Northern Michigan University ceramics professor Brian Kakas, who was honored this month with an NMU Excellence in Teaching Award, recently led NMU students to Bali. They used sustainable materials to build Indonesia’s first soda kiln and worked alongside the world’s leading expert in the soda-firing technique. The students also tested different clay formulations and completed test firings of their own pieces to determine variances in the process.
Kakas had designed the kiln remotely at NMU based on measurements provided by workers at the Gaya Ceramic Arts Center. But within a few hours of arriving in Bali, he discovered a problem: the measurements had been incorrectly relayed from one worker to another.
Flight fatigue and all, Kakas had to redesign the whole project with new parameters to be able to construct the kiln in time. It was a lesson in abiding by the constraints of a developing nation, dynamic thinking based on real-life experiences and adaptation on the fly.
“Indonesia is the home of some of the oldest origins of kilns and ceramics,” said Kakas, who had previously worked as a resident artist and designer at the center. “We were going for hand-crafted, contemporary fine art, not mass brick or roof tile production. Despite modern technology, part of the Hindu culture is still steeped in art making and they’re building on contemporary movements within the field.
“This kiln, like many, is based on the (catenary) arch—the same principle as the St. Louis Arch. But we change materials based on what’s available locally. To introduce sodium carbonate required for soda firing, we had to create bricks that were insulating and could withstand the corrosion of soda.”
Students installed bricks along the skeleton of the kiln, which was removed when the bricks were self-supporting, and constructed a front wall and back chimney. A traditional kiln blessing took place before the first firing, when propane tanks shot a flame through the unit.
“We learned how each piece was altered depending on how it faced the flame,” said student Lauren Doerfler. “I was testing how soda and heat travels through the kiln. Pieces will absorb it in different ways, depending on if they’re open or closed forms. They gave us eight different clays to play with and we also made our own. It was fun to experimenting with all of them. We labeled each so we would know which clay had what effect.”
The students also witnessed the creative process of Soda, Clay and Fire author Gail Nichols during her residency at the center. She had visited NMU a few years ago for workshops with students and a Women’s History Month presentation.
People from all over the world travel to the arts center in Bali for workshops and residencies. Adjacent to it is Gaya Ceramic and Design, a production house that blends “Italian sophistication and Balinese craftsmanship” to create high-end, hand-thrown ceramics that are distributed worldwide. Kakas said sales revenue is reinvested in the local centers, temples and homes and generates income for the skilled artisans.
The NMU delegation also experienced Balinese culture during the four-week internship. Student Megan Edic reflected on their visit to a water temple.
“Anyone can go; you just have to cover your shoulders and wear a sarong,” said student Megan Edic. “Each little fountainhead symbolizes something different and you can cleanse yourself of multiple things or one thing repeatedly. Bali is a beautiful place and the culture is welcoming and spiritually rich. But the people there did not try to impose their beliefs on others.”
Edic and other participating students gave a campus presentation earlier this semester on their Bali experiences.