Camden Clay Co.

Dig Earth, Shape Earth, Put Earth in Fire: Working with Natural Clay Deposits on a Maine Island

Jess SmithComment
Island Clay Experiments with Camden Clay Co.

As those of you who follow our Instagram already know, Austin and I spent the better part of the third week in July on a remote Maine island. He and his family have been doing this for 25 years, and I started tagging along in 2009. The island (which I won't name here), has no cars or running water, solar electricity only, 6 or 7 total buildings, and is just an overall magical place to escape the craziness and complexities of life.

Last year we started experimenting with digging the natural clay deposits found on the beaches, and inspiration struck when we were hanging out around a campfire one night - "Why don't we try to pit fire some of these little creations?"

This little totem is one of the results of last year's firing experiment.

So we did, and we were kind of in awe at the simplicity of the whole process. We are used to working with a lot of supplies and formulas and tools, and firing in an industrial electric kiln, so taking all that away and bringing it down to it's most elemental components - digging earth, shaping earth, putting earth in fire - was a really rewarding and inspiring experience.

The clay on the island is very coarse, and not super easy to work with. So this year we thought we'd bring one or two simple tools and see what kind of a difference that would make. We brought a bucket, a sieve, a spatula, a plaster slab, and two wooden forming tools - a knife and a rib. While sieving the clay did make it a little smoother, we didn't feel that it made it any more workable. Next year I don't think we will bother with the tools.

After digging and preparing the clay, we shaped it on the beach one afternoon, and fired under the light of a full moon. A few of the pieces blew apart in the fire, likely because we rushed the drying process in order to try to have our fire on a less windy evening. The whole week was very windy, but of course the night after we fired was the stillest!

We were up past midnight tending the fire and expecting the tide to come up and dowse it like it had the year before, but it didn't get quite as high this year. So after removing the surviving pots, we put out the fire and went to bed, our clothes saturated with wood smoke. We were so tired and our eyes stung and throats itched from being so close to the fire all night. We both agreed we wouldn't fire clay again next summer, but I'm already looking forward to giving it another go!