The Chronicle Review

Earth, Wind, and Fire

Richard Bresnahan's elemental approach to art — and life

Photograph by Tom Roster

Richard Bresnahan checks the fire in the Johanna Kiln at Saint John's University, in Minnesota. See a slideshow of his pottery and the firing of the kiln here.
February 13, 2009

On the eighth night of firing, a crisp October evening in Minnesota, the Johanna Kiln is breathing like a dragon, belching methane fumes that explode as soon as they hit the outside air. It's the light show of a primal transformation.

Joe Daly stands at one end of the 87-foot-long brick kiln, eyes wide and mouth open slightly, watching people crawl up on the side to stack wood and check the fire. "It's amazing," he says. A senior at Saint John's University here, he once walked down the hill from the main part of campus and saw the kiln sitting dormant in its sheet-metal barn. "I never knew what it was."

Daly approaches a man in jeans, a denim shirt, and a bandanna to ask a simple question: Can I look inside?

Richard Bresnahan — the master potter and artist in residence at Saint John's, who designed this wood-fired kiln, the largest in North America — smiles like someone about to reveal a heavenly secret. He hands Daly a pair of protective glasses, pulls him up on a platform on the side of the kiln, wraps an arm around the young man's shoulder, and pulls the cover off one of the stoking windows.

As Daly stares intensely into the flame, Bresnahan is telling him something, which I can't hear over the fiery roar and surrounding bustle. But having spent days with Bresnahan in his studio, at his home, and now at the kiln, I can guess.

At one level is probably a lesson in the ties this pottery has to this place. The 12,000 pieces in the kiln are entirely a product of the land immediately around us. The wood fuel is culled from the forest, the clay was dug from the ground here by Bresnahan himself, and the glazes are made from the ashes of seed hulls, straw, hardwood trees, and rock dust. And in the process of telling Daly this, Bresnahan is probably conveying something deeper: that this firing and the work of the people around him are part of a fragile tradition, preserving techniques that are thousands of years old, and that understanding this tradition is key to our survival.

Bresnahan, a potter trained in Japan, is doing what countless people in the sustainability movement merely talk about. That is, he is vitally, uncompromisingly connected to local resources and local community, producing useful things from what nature provides.

Although many ceramics artists have gone off to study in Japan, which has some of world's oldest and most revered potting traditions, for most the study stops at aesthetics. Not so with Bresnahan, says Matthew Welch, a curator of Asian art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, who has written extensively about the potter's work.

"He wants the nature of the clay to reflect the nature of place," Welch says.

But the lessons Bresnahan is trying to teach go beyond clay and pottery. In the future, education is going to have to mix the sciences, the arts, and sustainability, he said during my visit to his studio, where dizzying conversations ranged across topics as diverse as food and farming, the industrial revolution, green architecture, and the proper way to brew tea. "Humanity has to move in step with nature. If we don't learn that, we're doomed."

Bresnahan grew up in a farm family in Casselton, N.D. He came to Saint John's in 1968 as a young teenager attending the abbey's preparatory school and eventually enrolled in the college. His family, which had lost its grain elevators to agribusiness swindling, did not have any money. Bresnahan was in college by the grace of the monks, who, he says, harbored all sorts of disadvantaged young men who would otherwise have been thrown into the maw of the Vietnam War. Bresnahan himself had three cousins who died in Southeast Asia.

Energized by the heady political atmosphere of the time and by lectures by the likes of Eugene McCarthy and Dorothy Day, he decided to major in political science. But, by his own admission, he was not a stellar student. When the rigors of study became too much, he took a break with a ceramics course taught by Bill Smith, who had studied with the prominent potter Marguerite Wildenhain.

In clay, Bresnahan found a voice — and soon, a mission. In 1973 while still an underclassman, he went with Smith to an international ceramics conference in Banff, Alberta, that gathered 400 potters from Japan, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, the United States, and elsewhere.

"What I got out of this was that they were not discussing the ideas that I was learning in college" — materials, forms, or the individual as artist, he says. "What they were talking about was about how artists had to change the human community. They were already talking about environmentalism, about social responsibility, about relieving the suffering of the poor and fair trade for poor potters.

"I thought, This is it," he says. "This is my family."

The notion of a poor kid from North Dakota deciding on a career as an artist-potter was unthinkable, and Bresnahan soon realized what he was up against. Nursing students got jobs in hospitals, business students at corporations. What did an artist do? Graduate school seemed like a road to crippling debt, not pottery.

One of his teachers was Sister Johanna Becker, an internationally respected historian of Japanese ceramics. "You have to leave your country," Bresnahan recalls her saying. "There is nothing here teaching artists to be self-sufficient. You don't know how to dig clay. You don't know how to do anything."

Sister Johanna had ties to Japan and was owed favors there. In 1975 she contacted the Nakazatos, a family in the city of Karatsu that had made ceramics for 13 generations. She asked if they would take a new apprentice.

In Japan, says Bresnahan, there is a nickname for potters: "no lips."

"They don't want to verbalize any of their teaching skills," Bresnahan says, in part because they don't want to give away their secrets. "If you are not aware of your environment as an apprentice, you are not going to learn a damn thing."

Bresnahan, who spoke no Japanese when he arrived at the studio of Nakazato Takashi, had to rely on observation and intuition. As he learned the language, he worked his way up to being a production thrower who sat at the wheel, shaping up to 300 pieces a day. By watching the people around him, he was also learning about firing, about ash glazes, and about traditional Japanese culture — particularly its emphasis on community and its reliance on sustainable and renewable materials. Working 15 hours a day for three years, Bresnahan absorbed those lessons and recorded them in 1,000 pages of journals.

Parts of Japan had been cut off from the outside world for many years, and postwar modernization had not yet reached Karatsu when Bresnahan went there. The opportunity to learn traditional techniques, derived from natural materials, was "a closing window," Bresnahan says. Nothing was wasted, as it would be in industrial culture. In every process and practice, the people in Karatsu considered the impact on precious natural resources.

Bresnahan carried this knowledge back to the United States in 1978, and although he was offered jobs at the College of Marin and Georgetown University, it seemed natural to land at Saint John's, where he won a position as artist in residence. After all, the Benedictine monks who had founded the university were similar in some ways to the community in Karatsu — in their respect for the arts, in the way they were tied to a place and took the long view.

In 1979, when Bresnahan found a deposit of clay exposed during a road excavation, he went to a local bank, asking for $5,000 to dig up 18,000 tons of it — enough to last him and the potters that followed him for 300 years. The banker turned him down flat. The next day, he went to Father Michael Blecker, the monk who was president of Saint John's.

"In 1,500 years of Benedictine history, 300 years is not that long," Father Michael said, and gave Bresnahan the money.

Today Bresnahan teaches his apprentices very much the way that he was taught in Japan. Samuel Johnson, a former apprentice who now teaches ceramics at Saint John's sister institution, the College of Saint Benedict, says his study was "a bit like osmosis," consisting mainly of observing Bresnahan throw a form at his foot-powered wheel, then copying that form thousands of times. Johnson says he could eventually feel his body react instinctively to the idiosyncrasies of Bresnahan's olive-colored, musty-smelling clay. Most clays want to lie down, he says, but this clay stands up and holds its position, as if it wants to be transformed into a cup or vase.

In late morning and midafternoon, the apprentices gather at the studio's irori, a traditional Japanese hearth composed of slabs of elm, with a sand pit in the middle, where water for tea simmers on a burner. "That would be a time to ask questions," Johnson says. "But often conversations would go to other things — anything from tapping maple syrup in the spring to discussions of different kinds of wood and how they are used in building."

The studio runs on natural and discarded materials. The potters' wheels are made from chunks of hardwood that have been turned on a lathe. The water for processing clay is a byproduct of the college power plant. The filter press, which takes water out of washed, wet clay, dates to 1904 and was salvaged from a junk heap. The ash glazes come from materials Bresnahan either gathers himself or acquires from farmer friends and relatives. Transformed in the kiln, navy-bean straw ash might turn sky blue, while the ash of sunflower-seed hulls might produce a mellow golden color. (Bresnahan won't touch the toxic industrial glazes prevalent in conventional pottery. He has buried half a dozen potter friends who have succumbed to neurological diseases or cancers.)

Even Bresnahan's 6,000-square-foot house and private studio, built in a Japanese style, were made entirely from material that the artist either took from the land or saved from the trash. Some of the cabinetry is made from old casework that the college was throwing away. The siding on the house is unpainted poplar, cut and milled on Bresnahan's land; while designing the house, Bresnahan read in an Army Corps of Engineers manual that unpainted poplar would last 125 years.

"If people are telling you that the things around you are worthless, they are telling you a lie," Bresnahan says. He tries to teach his students how to live off natural and salvaged materials they can get locally, which are usually free.

"They can't survive off the shopping-shelf system," he says. "They'll go broke. I've seen so many young artists energetically going out, highly talented, and broke in three years. They are back waiting on tables, trying to get a job at a high school or college, just to teach the same poor methodology."

It takes three weeks to load the Johanna Kiln, 10 days to fire it, and, after two weeks of cooling, a week to unload it.

The firing of the kiln, named for the sister who sent Bresnahan to Japan, happens once a year at most. It is a culmination of the artist's efforts and teaching philosophy. The kiln and studio bustle with activity, as old friends and past apprentices show up to help or merely observe. Many of the daily meals for the crew are prepared by world-class chefs and bakers, all of them friends of Bresnahan. The event has the feel of a family reunion or a barn raising.

Walking around the kiln, telling stories and describing his process, the charismatic Bresnahan radiates an intoxicating enthusiasm, conveying the feeling that we're creating more than mere stoneware. In a culture of lonely individualism, the fire line at the kiln reaffirms the interdependence of people and importance of a community.

Some people come here as a kind of pilgrimage. Denise Anderson should have been on a motivational rock-climbing retreat, but she was diagnosed last summer with breast cancer. She endured a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery that involved cutting muscles out of her back to repair damage to her chest. Having worked in marketing and publishing, she said she had always been hard-driving, but has started to approach life differently.

"Richard has said that the clay that isn't centered on the wheel will get thrown off," she says. "I think this whole experience teaches people how to be centered." She begins to cry. "I want that for myself."

Kevin Kathman, a chef who has known Bresnahan since he was a boy, decided to attend the firing after his wife, a pastry chef and his business partner, died from a reaction to prescription medicine. "I come from a world where it is very easy to be inhuman, and I was very brutal," says Kathman, who has worked for stars in Hollywood and for hotheaded chefs like Gordon Ramsay. "I feel like I have a heart and soul again."

Late on the eighth night of firing, Kathman is making pizzas for the night-shift crew, using the top of the kiln as an improvised oven. I was halfway through a slice with sausage, arugula, and fennel when someone yelled, "Close the dampers!" A stoke was about to begin.

Stoking is both exhilarating and terrifying. All that shields you from the fire are a bandanna or two, UV-rated glasses, and welding gloves that constrict around your fingers as they heat up. The stoking holes on top of the kiln each sit above a crevasse, perhaps a foot wide, between shelves stacked with white-hot pottery. As the heat from the hole rises and roasts your face, you must place each log into the crevasse without knocking down pottery on either side.

Anne Clark, a longtime friend of Bresnahan who stood next to me, explained that a funerary urn for an infant was in the chamber where she was stoking. "Every time I drop wood in, I think, Don't break that one," she said.

Bresnahan likens the firing to playing a wind instrument, with the dampers and stokers as valves and the air outside as breath. It had been overcast, which made the air move more slowly through the kiln; each time we opened the holes to stoke, we found much of the wood we had laid in the previous round. During a break, I found Bresnahan staring at the kiln almost absentmindedly, and I asked him what he was doing. "I'm just watching and listening," he said. "Night burns are interesting because they're quiet."

But around midnight, Bresnahan perked up. "There is a weather change — you feel it?" he said. "You hear the sound changing? It's going to move a lot faster now."

I stepped outside and, indeed, the clouds had moved off. The wood burned down quickly now, and we began stoking about every 10 minutes. Although we on the fire line hardly knew each other, we moved like one organism.

Richard Bresnahan the artist, for all his talent and training, cannot produce his art without the 30 to 50 people who come to help him fire the kiln, and he knows that. That's why he built such a big kiln. It forces the artists to create a community. "When you go to a museum and see work, we often make the mistake of thinking that it was made by one potter," he says. "It was never made by one potter."

It also pushes the university to support that community. Despite the talk in higher education about sustainability and the virtues of localism, many students are coming out of colleges with an industrial-model degree — an education they could get anyplace. The curriculum rarely offers any ties to the local economy or culture, or any reason for students to return after they leave.

Richard Bresnahan is defined by the very earth he dug here in central Minnesota — his roots stretch deep within it. He is a product of the college that educated him, that sent him to Japan, and that supported him when he came back. If colleges and universities are going to survive a challenging era, they might need to rediscover their identity as part of a place, along with the value that place can bring. "Universities need to become mother ships," Bresnahan says, "not just encourage the kids to leave after four years, with the screen door slamming and the alumni card."

Scott Carlson is a senior reporter at The Chronicle. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 55, Issue 23, Page B13