Brian Vansell, Director of the Artist-in-Industry Program at Mission Clay Pipe Company contacted me in in 2013 and we had our first meeting in 2014. The AIR program at Mission had been running since the 1980’s, primarily out of the California factory. A myriad of well-known ceramic artists had participated, working with freshly extruded clay pipe, carving, cutting and painting underglazes on the clay pipe surfaces.
The Mission factory in Pittsburg, Kansas was closing and Brian encouraged me to visit and tour the facility there. I was literally blown away with the place. 100 acres of grounds with 20 acres of existing clay pipe inventory. A skeletal crew of employees was kept on to help clean up and shut down the 120-year-old factory. This is the same factory the Jun Kaneko built and fired his first large-scale head pieces in the factory’s beehive kilns.
During my initial work session in June 2015 I felt like the proverbial kid-in-a-candy-store. I spent a day documenting the existing inventory and tagging interesting clay pipe pieces that had potential for large-scale outdoor architectural pieces. After finding an old circular concrete pad on the edge of the factory, I designed and supervised the placement of 36 pieces of fired clay pipe, some with inner diameters of 32” with 4” thick walls, and weighing up to two tons per piece! Forklifts with appropriate slings moved the pieces into place. The nearly two-day building process was incredibly stimulating!
I spent several more days that first visit building smaller pieces, exploring inventory and possibilities.
I returned 6 months later with a specific idea in mind; to build a circular piece, 16’ in diameter x 8’ tall for a potential permanent installation in Kansas City, Missouri. I built a ‘model’ for the piece out of short 12” diameter pipe to get some precise measurements. A physical connection between the pipe was necessary, so each pipe needed to be drilled with a diamond bit to accommodate steel bolts. After selecting the appropriate pipe and drilling the holes through the 1.5” thick fired clay walls, the pipes were assembled and pressure washed, which really brought the warm rich terra cotta clay color to life. Smaller diameter ‘elbow’ pipes were collected, pressure washed prior to glazing for the ‘crown’ element on the tops of the tall pipe.
This piece awaits final installation.
On my second week-long visit to the Mission Phoenix factory I was informed that 15”interior diameter freshly extruded pipe were not currently being made, but I could have a number of 28” interior diameter pipe to work with. Needless to say, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the vastly different scale of these pipe. Once the 8 x 10’ tall monolithic pipe with 3.5” thick walls were delivered to the artist studio, I was confronted with the mass of clay before me. A ton or more of freshly extruded clay in each pipe, these massive pipes were so much larger than the 15” diameter pipes from the previous visit.
My work with fired clay pipe material at the Pittsburg, Kansas factory led to an invitation to visit the Phoenix factory which continues to produce and fire Mission Clay Pipe products. After a site-visit in 2016, I began working at the Phoenix factory in February of 2017. My affinity for working industrial production sites has grown stronger and stronger over the years. Perhaps because of the scale and output of the production facilities, I feel a sense of creative freedom in these factories. Industrial production facilities seem to suit my architectural sensibilities.