At the wheel with Kay Austen

Posted Oct 19 2009
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Squamish-based potter offers up tips and tricks during live demonstration
By Margreet Dietz. Published in Pique Newsmagazine, April 2009

Kay Austen's explorations in clay during the past 40 years have allowed her to discover a lot more than a way to create her beautiful and functional pottery. As Kay shares her vast knowledge and unbridled enthusiasm for her art, the retired elementary school teacher's approach to the creation of her pieces shows wisdom and self-awareness that applies to much more than decomposed feldspathic rock.

That clay has permeated and shaped Kay's entire adult life is clear as soon as you arrive at her Squamish home. The main floor contains a pottery studio where she throws her pieces. The double-car garage houses her 16 1/2-cubic-foot electric kiln as well as all the materials she uses to create the glazes for her pottery.

Kay uses the electric kiln to bisque her pieces, which hardens the clay by heating them to 1,000 degrees Celsius. Afterwards, Kay can apply her glazes to these pieces without deforming them accidentally in the process.

Next stop is the backyard, which contains a 20-cubic-foot gas kiln - she built it herself when she and her husband retired seven years ago. An official sticker from the gas man proves that Kay's four-burner kiln meets the required standards. Her eyes light up when she explains the use of this kiln, which slowly fires the pieces stacked in it to 1,300 degrees Celsius over a 12-hour period.

"For me the life of a pot starts here," Kay said. "I light the kiln and turn it up a little bit at a time until I've reached temperature. Then I cut off the amount of oxygen that's going into the kiln and have smoke and flame rolling around in there. The gas brings out colours in certain metal salts. And those metal salts are in the glazes - so red, for example, is copper in the glaze. It's what creates metallics and lustres. That's what I'm aiming for: I want colour, I love different colours."

This high-fire process also ensures that all her pieces are safe to be used in a microwave, freezer or dishwasher without cracking or the glaze colours disappearing.

During the 12 hours it takes to fire, Kay checks at least every hour via a peephole wearing a mask. To gauge the temperature inside, Kay always uses a set of four clay cones that each slump at a different temperature. "I look into the kiln when it is at really high temperatures and I can see these cones going down. That's what tells me how hot my kiln is."

Towards the end of the firing she checks every 10 minutes. "That's when you baby it and watch it and make sure that everything is going the way you want it to be."

Even so, a gas kiln is a metaphor for life - there are few guarantees. Seeing the results after the firing has been exhilarating but, at times, also crushing.

"You cannot always control what happens in the kiln, particularly a gas kiln. Often you will get fabulous surprises. But I've also opened my kiln and cried. So it's not like the kind of control that you have with painting, ink or weaving. You don't always get out of it what you put into it. You just have to give it up to the kiln gods and either it's great or it's not."

Kay Austen will demonstrate clay-forming techniques on and off the potter's wheel on May 2 & 3 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. To reserve a spot call 604-898-9775 or e-mail