Potter’s Fire

Spotsylvania County resident Charles Shoemake wanted to build a lasting gift to wife Ellen, who is a potter. But as the couple worked on a wood-fired kiln on their farm, his health declined. He passed away in May 2012, the project unfinished.

Ellen Shoemake was determined to see the dream realized. She turned to the University of Mary Washington and Assistant Professor of Art Jon McMillan, an expert in building and firing kilns.

For two semesters, McMillan and a group of his students made trips to the Shoemake farm, contributing countless hours to the project. Through their work, the students learned the principles and practicalities of an ancient method of firing pottery.

At last the kiln was completed and filled with works by McMillan and his students. For research, they tried different combinations of materials – in all, seven kinds of clay and 50 glazes.

For 36 hours in early May, McMillan and students including Christina Bendo ’13, Trey Foster ’13, Anna Moulis ’13, Katie Sleyman ’13, and Michelle Howell ’14 fired the kiln using donated scrap wood from a nearby sawmill. They took turns napping in a garage apartment Ellen Shoemake made available, and they fueled their vigil with generous helpings of her chicken enchiladas and pinto beans.

Days later, they gathered to unload the kiln and admire the finished pottery.

“It’s rare for students to have the opportunity to participate in every aspect of this complex process,” McMillan said. “Their investment of time and effort paid off in an exciting experience, a wealth of knowledge, and some beautiful ceramic art.”


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