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A Community Kiln Keeps the Flame of Democracy Burning in Detroit

Spend two days around the fire in the North End.

The North End of Detroit, once a vibrant area of entertainment and affluent homes, saw some of the worst urban blight during the great city's decline and eventual bankruptcy just four years ago.

But now, while still marked by vacant properties, metal smiths, carpenters, and potters have filled some of its empty warehouses, building a maker community that's best experienced around a large, wood burning kiln.


It's called Noborigama, or, The Salty Dog, and its home lies outside The Fortress, a studio space for artists like its ceramic obsessed creator Henry James Haver Crissman.

"We're sitting in a shadow of a skyscraper," Crissman tells Creators. "We have the Fisher building sort of glowing off to the side over here and it has a top very reminiscent of a flame coming out of a chimney. I felt like it would be thrilling to build a kiln in, what was at the time much more so than it is now, the hood. So we built this kiln."

After 48 hours, the kiln produces new objects like these. Image: Catherine Chapman

Crissman, a graduate of ceramics programs at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and Alfred University, NY, likes engaging communities with functional pottery, something that he thinks Noborigama, which is fueled by wood gathered from the North End neighborhood, speaks to.

"I'm primarily interested in wood firing because the process ends up showing this evidence on the wares," he says. "The firing process is like a communal activity, it's a renewable fuel source and it leaves this marking on the things that you make."

Built in April 2011 and first fired in November of that same year, Noborigama is both an installation and a sight of collaboration. Made with two dome like structures at its top, that spew fire and smoke when fully stocked with doors bricked up, a traditional combustion chamber is created, turning any clay object into a brand new ceramic.

A look inside Noborigama. Image: Henry James Haver Crissman

"Every pot will influence every other pot," explains Crissman. "There's very little control. It's very hard to say that this is what you're going to get and so you have to sort of submit yourself to the process."


Unlike an electric kiln, where the result is more an industrial process of uniformed pieces, a wood-burning kiln's outcome is unpredictable. Salt is placed inside to assist with production.

"So if I don't glaze something in the kiln, the kiln will glaze it for me," explains Crissman.

Some busts. Image: Catherine Chapman

On a burning that took place earlier this month, the kiln held 350 pieces, from teacups and plates, to urns and sculpture. Members of the community, some artists and others not, gathered for the firing, returning two days later to collect their pieces.

"We're making cups and bowls, everyone knows what those are, so it's this awesome access point," says Crissman. "There's such a spectrum of people that live in this neighborhood. Maybe I don't have so much in common with everyone in terms of my socio-economic background or my interests, but everyone drinks out of a cup or eats off of a plate."

Perfectly glazed teacup. Image: Catherine Chapman

Pottery's affordability makes the activity even more "democratic," says Crissman, believing that Noborigama showcases uniquely made objects but also the area's eclectic community.

"The reality of the process is that we stand out here for 48 hours firing it, putting wood in the kiln every five minutes," he says. "It's very much like sitting around the fire except it requires a certain type of attentiveness that you maybe wouldn't have in a different type of bonfire situation. Great stories are told around the bonfire, but really great stories are told around the kiln fire."


An urn for modern times. Image: Catherine Chapman

See more of Henry James Haver Crissman's work here and check out more from The Fortress here.


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