Trey Hill is painting the largest sculpture he's built in the United States.
In the studio, he's using unusual tools to transform the nude ceramic tree standing 8 feet tall. Disposable cups, one in each hand. Stepladders, one on each side of the sculpture.
The colors of the glaze are basic, white, jet black and medium blue. The process is mesmerizing.
For an hour and a half, Hill, a working artist and faculty member at the University of Montana, walks up and down the stepladders, cups in hand, pouring water, pouring glaze, more water, more glaze, stepping back for a wider look as colored lines emerge, refilling cups, stepping up for another pour.
The ceramic sculpture marks a milestone not only for Hill, but for the ceramics program at UM. It's the first firing that's filled the new kiln on campus, a kiln that may be one of the largest at any university in the region.
Hill works mostly in silence, the only sound the trickle of water and paint draining into the cut bottom of a plastic garbage can under the foot of the sculpture.
As the lines begin to give the piece dimension, Hill pauses to show the way the glazes split and flow and streak around the curves, the way gravity pulls some runs into thin wisps, the way the sculpture itself chooses the path of the glaze.
"See that nice long line? That starts to feel resolved in a different way."
At a certain point, Julia Galloway, another ceramic artist and faculty member, walks by and pauses to watch, a big smile on her face.
"Looking good," Galloway says to Hill, and she turns to the other observers. "It's pretty exciting, isn't it?"
Once Hill finishes glazing the tree, the sculpture will return to the monster kiln, where he hopes it won't crack from heat that will reach 2,250 degrees.
The scene underway is emblematic of the ceramics program at the School of Art and perhaps of Montana's place in the field. The kiln allows work at an ambitious scale. The faculty are collegial and work alongside their students, in the tradition of the program's founder, Rudy Autio.
Dean Leeper, in his third year studying ceramics in Missoula, said students at UM learn to consider their work within a larger context of the art scene, past and present. The directive isn't overt, he said, but students are led to think about how their art will add to the conversation.
"There's definitely a push to be a contributor in that dialogue," said Leeper, an MFA candidate.
Hill started building the kiln about five years ago.
He drove to Wyoming to buy bricks from a potter at one-fifth of the normal cost and brought them back to Missoula in a U-Haul. The kiln cost roughly $3,000 in brick, $1,000 in steel, and $6,000 in burners, a fraction of the cost of purchasing a new one.
The floor of the "car kiln" sits on a track that rolls out and allows access on all sides. The "stacking space," or the interior, measures 4 feet wide by 6 feet deep by just under 9 feet tall.
"Everybody always asks me, 'Is this the biggest kiln in the blank?'" Hill said. "I don't know. It's a very big kiln, and there are very few kilns like this in the country at universities."
The kiln is made out of soft brick 9 inches thick, and the material is so insulating, the brick remains cool to the touch on the outside even as the four gas burners push the inside temperature to 2,200 degrees.
At first, Hill planned to build the kiln at his home, but he later decided to move it to campus, partly so students could use it.
It's difficult to build a successful sculpture, and any limitation adds to the challenge, Hill said. The giant kiln removes scale as a limitation.
"It doesn't mean if you make an 8-foot-tall piece, it's going to be good," Hill said. "It might be terrible and huge."
But he said it opens new possibilities for students. "They don't have to get their tape measures out anymore. They can just build."
In "Persistence in Clay: Contemporary Ceramics in Montana," art historian H. Rafael Chacon wrote about the ceramics program at UM for the publication of the Missoula Art Museum.
From the start, faculty members were also notable artists, making marks outside the classroom and beyond Montana. In his piece, Chacon described Autio's verve, his "discipline, affability, and sense of humor." The UM faculty member noted another kiln and milestone, too.
"In 1984, UM ceramics was among the first academic programs in the nation to build an anagama (wood-fired) kiln," Chacon said.
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In another piece in the 2011 publication, Stephen Glueckert noted a Missoula woman, Sister Trinitas, brought the first kiln to Montana for ceramic use in the 1930s. "Trinitas later worked with engineers from the Anaconda Copper Company to build a railcar walk-in kiln, which was significantly ahead of the times."
In an interview, Chacon said the field of ceramics is constantly changing, and Galloway and Hill are respected around the world for their dynamic work. He said Hill has pushed the ceramics program into a "much more robustly sculptural tradition," and a more abstract one, and Galloway has continued a painterly tradition, but with "radically different" themes, ones "rich with social content and political content."
Steven Young Lee, resident artist director of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, said the hires of Hill and Galloway at UM, along with Josh DeWeese and Jeremy Hatch at Montana State University, "raised the profile of ceramics in the state pretty significantly." Based in Helena, the Bray is an educational institution with a mission to stimulate creative work in ceramics.
The new kiln will make a mark because it will allow students to see the way Hill challenges himself, Lee said: "The classroom ends up becoming this window into his studio practice, which is incredibly important for them to see."
Hill first landed in Montana for an Archie Bray residency after working for a couple of years following his master's degree from San Jose State University.
A decade ago, a faculty post at UM opened, and Hill applied for the job; he was working at the University of South Carolina at the time, but he and his partner, Olivia Riutta, both wanted to return to the Treasure State.
He's been building tree sculptures for the last five or six years. Hill had been looking at the way the human form had been portrayed historically, looking at Greek and Roman stone figures that were seductive, beautiful and sexual.
The trees and branches supporting the body captured his attention. Many forms had trees with cut limbs that came halfway up the thigh, and those features, secondary to the human form but critical to its stability, reflected his interest in the unseen elements of life.
"It became a perfect way for me to talk about those things that we miss in life, but those things that are holding so much of what we do," Hill said.
First, he made trees in conjunction with other objects, like part of a horse. Then, he started to take away the other elements to see if the the trees could carry their own weight. He cut branches off, pruned them, eyeballed them from every angle.
In the studio, the shape of the tree informs the way it takes color. When it comes time to glaze, Hill lets go. He picks up a cup, fills it.
"I can decide where to pour it, but the form is dictating what happens. And I love that," Hill said.
The large work shows the communal nature of ceramics.
To be as efficient as possible with the kiln, Hill built two trees to be fired together. Before he could glaze them, he needed help rolling them out of the kiln after the first firing. The heaviest piece weighs some 600 pounds.
Three ceramics students helped him after the first firing, the bisque. Their objective was to slide the base out of the kiln while keeping the sculptures steady, inch the sculptures from the base onto a rolling cart, and wheel the pieces inside, where Hill would paint them.
The move required all eight hands, a pair to crank the winch, a couple of pairs to steady the enormous pieces and push, a pair to grab cinder blocks that will support the platform on the cart, and the same pair to scrape residue from the bottom of the sculpture.
They pushed the tree a sliver at a time toward the cart. "If it starts to really chatter, just stop."
Paris Summers, an undergraduate student from Billings, eyeballed the smooth sculpture. "Well, it looks great." She found no cracks. "The firing went well." She helped texturize the trees for Hill, her mentor, and she plans to meet the challenge of scope offered by the kiln in the future.
"It's an opportunity for me to build larger in scale, much like Trey," Summers said. "This is ginormous."
After he glazes them, Hill returns the sculptures to the kiln for a second firing lasting three days. He must wait one more day for them to slowly cool before he opens the kiln. On reckoning day, the culmination of years of practice and six months of labor, he's nervous until he opens the door.
Hill has built pieces as large as the one he just completed, but only in China. If the ones in the kiln pass muster, they might get sold to an interested buyer in China or one in Missoula, where he shows his work at the Radius Gallery.
"They look damned near ... ," he said, pausing for a moment. "They look great."
Maybe more important are the pieces the giant kiln will inspire and hold in the future. Summers wants to work toward a larger sculpture, and beginning ceramics students are building clay vessels 6 feet tall, pieces that won't be fired but might spark ideas.
Last week, Hill started building another large piece he anticipates will fire in the new kiln in six months.
Artwork doesn't have to be large to be good, Hill said, and the program at UM allows students to work at different scales, on different ideas. He tells them to work always at the edge of their ability, and he's just given them the chance with the new kiln to push that edge in Montana again.
"They may never have another chance to do something like this, but while they're here at the University of Montana, they can," Hill said. "And that's what we're here to do."