Body of Clay, Soul of Fire:
Richard Bresnahan and Art from the Saint John's Pottery
November 12, 2002 - January 12, 2003
Bresnahan designed the kiln and named it in honor of his mentor, Sister Johanna Becker, a distinguished scholar of Japanese art who taught at Saint John's. The kiln was completed in October 1994 with the help of thirty volunteers. A massive noborigama (climbing kiln), the eighty-seven-foot-long brick structure consists of a front fire chamber, a glaze chamber, a Tanegashima chamber with nine pairs of stoking portals, a long subterranean flue, and a chimney. With more than 1,600 cubic feet of interior space, it is the largest wood-burning kiln in North America. Because its immense interior can accommodate a vast quantity of pottery and sculpture, Bresnahan encourages his apprentices and visiting artists to produce objects for the kiln's annual firing. This dramatic event also attracts potters from across the country who work alongside the local volunteers to "feed the dragon" around-the-clock for ten days, using some thirty tons of deadfall and waste wood to reach and maintain internal kiln temperatures of 2500º Fahrenheit. The natural ash glazes and dramatic surfaces of the pottery and sculpture in this exhibition reveal the unique effects of firing in this age-old manner.
Soon after establishing the pottery at St. John's University in 1979, Bresnahan began accepting apprentices. Like his Japanese master, he demands that his apprentices be totally committed to the studio. He expects them to work long hours, six days a week, and requires that, in addition to working on their own projects, part of each day be spent on such mundane duties as preparing clay and glazes. Such activities, he believes, can become ritualistic actions that help center the potter and provide a consistent framework for the workday. Bresnahan also believes that by processing raw materials, the apprentices will develop an understanding of tsuchiagi, or the "clay taste" so important to Japanese potters. The ultimate goal of the apprenticeship program is to provide aspiring potters with the necessary skills to establish their own studios and make a living by their craft. Since 1982, the Grotto Foundation, a charitable organization in St. Paul, Minnesota, has provided financial assistance to more than thirty apprentices. The works of twelve Grotto recipients were included in this exhibition.