Making small, folk-art style raku-fired ceramic nativity scenes never loses its aura of danger and drama for St. Albert potter Margaret Belec.
The work involved in making the figures of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus is laborious and stretches over a number of days.
First Belec sat in her basement studio to mould the clay and create the tiny figures. This stage gave the figures their personality, but it’s the modelling that so often reminds Belec of her home in Scotland.
“We had a lot of clay in our back yard in Scotland. My sister and I would dig it up and let whatever we made sit in the sun to bake. We used to make little people,” Belec recalled.
Her current pieces have folksy, almost childlike charm. She rolled the clay between her fingers to make arms and legs and she used the end of a knife to outline the hips on a sheep, ox or donkey.
Belec’s nativity set tells a story and all the characters, from the Holy Family to the shepherds and wise men to the innkeeper, are there.
After the pieces were fired and cooled, she glazed them with the special chemicals that turned them into works of art. She used a small artist’s brush, but the colours that result from the firing are unpredictable. Belec had to blindly trust she would get the effect she hoped for.
For example, she painted a halo she hoped would turn gold, but at this stage it looked grey. She wanted the robes on the wise men to appear red, but during the glaze stage they looked green.
“It doesn’t always work. You can control the colours to a certain point, but then you also need luck,” Belac explained.
Into the fire
After the initial firing and cooling, Belec took the little lumpish, still-white figures to the St. Albert Public Works yard. This is where St. Albert Potters’ Guild members have set up a raku kiln.
Belec kept the figures in the back of the car to stay warm.
“I’m afraid if they are too cold, and then I put them into the kiln, they may crack. I have to be careful of thermal shock,” she said.
The constant fear that the temperature changes would affect the outcome meant Belec hurried from the car to the kiln. For the next two hours, she seldom stopped running.
The word kiln seems almost too fancy for the oil drum that guild members use for firing raku pots. The drum is crude looking and rusted, but it was fitted with a propane torch and insulated with a material called Fibre Fax. The kiln can be heated to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Carefully Belec lifted the figures one by one and laid them inside on a shelf consisting of old ash and Fibre Fax. Then she lit the propane and there was a hiss of steam and an explosive sound as the gas caught fire. Belec clamped the oil drum lid down over top and stepped back to let her nativity scene cook.
The first nativity scenes, or crÈches, were theatrical and helped tell the Christmas story.
In the seventh century a scene known as Sancia Maria was built at St. Mary’s Basilica in Rome. According to tradition there were relics of Jesus’s cradle in that crÈche.
St. Francis is credited with introducing a nativity scene tradition that soon became common everywhere. In the village of Greccio near Assisi, he filled a manger with hay and tied an ass and an ox near it. Then he held mass at the site.
Through the centuries the tradition evolved in different ways throughout the world. Often, large scenes were created outside churches, but gradually individuals began to acquire their own small scenes that were put out each Christmas and then carefully wrapped and put away each January.
Belec remembers helping her mother set up the family’s nativity scene each Christmas.
“Mom insisted the Baby Jesus could not be put out until Christmas Day. Each day we would move the shepherds a little closer and the wise men did not go out until Jan. 6, or Epiphany,” she recalled.
Again and again Belec lifted the lid on the oil drum to look at the clay figures. When the glaze began to bubble, she knew they were done.
“See! They are bubbling,” she cried with excitement. “Oh! I think they will be beautiful!”
By now Belec looked almost otherworldly. Her small hands were encased in welders’ gloves that were too large and unwieldy for her. The fingers appeared almost fused together, so that they looked like mittens.
“The heat does this to them,” Belac said, her voice muffled by a mask.
Quickly she reached into the kiln with long black tongs, and with her face directly over the heat, she pulled out a two-inch long artistic masterpiece and dropped it into a bed of leaves and shredded paper.
As each figure dropped into the leaves there was a flash of fire and soon it smelled as if Belec had lit a foul smudge. She was surrounded by yellow smoke.
“The very hot pieces cause the paper and leaves to burn. Once the lid is put on, no more oxygen gets into the barrels and the atmosphere inside is deprived of oxygen. The fire consumes that oxygen and somehow causes the oxygen in the glaze to be consumed as well. That causes the glazes to change colour and go shiny and metallic,” she explained.
This hot, stinky, smoky stage is horrible to endure but it’s also the point at which the magic takes place.
Occasionally the fire would flash onto her sweatshirt and Belec would brush it off.
But from the flaming foul-smelling leaves she pulled golden beauty. With her black tongs held triumphantly aloft, she pushed the pink mask from her face and cried, “This is Baby Jesus!”
Belec’s excited anticipation and sense of expectation never diminished. Each piece brought the same cry of joy.
“Every time you open the barrel it’s as if it’s a Christmas present,” she said.
Belec made this nativity scene for her own home. For the sake of a photographer she put golden Baby Jesus on display too, but His being there seemed to bother her.
“Really I should only put Baby Jesus out on Christmas Day. That’s what we always did at home,” she said.