Sierra Nevada College

Students Explore An Ancient Process – at an Ancient Lake

On Veteran’s Day weekend, SNC alum Joe Taylor (Bachelor of Fine Arts 2008) and his father Jack held a giant ceramic pit fire on the family’s high desert property. Professor Rick Parsons, ten fine arts students, and over 200 pots made the 270 mile round trip to the shores of Walker Lake.

What is Pit Firing?

Pit firing is the most ancient method of firing pottery. Examples have been found that are 30,000 years old. Maximum temperatures are lower (around 1,100°C, 2,000°F) than in a modern kiln, and the fire is much less controlled. Also, much of the color comes from wild organic materials, so each piece unearthed from the ashes is totally unique.

These pots were washed in the briny waters of Walker Lake and wrapped with salty lake grass. Cooper and iron washes were used to decorate the pots. Then they were wrapped with organic materials such as banana peels, seaweed, and paper, and nestled together in the pit. A layer of crumpled paper provided kindling. Wood was then gently stacked on the pottery, topped with corrugated metal sheeting to hold in the heat. Jack Taylor buys the scrap lumber for the fire at auction from the nearby Hawthorne Army Depot. The lit blaze burned for about 12 hours.

The end results vary wildly from pot to pot. The flames “paint” the pottery where the clay absorbs carbon from the wood fuel, making deep black marks. The organic materials and salts produce many colors that vary with the minerals and firing conditions.

Make Art Everywhere

Learn more about Sierra Nevada College’s studio intensive BACHELOR OF FINE ARTS >.

Walker Lake

Walker Lake is a natural lake in western Nevada near the town of Hawthorne. The lakebed, like Pyramid Lake, is a remnant of prehistoric Lake Lahontan, which covered much of northwest Nevada and part of eastern California during the last ice age. At its peak, the lake covered more than 8,600 square miles and reached a depth of over 500 feet. The lake is fed from the north by the Walker River and has no natural outlet except absorption and evaporation.

In modern times, Walker Lake became an example of the difficulties of managing water in the Great Basin. The area around the lake was traditionally inhabited by the Paiute. Settlers began taking water from the Walker River upstream of the lake for ranching and farming in the mid-19th century. In many years, all the water in the river was diverted before it reached the lake. Because of the lack of inflow, the lake level dropped approximately 181 ft (55 m) between 1882 and 2016! The unusually wet winter of 2016 – 2017 raised the river flow enough that water flowed into the lake for the first time in six years.

The water loss in the lake has resulted in a higher concentration of total dissolved solids (TDS). By the spring of 2016, the TDS concentration in much of the lake was well above the lethal limit for most native fish species. The Lahontan cutthroat trout are gone. The lake’s Tui chub are in dramatic decline because the salinity is too high for the eggs and young fish. The loss of fish has in turn severely impacted the bird species using the lake. For many years the lake was a major stopover point for migratory loons, and the town of Hawthorne held an annual Loon Festival. By 2009 the town had to cancel the event because there were no longer enough chub and other small fish to attract many loons.