I hope that by now you will have been enticed to read Felipe's excellent article "The Art and Practice of Jicarilla Apache Micaceous Pottery Manufacturing," which explains each step in the production of a traditional micaceous vessel. If you compare each step with the photos in my previous post, you should have an excellent understanding of the process, and you will probably also notice that in my documentation I missed some crucial steps in the process: sanding, application of slip, and polishing. Those steps were not scheduled for the day of my visit, so I am delighted to be able to refer you to videos that Brian Grossnickle, a former apprentice of Felipe's and an accomplished potter himself, has produced that illustrate sanding, applying slip, and polishing micaceous pottery.
Felipe had several pots that were polished and ready to go in the fire that afternoon; it turns out that he planned to deliver those very pots to his gallery in Santa Fe that evening! Firing micaceous pottery is not the long, drawn-out process I thought it might be; though some potters may consider the clay finicky and prescribe ideal conditions under which the pottery must be fired, Felipe fires his pieces whenever he finds convenient, and he rarely loses a piece in the process.
He began by clearing a space on his outdoor hearth and starting a fire with branches and brush that burned quick and hot. This fire rendered a nice bed of hot coals over which to stack the pots, but first Felipe set down a metal grate, perhaps an old oven rack or two, so that the pots wouldn't sit directly on the coals:
He stepped away for a moment and returned with some well-dried cow patties that he would place amongst the pots; these would burn in such a way as to leave unique black "fire clouds" on the fired pottery:
Then the pots were arranged on the metal grate:
The cow patties were tucked strategically in amongst the pots:
I've taken several pottery classes, and I recall always having to be careful not to allow pieces that were being loaded into the kiln to touch each other; the glaze vitrifies under the heat, causing any parts that touched to stick ruinously together. Felipe's pieces, shiny though their surfaces may be, are not glazed -- the shine results from the meticulous sanding and manual polishing of the already glittery, mica-flecked surface -- thus Felipe's pots may be stacked closely, right against each other, with no danger of sticking.
Now it's time to build the "kiln" around the stack of pots. Felipe selected from a great pile of thick, curved slabs of Ponderosa Pine bark several pieces and quickly positioned them among, and then around, the pots, forming a sort of wigwam:
Satisfied with the structure, Felipe suddenly hopped right over it and emerged from the billowing clouds of smoke with an armload of dry branches, which he placed on top:
The branches were alight almost immediately, and the pine bark began to roar and hiss as the temperature in the pile soared:
Moving aside a charred piece of bark to peer into the pile, Felipe watched for the moment that his pots began to glow red:
It doesn't take long! Maybe 20 minutes or so, before the heat of the fire had caused the pots to glow bright red, indicating that their transformation was complete!
No lengthy, controlled "cool down" time is required as it is with most pottery; the mica imparts in this clay the ability to withhold extremes in temperature without breaking, making micaceous pottery ideal to cook in. Felipe began to pluck his pots from the still-flaming pile and transferred them to a piece of corrugated metal to cool:
Not a single pot broken!
The areas where the dried cow patty came in contact with the pottery resulted in beautiful, shadowy fire clouds, each as unique as a fingerprint. Felipe had also inverted one shallow bowl over another with a patty in between. Burning in that enclosed space, the patty was consumed in a low oxygen environment, causing just the inner surfaces of the bowls to be blackened by the "reduction" firing. Felipe examines the effect, and likes it:
Before long the pots were cool to the touch, and as I gathered up my things, Felipe wiped any remaining soot off of each pot and wrapped it in newspaper.
Those pots were bound for the gallery at Cafe Pasqual's, the famed Santa Fe restaurant, that very evening. Given the effort that goes into creating each one, from the digging and processing of the clay that is dug from the same pits his ancestors have dug from for centuries, through the many steps of creation, and to the final transformation through firing, Felipe's pots are a bargain. His pricing is straightforward: $100 per quart, literally measured by scooping quarts of dried pinto beans into the finished vessel.
I simply couldn't leave that day without something tangible to remind me of my visit, and was thankful that Felipe had a coffee mug, half price because it had suffered a minor cosmetic mishap in firing (it does happen on occasion), just for me. I treasure it, but don't think that means I put it on my bookshelf to gaze upon; I drink my coffee out of it. Every morning. And I love it. Thanks Felipe!