Artsy Side of Life: Zach Sierke Pottery, Fairhope
Editorial from Scenic 98 Coastal
Zach Sierke is somewhat famous around these parts for his creative pottery, special hand-made kiln, and his deep knowledge of the native clays and their properties. The Eastern Shore is a mecca for artisans sculpting works of art, because of its clay.
“So much of what I do is about a sense of place,” said Zach. A native of Fairhope, Zach got into clay during his second semester at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. “The campus is right on the water on a peninsula into Tampa Bay with 1500 students; it was a good fit for me. I took a ceramics class, and everything just clicked,” he says.
“Ceramics is creative, hands-on, reaches back to human history, and is technical with tons of science involved. An understanding of chemistry opened up for me and changed how I saw the world.”
Zach’s great-grandfather was a potter in the 1800s. There were jugs around the house he had made, and Zach recalled his grandmother’s stories about her father. Zach found his great-grandfather’s kiln on Cowpen Creek, near Clay City.
“I dug clay from that site, took it back to college to test it, and developed an obsession with clay and ceramics, especially about local clay found on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. This gave me a meaningful relationship with local lore and the community.”
He dug clay from veins that reached back historically to the potters in the area and took truckloads back to school. “As much as I could carry for testing,” he says. “Half the population of the Eastern Shore was involved in pottery and ceramics. So many families in this area have ties back to folk potters.”
Folk pottery is a catch-all phrase that describes artists that don’t have a formal education in pottery and ceramics. In the early days of European settlements, the creation of ceramics was an important industry. The area was perfect because of the abundant veins of clay with different properties, wood to fire the kilns, water access to transport materials, and the port in Mobile which allowed products to be easily shipped worldwide.
Mobile Bay stoneware was a necessary industry that created vessels that could be used for all manner of cooking, storing, and eating. Clay was also molded into bricks for building structures, and the knowledge of local clays was important for understanding how to use, prepare and fire the pieces.
In the 1700s, jug makers and potters arrived from Europe. The first artisans from France settled in the Fly Creek area near Ecor Rouge. Zach’s grandfather was from England and began working near Clay City. “Several French families really set a precedent on the Eastern Shore.” After the Civil War, potters flooded into the area.
For Zach, ceramics and geology have given him a niche as a teacher of wild clay and wild materials. New discoveries drive Zach more so than the prized finished pottery he produces. He built his own wood-fired Anagama kiln, one of just a few in the world today, and is passionate about the importance of using wild clay. “Each clay has a different reaction to the wood-fired kiln, and each wood used to fire the kiln produces mineral-rich ash the tree absorbed during its growth.”
With roots in Japan, the Anagama kiln uses ash from different woods used to fire the kiln. It creates its own glaze on the pottery. When a local company offered him two semi-truckloads of industrial-grade refractory brick, Zach designed and started building the kiln. It took years to construct the kiln just the way he wanted it.
The Anagama kiln is very different from an electric or gas-fired kiln, where glazes are added to pottery pieces and then fired with consistency. In Zach’s process, Mother Nature is the boss. “Ash is the molten minerals the tree has pulled from the soil. Each kind of tree pulls out different minerals and produces a different glaze finish.”
Loading the wood into the kiln, positioning the pottery pieces, using different types of clay: all these systems come together and defy expectations. “I’m always surprised,” he says. In the first few years, Zach says he probably lost eighty percent of his work to defects like cracks, drips, and flaws. “There is always new stuff to discover. Each firing is different and keeps me hungry for the next firing.”
These days, Zach fires about once a year. People travel from all over the country to participate. They bring their own pottery to be fired, and an around-the-clock team watches over the kiln as the firing occurs. It takes about one week to load the pieces into the kiln and position them to receive the proper heat and ash glaze. It takes another week to fire the kiln and two weeks for it to cool down in order to retrieve the finished pieces.
“I have it dialed in pretty well now,” says Zach. It took about four or five years to get it where he wanted it. “There is so much to consider; windward or leeward positioning, placing pieces upright or on their side. The loading sets up the patterns that will show up on the piece. Halos, warm tones, wet clay creates cool tones,” he says.
The firing team consists of hobby potters, students, and professional potters that don’t have access to wood-fired kilns. “We also attract those who have lots of experience firing wood-fired kilns. It’s an amazing hands-on technical process. There’s nothing like it. These firings resonate with folks in a surprising way.”
Zach tells me where these special clays along the Eastern Shore originated. “The clay found in this area is very pure and easily accessible. That’s what attracted so many potters here initially.” Clays found along rivers and creeks have different consistencies with iron, sulfur, and salt mixed in, such as Ecor Rouge clay and Blue clay.
“There are so many ways clay works with fire.” Mobile Bay’s clay minerals have specific chemical makeups and crystal structures. Kaolin clay’s geological origins are in the Appalachian Mountains, and Bentonite clay has volcanic origins around the Ozark Mountains.
Zach sources his clay from half a dozen veins used a hundred years ago. “To get consistent results, you must know where and what to expect. You have to marry the wood to the clay. Some wood ash melts at slightly different temperatures. Two clays fired right next to each other may look radically different.”
To Zach, the work ends up telling a story about the place it’s made. “It’s the accumulation of human energy that taps into the primal spirit of human civilization. When considered art, a coffee mug has a greater relationship impact than a piece of art on the wall. It’s something that brings you pleasure and comfort every day as you wake and greet the day.”
He says, “Getting into that intimate, quiet space with my work, it’s an honor to do that. We live in an unusual area. I want people to gain a deeper relationship with the place they live. Opening the door to the history of humanity, geology, and all the forces that support our existence is what I hope to do with my work.”
Zach was a featured artist in a 2018 documentary about pottery and kilns in Alabama called Journey Proud on Alabama Public Television. Here you will see him discuss the process of preparing and firing the Anagama kiln and the cool down, and he takes you to Ecor Rouge, where he sources much of the clay he uses in his work.
Zach has been the recipient of several significant grants and awards from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Denmark’s Statenskunstfond which have helped him educate and collaborate with potters and students both locally and internationally. Zach teaches pottery at the Eastern Shore Art Centeryear-round and helps guide students on their own paths with pottery.
You can purchase Zach’s pottery at his workshop (including beautiful earthen coffee mugs) by appointment only by going to his Facebook or Instagram page, Zach Sierke Pottery. You will find Zach’s work for sale at many area museums and art galleries throughout the Scenic 98 Coastal area.
Thank you, Zach, for the unforgettable experience. It’s one I will cherish forever.