By Kayla Anderson
On a sunny late November morning, Joe Taylor is working on ceramic dishware in the Cattails Studio at Walker Lake. The studio is nestled between Mount Grant and the saline pond, sharing the land with fellow artisans, cottontail bunnies, lizards, quail, chucker and bighorn sheep.
“My parents used to drag me out here my whole life,” Taylor says, who grew up in Fernley before his parents bought their friend’s house in Walker Lake. He spent the rest of his childhood exploring the area. When Taylor got older, he moved to Lake Tahoe to attend school at Sierra Nevada College.
He was interested in the arts and studied sculpture and experimental art, but didn’t really get into ceramics until he volunteered at the Boys & Girls Club of North Lake Tahoe and realizing that he enjoyed making funny little animals and coffee cups with the kids.
“I went full circle and now I’m following in my dad’s footsteps,” Joe says of his ceramics-making father Jack. He admits though that it’s nice talking ceramics with his dad and sharing resources. Meanwhile, Jack built a workshop for his ceramics at Walker Lake and Joe came back home to help develop a salt kiln.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s a specialized thing,” Joe says about firing ceramics in a wood-burning salt kiln. “It takes three times as long to fire it so it’s more of a ceremony, a ritual thing. It takes me about three days, working 12-20 hours, to get the pots prepped to fire. Then the kiln works to melt the salt back into the atmosphere, giving the glaze a toasty warm look and feel of the finished product,” Joe says.
The Taylors also have a pit dug out in front of the studio for jack stoke or pit firing ceramics. Also glazing the pottery by a multi-day wood heating process, Jack and Joe learned how to get their ceramic pots into a bisque fired state then soak them in copper and salt, and wrap them in leaves or something natural like algae from Walker Lake.
Then about 30 of their fellow ceramics makers get together, drop about 200 pieces of pottery into the pit with organic material wrapped around it, and fill the pit with a foot-and-a-half of paper and 3-4 cords of old bomb crate wood sourced from the Army Depot in Hawthorne. They put sheet metal over the pit and wait (usually with good, music, and drinks) while the pottery takes on a new form as the salt and copper burns onto the pots, creating unique colors.
“The next day it’s kind of like Christmas, you pull everything out and look at all the pots,” Joe says. Every two years around Veterans Day the group gets together and fires up the pit, and usually Walker Lake locals stop by to partake in the firing festivities.
“People from all different walks of life come to this, it’s about 20-30 people. It’s a communal thing,” says Joe.
He also sources his materials locally to make the pots, sometimes finding clay on the far side of Walker Lake. However, Joe explains that when you get clay from a source that’s eroded down that it tends to have a lot of impurities in it.
“That’s why clay used to make porcelain comes from higher places, it’s cleaner,” Joe says. An added benefit of firing ceramics in a salt, soda, or wood burning kiln, though, is that the finished product is free of any additional chemicals to make it safe to use.
“What makes salt, soda, or wood firing so special is you don’t need to put anything else into it that makes it food safe. The salt naturally bonds with the silica in the clay and creates what’s called an ‘orange peel effect’,” Joe says.
However, his favorite part of the entire process is forming the clay from its original state as well as creating something that withstands the test of time.
“I enjoy working with the clay, the shaping and forming of it. It requires intuition and timing, when it’s in that fresh clay state it’s limitless what you can do with it. I also like having the responsibility of creating something that can potentially be around for thousands of years. I believe that making ceramics is an expression of enriching our own lives through culture and handmade goods.
“All these stories get wrapped up in this object; I want to keep that narrative and meaning alive,” he says.
For more information about Joe Taylor’s art, visit http://sierraceramics.com/.