October 30, 2014 | Grace Ruiter

Anna Greidanus's ceramic bowl is the centerpiece in a national ad campaign for Geil Kilns.

Transformation by fire is a common literary metaphor, but for Calvin art professor Anna Greidanus, it’s also a physical reality. As a ceramic artist, she depends on the refining fire of a kiln to create her art.

“When you are working with ceramic material, it’s quite literally transformed by fire,” Greidanus reflected. “[In addition to ceramics], I teach bookmaking and drawing at Calvin—so l love working on paper, too, but with ceramics there is this amazing process of transformation that has to occur.”

Limited possibilities

However, what Greidanus and her art students can transform with the fire of Calvin’s current kiln, “Big Bertha,” is limited. At over 40 years old, Bertha is outdated, inefficient and worn out, says Greidanus. But Bertha won’t be holding back Greidanus and her students much longer. Calvin is replacing her with a state-of-the-art gas reduction fire kiln. And unlike Big Bertha, it will be technologically advanced, easy-to-use and energy-efficient.

Environmentally-friendly art

Bertha’s lack of energy efficiency played a big part in Greidanus’s decision to start a fund-raising program for a new kiln over five years ago.

“Bertha wasn’t efficient. There’s such a better product out there, and it was high time we embraced it,” Greidanus said. “We are deeply committed to environmental concerns and the idea that, in the ceramics studio, it’s all about recycling and reclaiming. We already recycle everything that doesn’t go into the kiln. Whether it’s sculptural or utilitarian-ware, it is not wasted. I’m excited about the fact that we’re entering a new phase where the kiln will become part of that environmental and energy stewardship.”

New techniques

Also exciting for Greidanus are the new kiln’s computerized temperature and atmospheric controls.

“It is the atmospheric conditions inside the kiln that allow for certain kinds of glaze colors and textures,” she explained. “Since the gas reduction fire kiln will allow for controlling atmospheric conditions, I’ll be able to expand my glaze pallete. My ability to engage students in further developing both blazing and firing techniques will also expand enormously. It will open up possibilities that could never be realized in the old kiln.”

Greidanus got a glimpse of the kind of work that will be possible with the new kiln when she attended a workshop at the invitation of world-renowned ceramic artist Tom Coleman and kiln design engineer, Paul Geil. Geil Kilns, the company building Calvin’s kiln, hosted the workshop at its headquarters in Huntington, California. Greidanus went to it in hopes of learning more about how to operate the computerized control system attached to Calvin’s new kiln.

Sharing her work

Each artist brought a few of their own unglazed pieces with them to the event, glazing the pieces during the day and then loading them into the kiln. Later, the group decided to take a brief look at the progress of the pieces inside the kiln. Greidanus wasn’t there at the time—she had gone to take a few pictures of the facility where Calvin’s kiln was being built. However, one of her pieces made quite an impression on the other artists:

“I came back from the facility, and one of the other artists came up to me and told me, ‘they cracked the kiln door open, and we saw one of your pieces. It’s amazing.’ When Tom Colman took the piece out, he said to the other artists, ‘this is one of the finest pieces I’ve ever pulled out of a kiln in all the workshops I’ve done.’”

The CEO of Geil was impressed, too—so impressed he asked to use the piece in a national ad campaign for Geil kilns. A photograph of the piece is now the centerpiece of Geil ads in a number of professional journals.

“The really beautiful thing,” said Greidanus, “is that they invited me to write an artist’s statement to go alongside the piece in the ad. I was able to acknowledge Calvin in it and hopefully draw some attention to the amazing work the art department is doing.”

A lifetime of learning

Greidanus couldn’t have made the bowl featured in the campaign with Big Bertha. The microcrystal design and vibrant rings of color that make the bowl’s interior so unusual were produced using the atmospheric control system of the kiln.

But she will be able to achieve both effects with the new kiln, in addition to a number of other techniques previously not possible.

“One thing I love about ceramics is that you could spend a lifetime learning new techniques,” said Greidanus. “Learning to use the computerized controls of the kiln and introducing new firing techniques will be an exciting challenge.”

Full of gratitude

Greidanus is full of gratitude for all the people who have worked to give the art department a kiln that will allow her to experiment with so many new ways of doing and teaching ceramic art:

“This has been such a team effort. The money for the kiln is all from donors, so it’s really because of their generosity that we are getting a new kiln. It’s also taken the support of the folks in the development office, the art department, physical plant and so many more. I am deeply appreciative of all the work that has been put into this kiln project.”

The new custom designed kiln is expected to be delivered to Calvin College later this year.

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