In the great north woods of the Upper Peninsula an accomplished artist practices his craft in Norway, Michigan, a small town built around the Norway iron ore mine. The town, which sprang up nearly overnight when the Menominee Mining Company established a settlement at the Menominee Range near Iron Mountain in the late 1800’s, is where this talented artisan finds his inspiration. Just miles from the Wisconsin border on the southwest point of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Dickinson County town was once the home of Jazz musician Art Van Damme and early NFL players Rudy Rosatti and John Ralston. A deep forested landscape alive with beauty and rich historical significance, the quiet town of Norway is now the home of artisan pottery maker Gary Navarre.
Navarre discovered his own deep passion for the process, receiving awards and honors in high school for his art. He knew early on that clay was his favorite artistic medium and after graduation he studied Ceramics, Fine Arts, Sculpture, Jewelry, and Geology at Henry Ford Community College, the Center For Creative Studies, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University. He has also pursued a lifelong interest in Photography, as well.
Spirited, creative, guided by muse and the inspiration of a richly experienced life, Gary takes a philosophical view of art instruction and the creative process:
I’ve attended Art schools, Universities and lived in the Art Scene most of my life. Over the years I’ve actually done more living and learning about living than art but that is where Art comes from, living and learning. One can make academically successful pieces and do quite well, however, truly inspired creations come from the inspiration of every day experiences distilled through the vision of meditation. I find balance in the spontaneity of capturing a moment in a photo and the stability of creating in clay. One deals with an instant, the other with long term processes, even geologic time.
Describing his early years in the craft and the teachers who most inspired him, Gary said, “Besides being encouraged by my high school Art teachers, Gawaine Dart was an early teacher who showed us how to trim a decent foot ring on a piece. Then I learned single fire glazing from John ‘Jack’ Foster.” He also studied under Bill Pitney in the Detroit area.
Navarre later moved to Venice, CA and joined the The Pot Shop, a cooperative pottery studio. While practicing his skills at the co-op, which at one time boasted a membership of more than 300 artisans, Gary had the experience of living with other artists and learning from their skills. He then went on to independent study, reading books and practicing new methods. “In the late ’60’s I found the co-operative studio The Pot Shop in Venice, California and lived with other artists for the first time. I met and partied with a few famous potters but most of the later years I [learned] on my own. I studied books by Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, and Danial Rhodes for some of the basics of kiln building but most of pottery is learned by doing.” It was then that Gary Navarre learned how to build his own kiln, and many years later in Norway, Michigan, that is what he did.
Years of planning and a lifetime of vision came to fruition in the deep woods of Norway, where Gary Navarre makes his home. Pictured above is the deceptively rustic outside view of the 9 foot long, 60 cubic foot wood burning kiln (covered for weather) used by the artist to fire his pots. The kiln was constructed entirely by hand by Gary and just a small group of friends, and once seen from the inside, is almost as awe inspiring an accomplishment as the pieces of art fired within it. The kiln, designed in the Hobagama tradition preferred by Navarre for firing his unique clay works, boasts a 16.5 foot high chimney and 2 stage firebox. Gary meticulously recorded the process for the benefit of other pot throwers and aficionados and, of course, for posterity. Below is a small excerpt of the process, which took six years of hard work and planning. This video, which Gary produced on YouTube where he goes by the name “GindaUP”, explains some of the main elements of the kiln as it was being built, including the ‘Pignose’, ‘Mousehole’, ‘Bourry box’ and chimney in the earlier stages.
In Ceramics: Mastering the Craft 2cd Edition (published 2001), Richard Zakin explains that most fuel burning kilns, including wood burning, are built by ceramists, and not commercial users. In the book he states:
To build them requires knowledge, time, and skill. Many kilns are the result of innovative and creative thinking and have a real impact on the life and work of the ceramist.
Zakin describes a variant of a wood kiln built on a hill that contains multiple connected chambers where the flame passes through from one chamber to the next, moving up the hill. This design, which relies on height at the top part of the kiln to act as a natural chimney, was known to the Chinese as a ‘Dragon Kiln’ and to the Japanese as an ‘Anagama Kiln’.
The Hobagama Kiln design used by Navarre differs from the ancient Anagama tradition in that an added element – a hob – has been bricked into the interior to enable the fuel logs to be suspended above the coal pile. Gary Navarre explains, “The Asian potters use a type of kiln called Anagama, a single chamber with the fire inside on one end and an exit stack on the other end. These are usually loaded from the front and then bricked in so the fire can be stoked through a hole and air comes in underneath. During the later 1800’s in Europe, Emiel Bourry devised a downdraft firebox that used a hob bricked into the interior so the fuel logs would be suspended above the coal pile on their ends. The primary air is drawn down through the fuel to mix with the hot gasses released and the flame drawn in through the throat arch into the chamber. More secondary air can be added through the Pignose which is an attachment in front of the Bourry box that is used for the pre-heating fire.”
To see how truly ingenious the kiln design is requires looking inside. Gary has provided in-depth footage of the inner realms of the Hobagama here, where he walks viewers through the chambers and demonstrates loading the kiln for firing:
(We love you, too, Gary. )
Wood burning kilns burn at extremely high and dangerous temperatures. Gary, and many more pottery artists around the world, choose to use this method of firing clay in spite of the risk and physical labor involved because the natural glaze effect caused by the wood ash is so unique. It is so unique, in fact, that the glazing is never the same even on consecutive firings and differs even by species of tree used as fuel. Richard Zakin writes that firing a wood kiln requires constant attention and calls for an instinctual understanding of what is going inside the kiln. He explains the process that results in the unique effects so valued by clay artists:
High temperature wood firing is still used today by ceramists who value the richness of its wood ash, flashing, and reduction effects. During the firing the ashes of the wood fuel fall naturally upon the ware, and if the firing temperature is high enough the ashes are volatilized and become a glaze. These glazes have a soft dappled imagery which covers the top surfaces of the piece and falls gently away toward the foot of the piece.
Gary himself describes the risk and the effect obtained in terms more indicative of his philosophy both as an artist and as a fellow traveler on the journey through history we each hold our place in:
“My devotion to working in clay has led me to study the ancients and how they developed much of the technology that is still being utilized by potters today. The process of creating and firing clay forms has ignited my own spiritual fire and this is expressed in many of my pieces.
The geological and spiritual forces that created our earth have deeply influenced the technique and imagery of my work within the framework of traditional thrown forms. Some of these pieces have been exposed to temperatures in excess of 2400 Fahrenheit. Many have been fired more than the customary one or two times to achieve a more dynamic effect reminiscent of batholiths, flowing magma and folded mountains.
These pieces have been exposed to the flames of wood firing, resulting in a bombardment of caustic ash which melts into the glaze creating exquisite colors, textures, and flow patterns.
I love firing with wood and all of the risk that it involves. It is a process that expresses my own spiritual nature and inspires me to keep working.”
Gary uses scrap wood and limbs from local trees, such as Tamarack and Spruce, collected in the forested area of Norway and Iron Mountain to burn in the Hobagama for firing pots. He also uses another natural occurring resource abundant in the area, Strawberry Lake Red for slip glazes that he makes from the dark red clay found at nearby Strawberry Lake.
Artist Gary Navarre has been recognised for his work, not only for his artisan pottery wares but for his photography, as well. In June of 2010, he won the First Place Award of Excellence for his pottery display at the Art For All art show held at Bay College, earning him a cash prize with the award. In September of 2009 Gary was awarded First Place for his Landscape photography and given Honorable Mention for his Wild Plant photography by the Dickinson Conservation District and his photos have been displayed in the Dickinson Conservation District’s annual calendar.
Pot throwing, kiln loading and firing, and clay work are all intensely physical, demanding activities. To see such a talented ceramist in action, throwing clay on the wheel and creating something beautiful from mere clumps of earth is truly inspiring. Click on any image below to view the Gary Navarre gallery:
Gary balances his craft with other interests such as fly fishing, skiing, maple syruping, and Morel mushroom harvesting. The life of the artist is both beautifully creative and constantly challenging, and we can only imagine it is that much more inspiring in the great north woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Somehow, gifted artist Gary Navarre seems up to the challenges and we look forward to future visits with “GindaUP”.
What does the future hold for Gary? He isn’t quite certain, as he may be relocating back downstate next year. We wish Gary the very best in all of his endeavors, wherever they may lead, and here at Wintermitten we hope our readers enjoyed meeting Gary Navarre and sharing a view into the life of our friend the artisan pottery maker from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As Gary himself would say,
Stay in there, eh? Later!
To contact Gary Navarre, e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To purchase Gary’s original clay art or handmade Balsam holiday wreaths, please visit him on Etsy.com.
To learn more about Gary Navarre or to purchase his original photography, go to his site at Fotki.com.
*all photo credits for this story go to Regina Bruner Markowicz