Community unites again for 11th annual Cochise College Pit Fire

A cool October night carrying a breeze and a full moon set the stage for the 11th Annual Cochise College Pit Fire Pottery Festival, held Friday at the Douglas Campus.

Cochise College Instructor Tate Rich is the originator of the much anticipated night of art, music, food and, yes, a large blazing fire. The spectacle the fire provides is in addition to its function in firing hundreds of new ceramic works recently created by the college’s ceramics program. During the span of the controlled fire, ceramic pieces are “baked,” or fired at all once, the oldest known process of firing clay that has been passed down from indigenous people.

During this year’s event, attendees received the shocking news that the fire would not be lit due to potential risks, based on the direction of the wind.

“The fire department made the right decision to be cautious with the winds from the north,” said Rich. “We had some serious gusts up to 25 miles per hour until around 8:30 p.m. when it was finally determined that it was safe to light the fire. I admire the leadership, dedication and communication of the all parties involved to stay late and ensure another safe pit fire. Numerous fire departments, CC Security, CC administration and other agencies are to be thanked for another successful pit fire.”

When attendees were informed that it was safe to light the pit, the crowd followed with applause and cheer. The large fire, supervised by members of the Sunnyside and Douglas fire departments, baked ceramic art pieces created by Cochise College students, faculty and visiting artists that had been placed in a circular pit dug into the ground.

This indigenous method of firing clay is the heart and soul of the event that brings over 1,000 community members and visitors from Cochise County and neighboring states to the Cochise College Douglas Campus.

“There is no other event I have witnessed that brings community together like the Cochise Pit Fire,” said Dave Tarullo, Cochise College sculpture instructor. “An event of this magnitude can only take place with the broad support of many members of the community, from the cafeteria staff, the guys in orange, the president of the college, the numerous volunteers and, of course, the students. Everyone comes together to put their hearts into creating this celebration of the arts and the spirit of the fire.”

This year the Pit Fire committee brought three visiting artists to Douglas in preparation of the Pit Fire: Ben Waterman, Tony Travanty and Kathleen Vance. Students spent an entire week working closely with Waterman and Travanty in the special area of wood firing.

“Over thirty students, five faculty members and our two visiting artists came together to feed the kiln 24 hours a day,” added Tarullo. “It is our hope to continue this valuable experience each year.”

Kathy Vance, of the Tohono O’odham Nation, also joined students and community members on Sept. 28 and conducted a workshop on natural clay, bringing recently gathered clay from the St. David area. She was also present during the event, providing visitors live demonstrations of her art.

Hand-crafted ceramic bowls were made available for purchase at $10 each to fill with gourmet soup, made by the college’s Culinary Arts program. Each year, one skilled student is the chosen to take on this marathon bowl-making task. It is seen as a very prestigious project to take on in preparation of the Pit Fire. Advanced ceramic student, Kari Fox hand threw and glazed 1000 ceramic bowls for visitors to enjoy their soups in and take home. Fox was crowned as the Soup-er Bowl Queen for this tremendous achievement and will be awarded an art scholarship. She was crowned with a bowl she made, decorated by her proud instructor, Virginia Pfau Thompson.

Entertainment was provided the entire night and featured the sounds and sights of Whiz! Bang! Chicken Plucker Skiffle Band, Cat Daddy & Barz Blues, Whiskey Kiss, Lori Keyne & CC Choir, Res Thunder Boys , Othitka Girls, and Cochise College Tribal Belly Dancers

The evening provided moments of celebration and honor. Five students were presented with scholarships for $1,000 each, including Johnny Arvizu.

“I plan to use this scholarship to build up my personal studio and purchase a kiln to continue to work on my medium,” he said.

One of the college’s driving forces and innovators in education, was honored during Friday’s event. Cochise College lost Liberal Arts Dean Chuck Hoyack to a long battle with cancer. Hoyack, represented by his wife, Alvina, and sons, Casey and Patrick, was remembered with a moment of silence from his community, colleagues, staff, students and family.

The event turned out to be what everyone hoped for: great friends, art, food, music and a beautiful fire.

“The Pit Fire pulls a lot of the local community. It’s great that it’s here, close by, right up the road and I believe it gives Cochise College great exposure to bring surrounding communities in,” said attendee Aaron Cardona.

M. Jenea Sanchez | Douglas Dispatch