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Nina Shitag Hurco

(The Hill That Spits Fire)

a review by Christy Hengst

Fire has always been the element that allows potters to be potters and blacksmiths to be blacksmiths. Transforming clay to become hard and durable, iron to become soft and malleable, fire is an essential element in the mystery of creation and destruction. "The hill that spits fire" is the literal translation of the word for "Volcano" in Quechua, the language spoken by the Indians of the Ecuadorian Andes. Volcano, kiln, forge and fire were constant companions in a large sculptural project my husband and I have just completed in Cuenca, Ecuador. Officially a monument to the blacksmiths, the sculpture consists of a forged iron figure with a hammer emerging from the crater of a volcano covered, in large part, with high-fire, hand-made ceramic tile.

The project arose out of the excitement of an idea between three friends, and only years later found its way to become reality. Fausto Cardoso, an architect in Cuenca; Helmut Hillenkamp, a blacksmith from Germany; and I, a ceramicist from the States -- during conversations together in Cuenca we dreamed up our fantasy alternative to an existing plan of the city's for a plaza and monument dedicated to the blacksmiths. The city's supposed plan for "Las Herrerias" (the traditional blacksmithing neighborhood of Cuenca) was a blacktop plaza with a monument of a bronze man on pedestal. The plan we came up with was in many ways the antithesis of blacktop -- we saw the opportunity, and a huge space, for each of us to explore and try out new frontiers with our chosen media. Fausto designed a plaza using the many colors of locally found stone and brick to create drawings and patterns in the ground; Helmut conceived the figure of a twice life-size, anatomically correct blacksmith, whose bones and muscles he would forge individually one by one; and I imagined an undulating landscape of hills, valleys and volcano (like the Andes around us) rising organically from the plaza, to be covered by thousands of tiles. Many of the tiles would be carved with images themselves, pictures within a picture, possibly with the help of people there in Cuenca. The presence of ceramic in the monument made sense not just from my point of view, but because of the ceramic museum and school studios just moving into the neighborhood, situated at one end of the plaza. Helmut and I had already begun collaborating on iron-ceramic projects (see "Bus Stop Tilework", CM 2/97), and felt exciting possibilities in the crossover of media. In a society where the crafts may be dying due to a narrow secretiveness and lack of communication, we wanted to share and suggest other approaches to the work. We envisioned a marriage of materials : clay/iron, female/male, landscape/figure, soft/hard.

Our proposals for monument and plaza were brought to the Mayor of Cuenca, and somewhat surprisingly, were accepted. There were still many meetings, historical commissions, and financing concepts to wade through -- slowly the money and physical spaces came together. The Fundacion Paul Rivet, which manages the museum and school studios on the edge of the plaza, offered their space for us to work in, in exchange for classes being taught and tools built. The Swiss government agency SWISSCONTACT offered financial support for this educational component. And we raised money for the sculpture itself privately through the "sale" of monoliths -- the names of donors were installed on ceramic plaques set into the monolithic stones that are part of the plaza. Finally, in October 1997 we arrived in Cuenca, ready to start.

In truth, looking back, the decision to include ceramic tile as part of the sculpture radically influenced the nature of what this project became -- or should I say, the decision to use high-fire ceramic tile. It was difficult to believe the results of my first inquiries, which seemed to indicate a total absence of high-fire technology in Ecuador. But I began to realize that it was true, that people were for the most part firing in electric kilns with pre-made glazes, with the exception of pit-firing and other lower temperatures. I considered doing the tiles for the sculpture low-fire, so as to be in tune with what was going on there and since anyway there were no kilns/clays/glazes for high fire. In the end, though, in the interest of strength and resistance to climbing children, as well as my own personal aesthetic, we decided to just go for it. Build our own high-fire kiln as part of the project, and try to make high fire clay and glazes from whatever materials were available.

Luckily, we found help awaiting, in the form of an eccentric, retired chemistry professor, Dr. Secundino Moncayo. With a lot of experience in the ceramic field and a natural curiosity that did not end with retirement, Secundino was helping the Fundacion Paul Rivet to set up their clay-making equipment. He had done some work already on developing a refractory mix with local materials. The challenge of actually pushing the experiments to reality and building a high-fire kiln in Cuenca proved to be irresistible for Secundino, who threw himself into the effort with gusto. He brought us to various kaolin mines that only he knew about in the area, helped with molecular computations, and generally helped to move and shake things in a world where things do not often want to move.

The Fundacion Paul Rivet itself had a timely reason for wanting our work with high-fire to be successful; the Fundacion had just initiated a project, with support from the United Nations, trying to eliminate the use of lead for glazes amongst the artisans. Ceramicists, roof tile makers and brick makers have long used extremely poisonous degrees of lead -- often taken directly from old batteries. Although leadless frits can be bought, they are considered too unavailable and too expensive by artisans. The Fundacion Paul Rivet developed a program approaching the problem from the question of temperature: if the ceramicists can raise the temperature of their firings, they can use other ingredients (higher melting point, less toxic ingredients) for the glazes. And in order to raise the temperature of the firing, you must build the kiln from something other than red bricks. So the successful formula for refractory bricks and the design of a kiln built for higher and longer firings -- especially the use of the liquid propane burners we had brought -- was important to them for other than just artistic reasons.

Another happy coincidence was that just as we began to set up shop, a young art student, Ricardo Alzamora showed up, on leave from his University in Bogota, looking for something interesting to get involved in with ceramics. Self-motivated with curiosity and very creative artistically, Ricardo became an integral part of the project, donating his time for the duration.

Quickly progress was made towards a high-fire kiln. We had decided to build a sprung arch, downdraft kiln, based on a plan in a book about kilns by Jorge Fernandez Chiti of Argentina. With tests came the discovery of a clay body that was good for cone ten. We purchased some old refractory bricks from a sodium silicate factory with which we were able to build the body of the kiln, and processed the contaminated parts of those bricks through a hammer mill to make grog. This grog was used together with a kaolin and a ball clay to create a refractory mixture for more bricks, refractory cement, kiln shelves and posts.

Helmut built a raku kiln, which was used first for a Raku course, but ultimately served a very important function as a high-fire test kiln for clay, glaze and refractory experiments. We had brought two "magic tools" with us which gave a jump forward, the first of which was the ceramic fiber blanket to build the Raku/test kiln. Even though it was loosing a lot of heat and would not be practical on a long term basis, it did get up to cone 13 and provided the starting point for high-fire testing of materials that ceramicists there had been missing. Also during the Raku class, Helmut put together an impromptu Raku kiln from normal red artisan bricks and a burner bought at the hardware store. He wanted to prove that imported materials are not necessary for many types of firing, certainly not for Raku. To my personal amazement, this little Raku kiln and burner which cost about $30 total in materials worked just fine.

The second magic tool we brought, which was quickly copied and reproduced there, was the liquid propane burner. Designed by Nils Lou and built by Burners Inc. in Detroit, this burner allows the withdrawal of propane from the tank in liquid form, converting it to gas by way of a heating chamber in the burner itself. This means that when you are using the small seven gallon tanks of propane, (which was our only option), the tanks do not freeze and drop pressure from the conversion. The hose close to the burner freezes a little, but there it doesn't matter. The freezing up of the small tanks had been a big obstacle to previous experiments with high-fire gas kilns in Cuenca. But with this method, we were able to use the full contents of the seven gallon tanks they have there by turning them upside down, and then we just hooked up the next one when the previous one was empty. For a cone ten firing of about ten hours we used about nine tanks.

Day by day the studio equipment and capabilities grew. The Fundacion Paul Rivet got their clay making system going, using three different raw clays mixed in a ball mill, withdrawn as a slip, and set in plaster molds to dry to working consistency. Helmut built a slabroller for me to start making tiles. Meanwhile I began the process of searching for glaze materials. The one ceramic supply industry there in Cuenca (Ferro Ecuatoriana) is amazingly secretive about the composition of their materials, and often even about which materials they carry -- it is a long process to buy things from them, as they are only set up to deal with other industries, not individual artisans. Starting with some basic glaze recipes that I had brought from my studio at Santa Fe Clay, I got what materials were available from Ferro Ecuatoriana, and was able to find a few others in a pharmacy. A couple of materials, like bone ash, we made ourselves; Secundino got hold of some burnt animal bones (I'm not sure from where!) and we put that through a little hand grinder several times. Also, when we finally discovered the composition of the kaolin that Ferro was selling ( a former student of Secundino's who was working there was kind enough to share that information), we realized it was actually a feldspar. So we began processing our own kaolin, a more refractory one, which had been hand collected from an abandoned mine. Afterwards we were able to get the cone 10 matte glazes we had been looking for, where as with the industrially sold kaolin, many of the glazes were so glassy.

Somewhere in there, we taught an intensive three-week class in high fire. With my still-not-very-good Spanish, I attempted to introduce the general feeling or philosophy of high-fire, and with the help of Helmut and Secundino, cover the technical points that one would need to know in order to work with high-fire there. This included kiln design and building, including burner orifice specifications, draft and space relations etc.; making your own refractory bricks, shelves, posts (with practical hands-on experience!); clay body composition and a basic understanding of the primary materials involved (Secundino took us on a field trip to five mines); glaze mixing, glaze chemistry and substitution, the unity formula, glaze application; and the firing schedule for a cone 10 reduction firing. It was an interesting experience, to say the least. And we were relieved when it was over and we could turn towards making the sculpture.

We began making tiles, hundreds and then thousands of them. Many we just cut into different shapes and sizes and gave a simple coat of one of 12 glazes we had developed. But about half were cut into larger squares, circles, rectangles and triangles, to become leatherhard, blank canvases for drawings and carvings. We had a special table where we stacked these "ready" tiles, and everybody knew that they could just take from that pile whenever they wanted to carve or draw tiles for the volcano. During the course of the project we hired three people to help with the tile-making, glazing and firing, and these people (bricklayers and construction workers normally) also began to carve tiles for the volcano in their free time after work. Ricardo and I would both bring basketfulls of tiles in the evening to our houses to work on, and I took to bringing blank tiles to the restaurants, parties or picnics that Helmut and I went to and inviting strangers to participate. We had a shortage of ribbon carving tools, which were not easily available there, so most people used nails to carve their tiles. Ecuadorians were in general very open to that kind of collective collaboration; to my surprise, there was little hesitation about such an unusual request, and nobody asked to keep what they had made instead of give it to the volcano. Professional ceramicists with whom we had contact also donated their creative efforts, and soon the studio was full of children, adults, and students carving tiles, due to a radio announcement we had made inviting people to participate. But maybe the person who made the most tiles of all was the prolific 11 yr. old Digna. The daughter of the caretakers of the studio spaces, she and her brother and sister were with us every step of the way during the project, and Digna and I became good friends. She learned not only how to roll out the slabs, cut tiles, and carve her own designs into them, but also how to make up and care for glazes, how to load the bisque kiln, and something of the high-firing as well. In my mind, Digna and the other children really formed a lot of the character of this project, with their spontaneous games, their need for human contact and love, their intense interest in each of the adults as role models; our group became something like a family.

In a project of this size, one also really begins to see the many different types of engagement necessary for creative work to be completed in the world; in this case, Helmut was fulfilling the technical-mechanical needs, inventing and building tools, problem solving, making things work. He essentially approached the making of the iron figure in a similar spirit, creating the skeleton first, bone by bone, then adding on muscle by muscle, so that the whole thing was imbued with the structural logic of the human body. My work was more on the intimate level of relationships among the people involved in the project, and in the intuitive decision-making of the artistic process -- the quality of each tile, and the quality of how all the tiles came together. And Fausto was the networker and organizer, keeping an eye out for the whole, and constantly re-connecting the project to the city, to the politicians, journalists, and ordinary people who came into contact with the work. He also directed the creative placement of brick, stone and river tile on the volcano, working with people so well that even unusual methods and requests were carried out with dedication. Technical, artistic, and social considerations; It's a little artificial to break the roles up like that, we certainly all took each of those roles at one time or another, but we began to see how each of them was necessary to complete the whole project.

So we collected and hoarded the tiles coming out of each firing in piles in a little room, wondering if we would have enough, as we approached the final stages of the sculpture. Helmut was working on the last muscles of the figure, and by now he also had several assistants/contributors helping with the ironwork. The boundaries between the blacksmiths and ceramicists also began to blur; blacksmiths were carving tiles, and ceramicists were trying their hand at the forge. Several TV. stations and a German film maker came to document the sculpture nearing completion, and there was a building excitement in the air. The neighborhood itself seemed to finally wake up to what was happening in their midst; for the longest time we had simply been "los extranjeros", the foreigners, and people had shown almost no interest in whatever we were supposedly doing. In the last month, I think they realized suddenly that it was for them! And they had also begun to get to know us through the daily contact , the tile carving activity, and our relationships with the children -- people on the street started to smile at us and call us by name.

Three weeks before the inauguration night, Ricardo, Stephanie (artist and Fausto's wife) and I began to place the tile. Because of the method I had chosen of making all the tiles first randomly without a pre-determined plan to follow, the placement of the tile was a crucial and very creative part of the process. The three of us as tile-placers had to keep up good communication in order to create a coherent feeling on the volcano, and at the same time, I knew it was important for each person to feel enough freedom in their decision making in order find that rhythm, that dance, that rides on intuition.

Simultaneously, work had been going on for several weeks laying the brick and stone that completed the connection of the volcano and plaza, licking tongue-like up the skirts of the volcano. Under the direction of Fausto, this part which we had originally imagined almost as "filler", also began to bloom creatively, creating rich, complex and playful spaces. For instance, Fausto suddenly had the idea to set the stones and pebbles standing up rather the lying down, which made them feel like forests. Last minute, he also decided to create a little lake in a lower slope of the volcano, with running water from a pipe which we embedded beneath the tiles, that flowed on into a stream that continued out across the plaza. This stream also got laid with tile. A crew of about 12 of his university students came to help the regular crew of 5 bricklayers with the cementing and grouting. With the bricks, stones and tiles, we used regular cement mixed with sand for setting as well as grouting. This seemed to work well as a whole visually, and in truth there are not many other choices available there.

One week before inauguration, the figure was complete. Ten strong men carried "el herrero" across the plaza, up the sides of the volcano, and installed him in his crater, with about half the neighborhood looking on. We who were laying tile pressed on in panic, through rainstorms, late evenings, and personal difficulties among the work crew, racing to cover the ground. Finally came the day of the last tile placed.

Inauguration was on Friday night, May 9th, with a big party. Lots of people showed up for this event, as it was broadcast on the radio that "a volcano will erupt tonight in Cuenca". All day Friday we had been preparing the sculpture for its debut; taking down the wooden fence that had been up around it for two months, cleaning the tiles and bricks with acid to remove residue of cement, installing electrical lights for illumination. The fire department came with two truckloads of water to forcefully spray and clean the whole sculpture. The figure was wrapped in white cloth, and fireworks (made by a master pyrotechnic in his seventies) were attached to all parts of it. And then, typical of our experience of Ecuador, things did not go quite as planned. Before we could begin with the speeches of the Mayor etc., it began to rain. In a flurry of activity, the fireworks, which were supposed to be for the end, were lit, the cloth successfully burned off, and we started the "eruption". Liquid butane gas was injected into the gas pipe that doubles up as lightning rod, spraying out from an orifice in the bottom of the figure and catching fire. Blue and yellow flames came out from the cracks in the muscles, even from the eyes, and soon the iron blacksmith turned into a gigantic torch. The crowd was excited. Several impromptu bands showed up, and we did eventually get around to the speeches. It was a great night. Later, when the red hot iron had cooled down again, children started to climb all over the figure, caressing its face and using the streams of ceramic tile down the volcano as slides.

Since that night there have always been children swarming over the monument, playing games with who can find what tile, splashing each other with water from the little lake, scratching their names into the bricks on the floor. Some bees took up residency in the head of the figure, probably attracted by the beeswax finish the iron had received. Meanwhile the adults are sitting on the boulders nearby watching, and every once in a while some neighbor tries to chase everybody away, demanding more respect for "the only work of art in the area".

And now, Helmut and I are back here in Santa Fe, Fausto and Stephanie and others have gone back to their regular lives, Ricardo back to Bogota. It's all a little like a dream -- an intense dream! Dream of earth, fire, and people.

Christy Hengst is an artist living and working in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She and Helmut Hillenkamp were married June 21st, 1997, one month after returning from Ecuador.


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05:00 pm Wednesday, December 31 1969