Fall bonfire celebrates student learning

By J.D. Rottweiler, Ph.D.

J.D. RottweilerNot long after I arrived at Cochise College, an event that showcased our students and academic programs drew my attention. The Pit Fire Festival was in its third or fourth year, and it was drawing crowds to the Douglas Campus to celebrate the traditional firing of ceramics. Many community members and art groups attended, and the festival was a collegewide collaboration of departments and student organizations.

The visibility of the Art Department and the popularity of the classes helped put Art on a list of four campus A’s that became priorities for investment and enhancement. The others were aviation and athletics, both of which were renewed a few years later, and agriculture, which will see some changes in the next few months.

The result for the Art Department included the construction several years ago of a stage for the pit fire and other events, and this year, a major renovation of the art classroom building, to include the construction of an outdoor kiln area. Student and community interest in the program made it clear that these projects were important.

Attendees of this year’s pit fire festival will have a chance to walk through the new learning space. But while they’re appreciating the new, they’ll also get to witness the traditional. The festival that in past years has been carried out with a theme this year is going back to basics.

What do I mean by that? We’re refocusing on one of the educational aspects that first inspired the event, and that is traditional firing of pottery. Ancient residents of the Southwest made utilitarian pottery without the benefit of a modern kiln. Instead, they formed vessels from clay, dug a wide shallow pit, lined it with ceramics, built a structure of flammable material, lit a fire and kept it at a high temperature for long enough to cure the pieces.

Our pit fire is very similar. A pit is dug on the northeast side of campus. Art faculty bury hundreds of pieces of student work under wooden pallets. The fire is lit around 7 p.m. It burns large and hot for many hours, making a fabulous backdrop for musical and dance performances, as well as a dinner of homemade soup and bread made by culinary arts students. The fire’s glow can be seen for miles around. When the coals have cooled over the next few days, the pieces are removed. Sometimes there have been exhibits of the work. This year, some of it will be available at Sierra Vista’s Art in the Park. This includes leftover bowls made by one art student chosen to make 1,000 of the same piece, available to pit fire guests for a small donation.

I can’t think of a better way to enjoy a fall Friday evening than relaxing by a bonfire with a bowl of soup, and sharing student learning and achievement with friends and supporters from across the county. Join us from 5-9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4 at the Douglas Campus to witness this fantastic experience for yourself. And thank you to APS and all of the others who have provided financial support for art scholarships over the years. We look forward to celebrating the new and the traditional with you again next month.

J.D. ROTTWEILER, Ph.D., is president of Cochise College. Contact him at jdr@cochise.edu.