On a rainy morning in early July, gallery director Mara Baldwin and I had just arrived to the home of potter Julie Crosby. Located only a short drive outside of Ithaca in the town of Mecklenburg. Crosby’s studio and kiln is situated on one acre of land amidst corn fields against a distant line of trees.
After greeting us Julie introduced us first to her hand constructed kiln, built ten years ago with a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Each year Crosby invites a few potter friends to help fire the kiln. In exchange for space in the kiln, they help with all aspects of labor, including wood preparation, stoking the kiln around the clock, and clean up afterward.
Her kiln is a magnificent piece of work in and of itself. The kiln is called a Bourry Box wood-fired kiln.The tall chimney stands about fifteen feet high, protruding though the open structure that protects the rest of the kiln from the elements. It is designed to efficiently burn the wood while allowing the flame and ash to travel through the ware chamber. It is based on the design originally made by the Frenchman Emile Bourry in 1911. Many versions of this design exist throughout the world today. About two cord of wood per firing get used helping the kiln reach a temperature of about 2400 degrees, during the 35 hour firing. It takes a wealth of knowledge and skill to operate the kiln. From finding the right placement of unfired ceramic objects to maintaining the proper temperature. “The flame finds different paths through the kiln depending on where you placed the objects.’ Explains Crosby “This leaves different markings on the objects.” This variability is why Crosby chooses to use a wood kiln as opposed to an electric kiln.
Variability is ever-present in her work. After showing us the intricacies of the kiln Crosby lead us into her studio space, a small renovated barn with yellow paint and green trim. Inside, the walls are clad with pottery stacked shelves; some of the pieces are finished works and others are at various stages in their evolution to completion. She lifts up a large round bowl and shows us the middle, which is speckled with beautiful goldenrod colors. Crosby explains these irregularities as the result of how ash leaves beautiful markings while other times it can be too much or different from what she had hoped for. Another variable that can affect the work is the presence of salt in the kiln. The salt leaves a polished glassy look to parts of the objects. In addition to the ash and salt leaving its mark the flame leaves beautiful charred lines across the work. As the flame travels around the kiln during the firing it darkens the edges and side of bowls and cups leaving only a ghostly outline of the objects that were around it.
Crosby sees all of these elements as a key part to understanding her work and its integral relationship with her home life. She picks up one of the mugs off the bottom shelf of a rack of finished works and traces the design with her finger “This reflects the land out there” she points through a large window out to a cornfield that sits behind her studio. During the spring you can see the different plots of land sectioned off as different crops begin to grow, giving large blocks of greens and browns that you can see her work.
Crosby’s family also plays a role in her work. Her husband is a contractor and helped renovate the barn to be her studio space. Additionally his flexibility in work lets her travel to craft shows and other events to show her work. Towards the end of the visit we were greeted by Crosby’s daughter, and active participant and collaborator in her mother’s studio. Crosby wants her daughter to see her process so that she understands the time being put into the work and the different ways of gauging labor, values, aesthetics, and time.
In this way, Julie Crosby blends and subverts the spaces of work and home. Her studio practice operates around the structure of her daily life, and likewise aspects of home life become elemental to her pottery. The variables of Crosby’s home life culminate in her work as a cooperative component to the randomness of the flame and ash in the kiln.
Thanks to Julie Crosby for hosting our visit to her studio. Check out more of her work here.