Working along the shores of the North Fork of the Crow River, just downstream from the Mill Pond Dam in New London, three experienced potters and a changing crew of community volunteers are turning two tons of clay into a 10-foot-tall fire sculpture.

When the sculpture is unveiled at 8 p.m. on Sept. 19 - at the end of 96 straight hours of a 2,000-degree wood firing - the public should see a hot, orange, glowing church steeple.

“Nothing like a little pressure,” joked Craig Edwards, a New London potter.

Edwards, who designed the sculpture, is working alongside fellow potter (and New London mayor) Bill Gossman and Ann-Charlotte Ohlsson, a Swede living in Denmark who has travelled the world to assist in the construction in about 15 of these types of large-scale permanent fire sculptures.

“So far it’s gone really smoothly,” said Edwards. “We’ve had a lot of help from community volunteers.”

Funded as part of a $262,500 ArtPlace America grant New London received last year, the sculpture is one of the latest works-in-progress to be added to the banks of the river on the back-side of the Main Street business center.

The long-ignored part of town is gradually being transformed into a river space that features community art, local history and a gathering space.

At the top of the dam the Mill Pond Mosaic project, which is an artist’s’ rendering of the town’s historic grist mill, is nearing completion and will also be dedicated on Sept. 19. (See related story).

Fire sculpture

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Using a sketch and some rules of engineering that take into consideration the temperamental nature of clay, which needs to be kept wet, but too wet, and dry, but not too dry, the sculpture is being constructed with thick flat slabs of clay.

Fed through a slab roller, the clay is pressed into flat strips that are 3/4-inch thick and about 15-inches long.

They are then hand-molded into a “J” shape.

After being raked with a fork at the bottom and dabbed with a clay slurry the curved slabs are placed like bricks on the growing sculpture.

The “J” configuration is used to reduce the danger of pockets of air being captured during the firing process, which could be detrimental to the structure, said Gossman.

Construction of the clay sculpture is expected to be completed by Monday.

After that a kiln will be built around it using a “space age” material invented by NASA, said Edwards.

For four straight days the fire chambers will be fed with two to three cords of wood to gradually bring the heat to about 2,000 degrees.

People will work in six-hour shifts to maintain the fire night and day, making the project a study in human resource management.

“You have to have people here all the time,” Edwards said.

From start to finish, the sculpture will involve “way over a thousand hours” of labor by paid potters and volunteers.

Working on a project of this size has its own challenges, but meeting a specific completion deadline adds another layer.

Usually a potter makes something and “when it’s done it’s done,” said Edwards.

“But this has to be done at 8 o’clock on the 19th. A lot of people are going to show up.”

Ohlsson, who has provided technical support to Denmark’s world-renowned ceramic artist Nina Hole on similar projects in places like Brazil, Japan, Hungary and Mexico, said this project is “going well” and the timeline will be met. “But it will be hard work,” she said.

Edwards said a church steeple was selected for the design to reflect the community.

“We wanted something that was iconic locally,” he said.

The base of the steeple will be decorated with motifs that represent the different cultures of the town.

“It’s sort of a global village,” he said.