Healing the Cracks

Pit Firing offers lessons in Buddhism and Kabbalism for ceramicist Susan Duhan Felix.

When Susan Duhan Felix puts clay slabs into holes in the sand
at Dillon Beach, sprinkles them with salt, sawdust, and copper
carbonate, then adds wood, ignites it, and lets the slabs smolder,
she’s making art. No two pieces emerge alike. Two slabs fired side by
side might share similar pinks and blacks, but smooth streaks on one
might evoke human skin, pocks on the other a bullet-riddled wall. This
is pitfiring, the earliest known mode of firing clay. Felix never knows
what she’ll get.

“Pit firing is a very amazing process,” says the Berkeley
ceramicist, “because you have so little control over it. You take a
blank slab of clay. You make a big fire. What happens in that fire is
completely unpredictable. In Hebrew. the word for ‘faith’ and the word
for ‘art’ come from the same root. Pit firing is a test of faith.” And
it makes art, currently on display at the Pacific School of Religion’s
Badè Museum (1798 Scenic Ave., Berkeley), where on June
28 Felix will give a talk and poet Morton Felix will read his work.
Called “Mystery Made Manifest,” the exhibition accompanies a display of
findings from an archeological dig in Israel.

A student of Buddhism and Jewish mysticism, the artist finds echoes
of both in her work. In the kabbalistic creation story, God issued
light-filled vessels that broke enroute to the brand-new world,
scattering sparks, which humans must now gather and nurture. “We each
contain a little holy spark,” Felix asserts. As for Buddhism —
unlike other practices in which the artist controls the final product
down to the last detail and can rework bits that come out wrong, pit
firing is an exercise in hopeful randomness: No do-overs allowed.

One piece in this show, “Shalom Salaam,” features the words for
“peace” in both Hebrew and Arabic calligraphy. Affixing slabs to scrap
wood mountings for the show, “I used a new kind of glue that I’d never
used before. I didn’t read the part of the package which said, ‘Heat
will separate.’ And I hung some of these pieces near a radiator.”
Sliding off its mounting, “Shalom Salaam” shattered on the floor. So
she did a piece called “Hope.” Felix repaired them, not attempting to
hide the breaks but actually emphasizing them with gold leaf.

Some of the pieces in the show were already fractured when they
first emerged from the fire pits. “The conventional wisdom about pit
firing is that you shouldn’t do slabs,” Felix says, because slabs are
especially susceptible to cracking in the pits. But the Badè
Museum’s exhibition space was almost entirely wall space. “So I had to
do wall pieces; so I got cracks.” Cracked-and-glued pieces now hang
proudly on the walls: “One of the things this show is about is loving
the cracks, healing the cracks — and the idea of cracks being the
place where the light comes through.” 2:30 p.m. Bade.PSR.edu

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