written by Ben Opsahl | photo by Jan Sonnenmair
The secret to Douglas Sigstad’s ceramic glazing process lies in an old brick kiln.
Since discovering his passion for pottery, Sigstad has been rapt in his attempts to develop glazes using locally sourced ingredients, such as volcanic ash from the St. Helens and Ashland mountains. He has been observing and playing with the delicate balance of basilica, flux and alumina (the three primary elements in a glaze). He has been constantly updating and broadening his repertoire, cataloging thousands of unique glazes.
Always looking for new ways to improve the process and sustain his environment, he has recently shifted his primary interest to firing temperature, hoping to lower the standard temperature at which potters fire their clay (usually around 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit). His work with glazes and heat is symbiotic—having control over the composition of the glaze, he says, is important to continued experimentation with ranges of temperatures.
“I’m a problem solver,” Sigstad says. “I’m more interested in the process than the product.”
Such details have not always been on his mind. Like many artists who have yet to recognize the medium that will swallow their passion, Sigstad spent plenty of time drifting through the clouds before his introduction to ceramics. “I loved to fly,” he says, referring to his time completing a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics at the University of North Dakota. “It was an economic dead end, though. I knew there were other things out there.”
His interest in ceramics was not piqued until he took a pair of elective courses at UND, where a professor told him he seemed at home in an art studio. “I might have started earlier,” he says, “but I only had one art class in high school, and it wasn’t even taught by an art teacher.”
Curiosity about the medium grew and eventually overwhelmed Sigstad. He graduated summa cum laude in 1991 and, with “pilot” scratched from the list, he decided to pursue his newfound affinity for ceramics. Two years later, Sigstad was in Portland. There he found himself surrounded by like-minded people with whom he could share his ideas. There were conversations about soda prompting his fascination with glazes and firing. “There was always someone around to offer help,” he says, “I wanted to give something back.”
After taking ceramics courses at Portland Community College, Sigstad found work in the research and development department at a local tile factory. He has yet to leave. The job, he says, shares many aspects with glaze development and firing temperature, and it puts the work he does at home in context. His specialization culminated with the construction of a gas-fired soda kiln he uses to apply soda glaze, a glaze infused with baking soda.
Soda glazing is a delicate, laborious process that can go awry if temperature is not properly maintained. Sigstad enjoys that element. “It’s worth the extra steps,” he explains. “Soda glazing adds depth and variety to the pieces unlike any other glaze.”
Since his move to Portland, Sigstad has joined many local pottery organizations including the Oregon Pottery Association, where he served on the board of directors. He is glad to take part in the community, and frequently attends local events. “I’m interested in what other potters are doing,” he says. “I mostly go to share experiences and exchange advice. It’s why I got started, and it’s why I haven’t stopped.”