Mastodon Black: Firing

Firing eleven-thousand year old ivory is a bit of a nerve wracking experience. During this process I began to rehearse in my mind what I would say to Peter Russel if something went wrong; and if I would ask for more to make a second attempt …

Early on in my attempts to make ivory black I had received some wonderful walrus tusk ivory and excitedly fired it only to find that that my container had cracked and the resulting rush of oxygen had turned the tusk into ash. Since bone-ash has no value as a pigment, this was very disheartening.

Beyond that worry, I also had to solve a problem: How could I safely calcify a small sample? Remembering a pottery class I took a few years ago, I recalled that sand had a very high flux point, so the idea came to me that I could use it as a fill. I tested my idea on a piano key I had around the studio, and the results were good. So, with trepidation, I loaded up my container with the mastodon tusk, packed it with sand, and dropped it into my stove.

After a few hours had passed I fished around in the hot coals and pulled out the canister – which looked fine on the outside – and put it aside to cool. While it was in the fire I wasn’t overly preoccupied with container, but now that I could see it I was very anxious to open it. I knew that it would be another three hours or so before it would be cool enough to handle, and that any attempt to quicken this could injure the ivory, so I waited.

The canister’s pings and clinks slowly stopped sounding; little by little I could place my hand closer to the outside; finally I began to count the length of time I could touch the outside of the metal. When I finally reached ten, I knew that I could open it. Removing the lid, I carefully poured out the sand, watching for my ivory nugget.

And, although dusty, the mastodon tusk remained whole and fired to a good black.

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