 15 hours, and involved elevating each piece of pottery on small bits of clay in order for the bottom to be fired.
Ever since, pottery’s been his hobby. He creates 600-700 pieces a year, and while he keeps one for himself every once in awhile, he sells a majority of them by word of mouth, at fairs in Indianapolis and Louisville, as MYPOTTERY79 on the online marketplace Etsy and at Elements in downtown Jasper.
He has clay trucked in by the half-ton every six months or so from Continental Clay in Minneapolis and about 90 percent of his pieces are made on a potter’s wheel in his basement studio.
Most of his pots are now fired in his wood-fired kiln. He fell in love with wood-firing when he attended his first one sometime in the 1980s.
Now, with his own kiln, it’s all he wants to do.
After creating his pieces on the wheel, he fires them in his electric kiln during what is called the bisque fire — the first firing at a lower temperature to make the pieces less fragile for glazing.
The glazing is a whole other process for Monte. He makes his own glazes out of chemicals like silica, talc, kaolin, flint and yellow ochre. He experiments with different colors and textures and has all of his recipes organized in a binder.
After pieces are glazed, they’re ready for the wood-fired kiln.
During the 48-hour firing of the wood-fired kiln, wood must be added to the fire every 5 minutes, meaning Monte and fellow potters Bob Brehmer of Lebanon, right, and Matt Choi of Louisville, Ky., took shifts, even feeding the fire during the night. For their own fuel, Monte prepared for lunch a homemade pizza in the brick pizza oven attached to the kiln on Feb. 9. With multiple potters working together, “it’s truly a community,” Monte said.
Monte spent about 15 hours over the course of three days loading the kiln and getting everything situated just right for the mid-February firing. He had about 150 of his own pieces in the kiln. Louisville-based student and potter Matt Choi, whom Monte met at a wood-firing in Kentucky, also had some pieces in the kiln, as did potter Bob Brehmer of Lebanon and Boonville High School art teacher and Jasper native Luke Verkamp — bringing the total number of pieces inside the kiln to about 200. Monte doesn’t charge fellow potters who fire pieces in his kiln, although some potters with wood-fired kilns do.
With the kiln loaded, it’s time for firing — a 48-hour, around-the-clock affair.
They fired up the kiln on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 8, and it had to be stoked every 5 minutes to ensure the temperature continued to increase. The goal was to ultimately get the temperature to about 2,250 degrees Fahrenheit. The February firing got to about 2,225 degrees; however, the heat didn’t distribute even enough.
“It’s playing with air and how fast you stoke it,” Monte says. “It’s an observation and a dance.”
Choi came to Jasper to help with the firing. Dubbed the young guy, he stayed up and stoked the kiln and fed it wood throughout the night (Monte had hauled in about five pickup truck loads of wood). Brehmer also came to help with the firing for a bit; Monte hadn’t seen him since their days as production potters.
“He hasn’t changed a lick,” Monte says.
The men fired the kiln until Saturday evening. While tending to the kiln, they were able to catch up and talk about their work. Music blared in the background.
Friday afternoon, they ate homemade pizza made in the brick pizza oven attached to the wood-fired kiln.
“It’s truly a community thing,” Monte says of wood-firing pots.
Unsatisfied with the results of the firing, Monte unloaded the wood-fired kiln on Feb. 15. “It’s part of the process to be unsatisfied with my work,” he said. He feels this way after every kiln firing, but after a few days, starts to feel it’s the best firing he’s had. The wood-fired kiln did not reach a hot enough temperature during the 48-hour firing in February, so the glaze on many pieces did not completely melt and Monte had to refire them in his electric kiln.
After the firing ended Saturday evening, the kiln had to cool for a few days. Monte and Matt opened it the following Thursday, which is when they found that some of the pieces didn’t get hot enough for the unique, wood-fired designs to form.
“Almost every wood-firing, people unload it and aren’t impressed,” Monte said at the time. “But then you live with it for a while.”
Because some of the pieces didn’t get hot enough, Monte had some additional work to do. He then spent about two weeks refiring them in his electric kiln “to run them up to temperature,” cleaning the pieces and hand-sanding them.
After the extra work, he was impressed with the batch and said “it’s probably my best kiln.”
He describes his work as traditional. A lot of today’s younger potters go for “funky and weird,” he says. When his pieces start to stray that way, he takes a step back.
“Those guys are trying to make a mark,” he says. “I’m trying to make pots.”
He’s inspired by North Carolina and Japanese artists and wants to make functional pots that people can use every day — like platters and mugs and plates. And for that reason, he doesn’t call his work art (except for the trays he makes).
“In my mind, I think of art as being totally creative, where(as) I’m trying to carry on a tradition,” Monte says, “the tradition of functional pottery to be used in people’s daily lives.”