Gearing up for this weekend’s Hilltown 6 Pottery Tour in Western Massachusetts, Robbie Heidinger fired up her kiln at about 5 Monday afternoon and took a break this morning to talk about the tour and her art.
“I woke up at 3 this morning and will fire till 10 or 11 tonight,” said Robbie, a former ceramics instructor at UConn who moved from Chaplin, Conn., to Westhampton, Mass., about a decade ago.
“We all use very complex firing processes,” she said, explaining that firing is typically a four-day process and she has to constantly regulate the flame and the quality of the heat. She uses propane as a heat source, but also keeps shoving wood into the giant, walk-in kiln she hand-built with bricks she’d brought with her from Connecticut.
“What you get with wood — and I fire with baking soda — you get this sort of glow and a varied surface that is affected by the way the flame hits the pot. … The fire is like a ribbon that winds around the pot. It’s very mysterious, but there is a little bit of control that you have. It’s half science, half luck.”
In the final three or four hours of firing, when the temperature is at its hottest, she spays dissolved baking soda into the kiln at 20-minute intervals, using a garden sprayer.
“The soda creates a little explosion, and because of the heat it gets pushed around the kiln and lands on the pots and becomes glass on the clay surface. Some [pots] get more soda, some less.”
Each July Robbie and now eight other nationally recognized potters based in the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts open their studios for the coordinated Hilltown 6 Pottery Tour.
“Potters tend to thrive in secret hollows and on quirky hilltops,” she says.
“The tour is a great way to get out into some lovely back country… and experience the fascinating settings where the potters work.”
The southernmost studios on the tour are just west of Northampton: Robbie’s studio at 1 Stage Road in Westhampton is fairly close to Sam Taylor’s, at 35 Perry Hill Road Ext., where Michael McCarthy also will display his work. “We’ve created little clusters,” Robbie said.
Northwest of those three are Hiroshi Nakayama and Mark Shapiro, both in Worthington.
Farther north are Constance Talbot in Windsor, Eric Smith and Christy Knox at their studios in Cummington, and Maya Machin up in Ashfield, not far from Elmer’s Store. Most studios are also hosting work of other guest potters and artists.
Everyone is going to be demonstrating their techniques and tools, Robbie said — though not firing; it’s too hot. The tour attracts a lot of art students, she added; “We get a lot of questions.”
Robbie, who says she used to be a dancer, is also a “huge gardener,” and both of those pursuits come through in her “Martha Graham” series — vessels about a foot and a half high that evoke stylized plant forms and also dancers stretching inside their leotards. There’s tension in the skin of a pot, which she says reminds her of that moment of potential, when a plant comes “busting out of the earth.”
“Dancers have that musculature; you see it sort of flexing,” she said. “It inspires me, certainly the way I handle the clay.”
Robbie says pottery tours offer visitors context, personal connection and participation in a local way that re-frames consumerism and reverberates with such movements as “buy local,” “slow food” and “farm to table.”
“If you value putting locally produced food on your table, why not serve it on locally made plates, bowls and platters? We feel using handmade dishes brings art into the daily experience of food preparation and eating.”
For a map of the pottery studios, a schedule of demonstrations and more about each artist, go to www.hilltown6.com.
PHOTOS, FROM TOP: Robbie Heidinger works in her Westhampton kiln; pottery with monoprinting technique by Robbie Heidinger; vase by Michael McCarthy; pair of pitchers by Mark Shapiro; bowl by Eric Smith; “Martha Graham” vessels by Robbie Heidinger. BELOW: Maya Machin’s barn.