My Daytrip to Medalta Potteries to visit Mynthia McDaniel
by Annika Clennan
As a lover of pottery I have been keen to visit Medalta Potteries in Medicine Hat for some time. Opportunity knocked when one of Bluerock Gallery's ceramic artists, Mynthia McDaniel, shared that she was going to do a 2-month residency there. In addition to all the amazing things there are to see and learn about at Medalta, I would also be getting a 'behind the scenes tour' of the Shaw International Centre for Contemporary Ceramics. I had so many questions for Mynthia - like "What is 'soda firing' and what does 'cone 6' mean?" and "What exactly are you trying to accomplish during your time?"
Mynthia is a young potter with a zest for trying new things. She loves to experiment with different surfaces and Medalta is definitely the place for that, with its variety of kiln options (electric, gas, soda, salt and wood) and immersive environment. She was pretty tired when I visited - nearing the end of her 2 month residency - as she was basically trying to do four months worth of work in two!
Considering Mynthia’s time crunch I was lucky to get a comprehensive tour and explanation of the artist area, which was super interesting! Creativity was abundant with artists at work, shelves of work in various stages of finishing, unique works of ceramic art tucked here and there and a swoon-worthy pile of rejects where the ceramic residents smash their seconds! I was over the moon to say the least!
Works of art spotted on a ledge. Made by former Medalta resident Giselle Peters.
Fully loaded gas kiln ready to turn on. All work by Terry Hildebrand. Notice the two ceramic heads (by Giselle Peters) wedged above the kiln!
The reject pile of smashed 'seconds'!
Probably my favourite part was seeing the different kilns - soda, salt and wood fired - and learning how they work. For example, did you know that the salt, soda, or ash from the burning wood acts as a glaze during firing? And that cones are pyramid-shaped pieces of ceramic material used to measure heatwork (time and temperature) inside these kilns? The cones give a visual indication of what stage of the firing you are at, as they are placed at different peepholes that can be opened and viewed during the firing. Despite modern technology, this centuries-old method is still the most effective way of knowing when to shut the kiln down!
My husband Gary and Mynthia opening the salt kiln. The two bricks sticking out on the right side can be removed and used as peepholes during a firing. This is also where the salt gets introduced during a firing.
Mynthia posing with the crusty backside of the soda kiln door.
Annika and Mynthia talking in front of the wood kiln.
Mynthia's cone packs for her next soda firing. She uses extra cone packs to see how the heat is being distributed in the kiln.
Cone pack after firing.
During her residency Mynthia was exploring the differences in soda firing between cone 6 (1222 Celsius) and cone 10 (1285 Celsius). She was also exploring the effects of soda and slips (liquid clay) on different clays, and how adding different materials to the clay affected the work in the firing.
She was able to complete two cone 6 firings and two cone 10 firings while at Medalta. Her second cone 6 firing was the most successful. During one cone 10 firing she lost 23 pieces, largely due to drips from the kiln shelves. Now she’s working on different solutions to bring this loss rate to a minimum.
To me, Mynthia is like a mad scientist with her testing, testing, testing. It made me wonder just how much control on the outcome of a soda firing she had. She told me
“You never really have full control as to what happens in the soda firing kiln, like you would in an electric kiln. You can control how you load the kiln (which side of the pot will get the soda on it), the amount of soda you put into the kiln, and how much oxygen you allow into the kiln. You can place rings of clay in the kiln, which you take out each time you add more soda, to see how much soda is getting on the pots. However the rings are not always accurate and can be deceiving to what is actually happening in the kiln. You are also at the mercy of the person who fired the kiln before you. Once, when I opened the kiln, all of my pieces came out with a rosy pink on them, because the person before me fired with a lot of copper and the copper stayed in the kiln.”
Mynthia’s enthusiasm and dedication to her craft are so inspiring!
One of Mynthia's soda-fired pieces. And yes - this one and many more have landed at Bluerock Gallery!
I learned so much during my visit with Mynthia, all of it super interesting and exciting to me! Many thanks to her for sharing her time, space, and knowledge with me. I have been saying “I need to try my hand at ceramics” for the past couple of years, and this visit inspired me to get started. I have now signed up for pottery classes!
The day wasn’t over yet though. Following my tour with Mynthia I spent time in the museum at Medalta, learning how the old factory and beehive kilns once worked. This process was equally fascinating.
Medalta Potteries in the Historic Clay District of Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Pulverizer c. 1940, used in clay production
And if that wasn’t enough enjoyment for one day, new exhibits just opened in the Yuill Family Gallery by the 5 ceramic artists who have just completed their year-long residencies at Medalta! The premise for each of their exhibits was so creative and well done. I thoroughly enjoyed them all.
What a day! If it sounds like I am smitten with Medalta – it’s because I am! I can’t wait to go back.
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