The king of kilns sits regally among the others on the grounds of the St. Petersburg Clay Company. The tunnel-like edifice is the largest "anagama" kiln in the Southeast. Modeled after 16th-century Japanese kilns, it can hold 600 pieces of pottery. Firing up the king is quite an event; it happens but once a year.
About 50 yards away stands the St. Pete Clay building, about a mile southwest of downtown, made of deep red brick and trimmed in drab green. Opened in 1926 as the Seaboard Train Depot, its 33,000 square feet house everything a clay artist could desire: studios, wheels, kilns, retail space, even a fully stocked pottery supply shop. Everywhere you look there are bowls and kettles and decorative vases, including a brightly colored foot-long lizard.
St. Pete Clay was the brainchild of three artists - Charlie Parker, Stan Cowan and Russ Gustavson-Hilton (since replaced by Sean Manning) - who initially wanted to establish a small potters' colony. They opened a place on 16th Street in 1996 and outgrew it four years later. The current headquarters opened in 2002. At any given time, 50 to 60 clay artists rent space in the building, paying from $85-$200 a month. They create pieces and sell them at St. Pete Clay (which takes 30 percent of the price).
Parker says he never expected the business to get so huge. "I just wanted to set up a place where other people would pay for my studio," he says. "The business side was taking up too much time, so we hired a manager, and now I'm back doing what I want to do - making art."
Additionally, St. Pete Clay Company has six artists in residence. "We look for people with fine arts degrees," says marketing director Jennifer Lachtara, herself a former artist in residence. "They work for the Clay Company one to two days a week, handling building operations, firing kilns and that sort of thing. In return, they get to work on their art and make money selling pieces."
Jason Snelson wanders by. Wearing a T-shirt and knit wool cap on an unseasonably cool mid-April day, the resident artist, a University of North Texas graduate, has an engaging grin and easy manner. He prefers to make functional pottery over sculptures, and uses the wood kilns rather than the electric or natural gas ones. Snelson sells pieces at the Clay Company, and also has a gallery in his home state of Texas bugging him to send works. "I get a check from them every month," he says. "It might be $30, it might be $300." Between selling art and teaching, he manages to eke out a living without having to wait tables at Applebees.
Snelson spends a fair amount of time in the outdoor kiln area, where each kiln - salt, soda, raku, wood - can lend pottery a different patina. And there's the anagama kiln, the king.
Lachtara says that this year's firing will likely take place in late July or early August (as if it won't be hot enough already). The nearby woodshed will be filled with split logs. After the pottery is placed inside, a crew will start by building a small "campfire" in the firebox near the entrance. Over the course of about three days, the fire will grow on a steady diet of wood. When the embers get about three feet high, the kiln crew will brick the entrance closed.
Working in four-hour shifts, they'll constantly monitor the blaze, feeding wood through holes in the front and sides. The process is a nonstop hive of activity: People chop wood, transport it, load it into the kiln. Lachtara worked one firing and said she had to drop in logs about every two minutes.
The anagama eventually becomes a full-on inferno, with air pushing flames through the tunnel. Nearby motorists might see smoke coming out of the stack and perhaps a bit of "foxtail flame." The blaze will reach a white-hot 2,400 degrees. After hitting that pinnacle, the firing will begin to shut down. The entire process takes 7-8 days.
The artists place their pieces at different distances from the anagama's fire in hopes of getting a particular effect. But it's an inexact technique, so pulling newly fired pieces from the king of kilns can offer surprises. "Whenever we open the anagama kiln," Lachtara says, "It's like Christmas morning."
< i>St. Petersburg Clay Company, 420 22nd St. S., St. Petersburg, 727-896-2529, www.stpeteclay.com. Open to the public. Tours available by appointment. Hours: Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.