On a cool Saturday morning early in November, Elijah Pilkington crawls into the mouth of the beast to prepare the belly for fire.
Over several days, he and several others will work on their knees by the glare of lamps, carefully stacking more than 1,000 ceramic pieces onto a brutalist scaffolding of bricks and concrete slabs in preparation for firing East Creek Art Camp’s anagama kiln, a wood-fired monster embedded in a hill 12 miles west of McMinnville.
Around 70 artists gathered last month to load the kiln, a painstaking process led by kiln captain Pilkington. The first of its kind built west of the Mississippi and thought to be the largest on the West Coast, this anagama looks something like Star Trek’s doomsday machine. It stretches uphill 40 feet from the door to the chimney, which shoots a pillar of fire several feet into the sky during the peak of stoking.
OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series
It’s the star of the show at East Creek Art Camp, a 20-acre amalgamation of gas, electric, pit, and Raku kilns, both indoors and outdoors, as well as a fully equipped studio. Tucked out of sight up a shallow ravine in the rainforest north of Willamina and largely unknown to locals, East Creek has been operated since 2015 by Joe Robinson, who shares with his partner, Aubrey Sloan, a deep knowledge of and love for ceramics.
Much of what goes on here could happen anywhere. In studios and art centers around Oregon, people can, for modest sums, use facilities to throw pots and fire them in electric or gas kilns not much bigger than a dishwasher.
Wood-fired kilns, however, are larger and tend to be outdoors on private property. To use one, generally, you have to know someone. “Wood-firing is one of those things that has definitely been safeguarded, and not in a kind and welcoming way,” Benjamin Cahoon, a George Fox arts administration graduate who handles marketing for East Creek, told me. “We’re opening the door to everyone.”
Those knocking on that door can use what Robinson calls the Lamborghini of kilns and include both seasoned potters and newbies looking to try their hand at a creative enterprise. The two work side by side – mentoring is central to the East Creek ethos — and the community experience of firing the kiln contributes to a sense of group ownership of every item that comes from its maw. The closure in recent years of institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Craft and Oregon College of Art & Craft, combined with a pandemic-inspired interest in crafting and a hunger for community, has cemented East Creek’s place as a cozy hub for Oregon’s growing ceramics community.
“Most people make pots in their studios,” Robinson said. “We toil alone, then we come together and celebrate our labor with food and fire and tradition and ritual. When you stand next to a fire, you feel like you belong.”
During most of November, loading and firing is a meticulously coordinated team effort that culminates the weekend after Thanksgiving. Finally, as glazed pots are removed one by one in the fashion of a bucket brigade, the communal effort is marked by what Robinson calls a “Christmas morning-like surprise and delight.”
A student encounters art
Robinson, 35, is about as picture perfect a poster child for what a strong public-schools arts program can, with that requisite chemistry between student and teacher, produce. He is also a somewhat contradictory figure, best summarized by Sloan: Local loggers regard him as a bit of a hippie artist, she told me, while artsy types, understanding the business savvy it took to make the camp a reality, also see him as more of a deal-making money guy. In fact, he’s a bit of both.
“For me, it rewinds all the way to when I was 13,” Robinson said. “I first touched clay in the eighth grade; there were a couple of wheels for the whole class and we had like three days. I touched the clay, and I was like oh my God! It hooked me right away.”
In 2001 at Lake Oswego High School, he signed up for pottery with Amy Burnham, who was then at the front end of her teaching career. He learned quickly. “Joe was one of my first students that was really interested in ceramics,” said Burnham, who still teaches at the school. “He stayed after school and asked lots of questions about how things worked and why we fired things. He spent a lot of time in the studio trying to master the potter’s wheel. That was the biggest thing, he was really into the potter’s wheel, and he really wanted to master it.”
A year later, Robinson had a wheel in his garage — a wheel, incidentally, that is one of 17 at the East Creek studio — and over the years he did master it. “I experienced some outside success,” he said with genuine modesty. “I had a gallery show when I was 17 or 18. I sold some pots to a cardiologist for a thousand dollars or something. It was this strange, early-achiever thing. I got outsized attention from my teachers, and I had the freedom to come and go out of the ceramics classroom as I pleased.”
Robinson’s mother, the late Kit Robinson, was a psychiatric nurse practitioner who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and took medical retirement when he was in high school. Wanting to be close to home, he opted for Linfield College (now university) in McMinnville, where his father, Rick, had been an adjunct psychology professor before going into a career as a consultant for schools. Linfield had recruited Joe to play baseball.
“I showed up on campus and I never set foot on the baseball field,” he laughed. Instead, he headed to the ceramics studio. That’s where he met Nils Lou, an artist and professor who, in 1983, had taken advantage of “kagillions” of free, super aluminum refractory bricks that had been intended for a second and ultimately scrapped Trojan Nuclear Power Plant project and used them to build an anagama kiln on his hillside property north of Willamina. (Frank Boyden, one of the original partners in the kiln, recollects instead that the bricks came from the old Portland Cement Factory in Lake Oswego.)
And if you were an art student at Linfield, you got to use it.
“The star of the show”
East Creek Art Camp is as much about community as it is about pottery, a truism that goes back to its origin story. In the 1980s, Lou teamed with two fellow potters, Tom Coleman and Frank Boyden, and traveled to Peters Valley, N.J., to inspect their template: a Korean anagama kiln designed by the famed Japanese kiln ceramicist Katsuyuki Sakazume, who joined the Oregon trio back in Willamina to help plan the project.
“Those guys, first and foremost, they were potters,” Robinson said. (Boyden also was founder, with his wife, of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the coast.) “They built this place and this kiln so they could make their work, but they knew they were going to need other people.”
So it took a village to build the kiln, which involved digging a trench into the hillside, then using all those bricks from the scrapped Trojan project to construct a long brick cave — “anagama” translates to “cave kiln.” It takes a village to operate it, too, with a leader directing the work of volunteers around the clock for the several days it takes to get the temperature to around 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they hit that sweet spot — hotter than lava — the crew spends five more days and nights stoking the fire every two or three minutes. Then, it takes nearly two full weeks of chilly November days to cool down.
“Our biggest kiln is the star of the show,” Robinson said. “It always has been.”
Robinson’s mother died in 2006 during his freshman year at Linfield, about a year after Lou’s wife had died, and he recalls the time he spent with his mentor in the woods working the kiln as a time of healing. But he also realized that he didn’t want to “schlep mugs” for a living.
He recalled Oregon potter Don Sprague visiting his high school class one year and saying something that struck him. “He said, ‘You know, every time I’m thinking about buying something, like if I’m going to get a new cellphone, that’s going to be four mugs per month.’ He described his life as thinking about the number of mugs he’d have to make for whatever it was he’d want to get, and I was like, ‘No way.’”
Having double-majored in art and business, Robinson headed to Southern California with friends intending to get into photography. After various retail jobs that had nothing to do with pottery, he got his first experience of building a space for artists when he landed a digital marketing job with the online arts community DeviantArt. He was wildly successful, helping the then-9-year-old company grow significantly. But city life didn’t suit him, so in 2012 he literally walked back home on the Pacific Crest Trail, making it a fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in honor of his mother. The following year, on Christmas Day, Nils Lou died.
“Too many cooks in the kitchen”
Lou’s passing left the anagama kiln in a precarious position.
The retired Linfield professor had sold the property to a woman in Wisconsin with the stipulation that the kiln remain. But at some point, Robinson said, there was a falling out and hurt feelings. The annual firings continued, however, under the direction of potter Cindy Hoskisson, known as “the kiln mom,” and potters rallied to keep the facility going. The Wisconsin buyer tried selling the property but took it off the market briefly, and Robinson returned for what he imagined would be the final firing.
“Cindy and I were sitting on the road, and she was like, ‘Yeah, this is probably the last one we’ll ever do,’” he recalled. “Bulldozers were coming in 60 days.”
Robinson talked to his father, and they decided to make a move. “He was going to put down $40,000 and I was responsible for the loan,” he said. “First Federal Bank in McMinnville was the only bank that would even talk to us; we got laughed out of the room by five banks. So we got a loan for $130,000 and then got another $15,000 or so from the community. That’s what was so cool. People who had been firing here, who wanted to do something but couldn’t buy the place, handed me $100 bills. There was a guy who was living in his truck who loaned me 500 bucks. So this place is very important to a lot of people, and that’s why I believe in it.”
The flurry of organizational, legal, and financial activity that followed left the property in Robinson’s hands, and Hoskisson, who today teaches ceramics at Linfield, decided that a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario was developing and that it was time for her to pass the torch.
“I learned so much and it was a joy to be part of something so important to pottery (and) women who woodfire and to Oregon,” she said. “Leaving was really a matter of timing. When Joe bought the kiln, he needed to be in charge, and he needed the crew to look to him. He had some ideas that he wanted to try, and it was just better to quietly back out and let him have the opportunity to take the lead.”
Building an art center
Maintaining and operating an anagama is itself a major undertaking, but when Robinson bought the property (and eventually moved there), there was considerably more work to do.
East Creek is located off a gravel road that winds along a shallow ravine with a “middle of nowhere” vibe. “The building was here,” Robinson told me, pointing to the sprawling studio space about 60 feet from the anagama, “but the inside looked like a zombie apocalypse situation. The roof was collapsing. I got up on the roof with a chainsaw and cut the building in half and pulled it down with a truck.” He was joined by volunteers in clearing away bramble, repairing the structures, and trampling paths to connect the property’s resources. PGE came out and boosted the power supply.
“I’ve taken 60 trailer loads of garbage to the dump, and when I say ‘I,’ I mean ‘we,’” Robinson said. “There’s been a tremendous amount of volunteer hours and community input. This is shared work that no one person can do alone.”
Today, the wide driveway that cuts through the trees broadens into a sprawling gravel compound rendered intimate by the rustic and somehow orderly ramshackle of structures surrounding it: a shed for the tons of wood it takes for firing; the kiln itself; an outdoor kitchen area; a bunkhouse for overnight firing crews; the small house Robinson shares with Sloan and their toddler daughter, Juniper; a top-of-the-line composting toilet; a fire pit; and the 5,000-square-foot studio that includes 17 potters’ wheels and shops for pottery, woodworking, metal welding, and glass firing. Deeper into the property, there’s an A-frame cabin that sleeps five, a tiny cabin, and a pond next to an open, grassy area where people can pitch tents and sleep under the stars. On the first day I visited East Creek, Robinson was down the ravine a ways, supervising a logger taking down a 100-foot tree to clear space for an upcoming East Creek feature: a pottery wheel where artists can work in the open air.
“It will be highly Instagramable,” he promised, smiling.
One relatively new addition related to the pandemic stands as an example of Robinson’s relentless networking. Just before he bought the property in 2015, he met two Intel retirees. Lew and Lori Allen — he an engineer and she a human resources executive – are both artists with a passion for pottery. In 2017, they helped get a new floor in the anagama kiln. When the pandemic hit, they were able to snag a $35,000 CARES Act grant to build a smaller Catenary arch kiln that requires fewer people to fire and thus allowed for smaller, more COVID-safe gatherings.
Even so, East Creek kept the anagama working. “There were two or three firings where it was just eight of us out there making it happen,” said Pilkington, recalling organizational meetings where everyone stood six feet apart in a big circle before taking their assigned positions around the kiln.
A culture of mentoring
Pilkington is a 25-year-old Portlander who works at Georgies Ceramics & Clay. Like Robinson, he discovered pottery and East Creek through school. As a sophomore at Lakeridge High School, he visited the camp and “absolutely got hooked on it, I caught the firebug and just fell in love with the process,” he said.
He attended college in Flagstaff, Ariz., where he studied art, then returned to Oregon and assumed an increasingly prominent role in the East Creek community, illustrating, along the way, a key aspect of how an enterprise like this works. Sure, there are books about pottery and kilns (Lou, in fact, wrote several, although oddly enough they don’t say much about East Creek), but the only way to learn this stuff is through on-the-ground and in-the-studio mentoring.
“I ended up getting taught how to load the kiln by Chris Pate, who is a well-known and much-loved potter in the Portland area,” he said. “I’ve known him since I was in high school. He just kind of took me under his wing loading the kiln, and I learned the layout and the process.”
Jerrold Martisak, a 72-year-old potter from Monmouth who has been a regular at East Creek since it was built, showed up the Sunday afternoon the anagama was being unloaded this year. I asked about the narrative arc, what he thought Robinson had brought to the camp in the past seven years.
“I think he’s brought a lot of joy,” Martisak said, leaning on a cane in the compound while a long row of tables leading from the studio to the kiln was piled with this year’s bounty. “The thing that’s happening here is getting it so the leaders don’t necessarily have to be here to lead. You get to a point where you can become a leader. Elijah is the king of the load, he loads all the kilns, and then other people move up and help him. It’s sort of like, you pay your dues, and then you get to do something different.”
Another artist, Ruri Ruri, who lives nearby and has her own kiln, was among those who helped build the East Creek anagama, and she goes one step further. “If Nils was still alive,” she said, “he would be very happy to see what’s happening at East Creek.”
A ceramics explosion
To understand what’s happening at East Creek, one must take into account a much bigger picture.
Robinson points to developments in recent years that have shaken brick-and-mortar arts education infrastructure. The Museum of Contemporary Craft closed in 2016. A few years later, no sooner than he earned his MFA in Applied Craft + Design from a joint program of the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Oregon College of Art and Craft, the latter shut down. A year later, PNCA agreed to merge with Willamette University in Salem.
The pressure on craft institutions has to do with an overextension of real estate and resources, Robinson said, and he sees “the sustainable future of shared work” in the communal, nonprofit model he’s set up at East Creek — and he’s not just talking about ceramics.
“I’m thinking about bronze casting and glass blowing, where you have these tools that are more expensive than one single artist can really afford,” he said. “If you were to build an anagama like this today, it would cost you $300,000. Each brick is like seven or eight bucks, and there are thousands and thousands of bricks.” In the hierarchy of kilns, he added, an anagama is like a Lamborghini. “It’s just as expensive as a Lamborghini, and it’s just as sensitive. Most people with Lamborghinis don’t let a lot of people drive them, so that’s what this place is: This is the community Lamborghini.”
In a curious twist, the pandemic had the effect of growing that community. Sloan, who heads the Oregon Potters Association, said COVID-19 inspired many people to take up pottery, which created an incentive for privately owned studios to tweak their business models to accommodate the demand. As one measure of growth, she cites the success of Ceramics Showcase, which will mark its 40th year in April at the Oregon Convention Center. “Last year,” she said, “we had an amazing year, sales were up by $70,000. We sold nearly $400,000 worth of pottery in one weekend.”
Art and community
East Creek isn’t tailored exclusively for pottery professionals. Those who participate in one of the three winter anagama firings do not have to have thrown their pots there, and, in fact, they can already have fired them once somewhere else. That means beginning artists find themselves working alongside seasoned potters.
Salem artist Heather Skinner fits that description and can be counted in the COVID-19 ceramics surge of 2020. “My son moved out in the fall, so I was an empty-nester,” she said. “I’d done pottery 10 years before, but nothing serious. Then I realized I really like working with natural form, I love playing with design ideas.”
Her journey at East Creek began with a weekend workshop, where she spent most of Saturday working in the studio with Robinson. They broke for dinner, and he reminded students that the studio was available to them 24/7.
“I’m a night person, it’s a comfort zone for me, and Joe was so gracious,” she said. “It was like eight o’clock and I went straight to the studio and worked until three in the morning. I put on some music — I’d made a special East Creek mix.” She spent the rest of the night sleeping in the A-frame. She returned in November for the first winter firing, making the three requisite trips: One to load, another for a stoking shift, and finally to help empty the kiln. You can see a short video of her stoking the anagama fire under Pilkington’s direction during a night shift here.
The numbers tell a story of dramatic growth and diversity.
Pre-Robinson, East Creek did two to four firings a year with anywhere from 10 to 40 participants. In 2015, the year he bought the property, the camp had about 60 visitors, although the studio wasn’t ready at that point. Classes came online in 2019, and in the past year, East Creek has sold more than 720 tickets to the nonprofit’s wholly owned events, with another 300 or so students coming in through partnerships with the Wildcraft Studio School, Linfield University, Portland Public Schools, the Lake Oswego School District, the Amity School District in Yamhill County, and many others.
And next year’s calendar is lit. Besides the November firing (the exact dates haven’t been set yet), East Creek will offer nearly 20 classes, workshops, and firings, ranging from events for beginners to more advanced sessions like the seven-day “Throwing BIG Masterclass” Robinson will lead in August. Guest artists will lead some of the classes, including one on glazing taught by Samuel Newman and Maya O’Neil that will start at the Portland Clay Compound and wrap up at East Creek. And then there’s East Creek’s leadership development work. Next year, the conference, taught by Portland artists Twig Cosby and Alex Slydel, will focus on the LGBTQ+ community.
“I have lifetime friends that I’ve made out there through the process of bonding over the fire,” said Pilkington when I caught up with him about a week after the anagama had been emptied. “The pots do represent a huge chunk of my interest, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: East Creek and wood-firing has a way of bringing a bunch of good folks together, and when you do that, magic happens.”
Part of that magic goes beyond the bucket-brigade collaboration, the camaraderie outside the kiln, and wood-fired pizza dinners. Because every artist who has a pot in the kiln helps with the firing and their very presence adds to the dozens of variables that determine what happens to the pots inside, there’s a sense of group ownership of everything that comes out.
“You get to come here and use these resources and hopefully be inspired by the scale and level of the community,” Robinson said. “In our current culture, not that many people do things with groups of 50 where they can see something happen, and then see the results. It’s like, this pot was made by all these people, you know? ‘It’s mine, I made the pot. But really, everyone else did, too.’”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect Frank Boyden’s memory of the origin of the bricks used to build the kiln.