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South Burlingame potter goes green

Making adjustments to heating his kiln is giving Dennis Meiners pleasant surprises


These days, many things can be green — but pottery? Yes, that too — just ask Dennis Meiners.

Meiners, who moved to the South Burlingame neighborhood about 1 1/2 years ago, has been a ceramicist for more than 40 years — since, as he puts it with a laugh, the middle of the first Nixon administration.

“Oh, I just loved it from the start. It was kind of an accident; I had a roommate who was taking a ceramics class and he kept coming home with these really great things and I went down to the clay studio at the college where I was attending, and I said, ‘This looks like it’s for me,’ and it was love at first sight, I guess.”

Meiners’ body of work is as variegated as it is vast; “What I try to do is basically tell the story of the moment with each piece that I’m making — regardless of whether I’m making something that’s sculptural or something that would be utilitarian,” he said.

For example, “I made a couple of surveillance camera teapots,” Meiners said. “I’ve noticed that out in society, almost everywhere you go, there are surveillance cameras that are watching all of us all the time, so I thought it would be kind of a kick to make a surveillance camera out of clay and just put it up and see what people thought of it. That was a lot of fun.”

But without a doubt, Meiners’ latest pieces these last few years are the most unique of all — not because of their content, but rather the process by which they are made.

“I’ve been looking at ... the issue of climate change and carbon dioxide emissions ... a lot for at least the last 10 years or so, especially when I noticed that the predictions that were made in the ’80s about what would be happening with climate, and what the surface of the earth would be like, and those predictions were coming true, and started thinking about, ‘Well, it looks like human beings need to make some changes — big time, and right now — and there isn’t a whole lot I can do about what everybody else is doing; the only thing that I can change is what I do,’” he explained. “In order for me to make a ceramic object that is going to be doable over time, especially a utilitarian object, it needs to be impervious to water; I need to get it hot, I need to vitrify it in clay; I need to turn it into a kind of glass ... and I can use a variety of means to vitrify that clay and get it hot enough to become durable: I can use wood, which I have used, or I can use a form of gas, and I used propane for a long time, or I can use electricity.

“When we moved to Portland,” Meiners said, “I decided that now is the time to make the move to using electricity rather than fuel.”

There have been some surprises along the way.

“When one fires with a fuel, in a kiln that’s somewhat larger than the electric kilns that I’m using, wood fires in what’s called reduction, and that means that for instance, the copper ... is in blazes, and when it’s reduced it will be purple or red or pink or something like that. When I fire with electricity, in oxidation rather than reduction, the copper molecule will be some form of green, so exactly the opposite,” Meiners said. “I’m enjoying the change, it’s taking more time to adjust to the change than I thought it would, but little by little, plugging along, surprise after surprise, I’m making the change, and really having a pretty good time with it at this point.”

Fellow Portlanders will have the opportunity to witness the end result of Meiners’ experiment in sustainable ceramics at the upcoming 32nd annual ceramic showcase of the Oregon Potters Association, of which Meiners is a founding member. His work can also be viewed online at the website he shares with his wife, MeinersandLee.com .