In telling stories of her father’s handmade, wood-fired kilns at Arkansas Life, Alice Driver reminds us of the risks and rewards inherent in creative pursuits and the deep personal satisfaction that comes from the effort and sweat you put into your craft.
“How did you deal with failure?” I asked my dad as I watched him throw pots on a potter’s wheel in his studio. Over the course of the week I was home, my parents and I had ongoing conversations about failure and making art. As a writer, 99 percent of my life involves rejection and failure, and I constantly questioned how I could best learn from failure and continue writing. “It was emotionally devastating to build a 3,000-brick kiln, fire it and get nothing out of it,” my dad said. “I went down to the creek and cried. But I got up. Who could explain—for some people, things crush them, and it did crush me, but it didn’t stop me.” Persistence—I had inherited that.
In May 2017, 35 years after my birth at home in the Ozarks, I worked the 6 p.m.-to-midnight shift on the last night of the firing of my dad’s new kiln, which was roughly the size of two VW vans parked back to back. It was the first time that I, the daughter of a potter, had fired a kiln…I was stationed on one side of the kiln that had a round opening the size of two fists. Each time I took hold of the wire knob to open the small hole in the kiln, I looked directly into a pile of flames and ashes. Adrian Leffingwell, a potter and a farmer who met my dad at a farmers market in Fayetteville, oversaw the shift. He shouted “stoke!” every few minutes. If I didn’t push the pieces of kindling through the opening in the kiln at the right angle, they got stuck and immediately caught on fire, causing flames to burst out toward me. After six hours of managing the fire, I was physically reminded of the amount of work and lifeblood that my dad put into making ceramics. It had taken him 2 ½ years to build his fourth and largest kiln, which he designed, by hand. He did not know if the maiden voyage of the kiln would be a success, and I could see the worry written on his face.
That evening, everyone gathered around the kiln, handmade ceramic cups in hand, to toast the first firing with bourbon. “What happens with wood firing is that when you get it right, you get a pot that could change your life,” my dad said. Then he asked everyone to make a half bow, clap three times, and drink in honor of teachers and mentors. For good measure, he poured a bit more bourbon into everyone’s cups and said, “It doesn’t hurt to toast the gods a little bit more.”