New high-fire kiln expands ceramics program at Columbia College

Wednesday, November 23, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:00 a.m. CST, Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Bo Bedilion checks the temperature inside the kiln at Columbia College on the afternoon of Nov. 11. The kiln's temperature peaks at 2350 °F.

COLUMBIA —  On a recent Tuesday, Bo Bedilion held up a bowl he had just pulled from a new kiln at Columbia College for beginning ceramics students to see.

"You'll eat your Ramen out of that, for sure," said Bedilion, an assistant professor of art.


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The bowl was from a load of pottery Bedilion had fired the previous Friday. When the firing process is under way, the blazes go for between eight and 10 hours. Every hour, Bedilion looks through two small holes in the front of the kiln to check the color of the flames and at eight cones that show how hot it is inside. 

The firing process isn't an exact science, and Bedilion adjusts things accordingly. He opens and closes a damper on the top of the kiln or blows into the front holes to cool it down.

While the kiln is firing, a low roaring can be heard, and as you approach it, you feel some of its heat.  At its hottest, the inside temperature reaches about 2,350 degrees.

The kiln is new to the college this year. Bedilion built it last summer.

The process began when he came to Columbia College last year. Bedilion designed a sketch for a kiln pad that would be built just north of Brown Hall. The pad is a structure that looks like a pavilion with walls; it has room enough to eventually house three kilns.

The pad was built specifically to hold the new kiln, which is a gas-fired, high-fire kiln. It will be the biggest of the three that will eventually be there.

The kilns currently in the art building are electric fire kilns that fire at lower temperatures and oxidation. The main difference between the two kiln types is that a high-fire kiln produces functional pottery safe for microwaves and dishwashers. Pottery made in the electric kiln are more colorful and mostly for display.

The new kiln has added to the diversity of work the college can produce, Bedilion said.

"This really is, from my approach, just a different mental space," he said. "I'm more of a functional potter, where I enjoy the pots being used in the house, in the kitchen and for dinners and getting together and going to potlucks."

The kiln can hold about 500 pots the size of coffee mugs. It has adjustable shelves that sit on different height kiln stilts, so the range of things that fit inside can vary greatly.

Bedilion fires the kiln about every three weeks, and there are three more firings scheduled for this semester. He predicts they will fire four to six times per semester because it takes awhile for students in the beginning ceramics classes to get to the point where they have things ready to fire — and it takes all of the classes to produce enough work to fill up the kiln.

Any student who take a ceramics class at Columbia College has access to the kiln. This adds up to about 30 students, plus Bedilion can fire his own work in the kiln.

Sam Solomon is in two ceramics classes and will have the chance to make pots and learn to mix glazes for his work. Glazes are applied to pottery before firing it to strengthen or color the pieces. Glazes are mixed at the college from raw materials ordered for that purpose. Solomon is in a special problems course that focuses on glazes for the kiln.

Solomon helped Bedilion build the kiln last summer.

"It was a really good learning experience," Solomon said. He helped mortar and saw bricks and switched off with Bedilion to put the bricks inside the kiln.

Plans include building a Raku kiln and an atmospheric firing kiln inside the kiln pad. Bedilion will start the designing process of the Raku kiln next semester and hopes to start construction in the summer.

"I'll hopefully get to help with the next one, too," Solomon said.

"We'll probably include that into the special problems course," Bedilion said. "I think we'll design the kiln as part of that class."

Bedilion plans to reuse the bricks from an inoperable kiln inside the studio to build the Raku kiln.

The Raku kiln will be smaller then the new one. This means the classes will be able to experiment with new glazes on smaller groups of pots rather then risking hundreds.

Bedilion said the kiln has added opportunities for the students as they now have the option of firing at both high and low temperatures.

Mike Sleadd, head of Columbia College's art department, said it's great to have a functional kiln that's going to produce excellent results. "It is a wonderful addition to our curriculum," Sleadd said.

"We've just added to the total experience in the ceramics class," Bedilion said.

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Mike Seat November 26, 2011 | 7:02 p.m.

Congratulations Bo Bedilion and Columbia College. The art community in our town just keeps getting better!

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