Angie Faltus drapes several strands of horse hair across a pot just removed from the kiln. The tail hair sizzles, shrivels and burns, pungent smoke rising from the clay vessel that is more than a thousand degrees hot. Within seconds, meandering lines twist and curl across the pot. The hair has turned to ash, leaving its decorative carbon imprint forever etched as art.
Horse hair pottery, believed to be thousands of years old, is an ideal way to honour your best equine friend, said Angie who, along with her mother Judy LeBlanc, works out of her Two Springs Ceramics workshop near Millarville, Alta.
If a horse has died, its size makes cremation difficult and expensive, so many owners have strands of its mane and tail hair incorporated into a piece of pottery. The ceramics range from horse head molds to vessels with equine drawings to heart-shaped boxes, each carrying a one-of-a-kind horse hair pattern.
“It gives the owner something that is permanent and unique. We can also do ornaments using horse hair,” said Angie who has plans to make porcelain horse hair jewelry.
Some owners bring Judy and Angie hair before their pet has passed, finding it less emotional than removing the hair after its death. “Groomed hair is the best,” said Angie, who also has worked with dog and cat hair.
The way the hair imprints the fired clay varies depending upon the breed and hair structure. Mane hairs leave a much finer line than the coarser tail hair, and there is no predicting the pattern.
“The hair does what it wants to do. It has its own way,” said Angie, laying the hair across the vessel while Judy uses tongs to hold and rotate the heated pottery. No two pieces are the same.
“It doesn’t take a lot of hair,” said Judy. “The first piece I did was not pretty, as it came out with black clumps because I put the hair on so heavy.”
It is a delicate process, with very little time to effectively capture the carbon trace. “You have about a three-minute window and then you start to get ghosting, with the trace becoming very faint,” said Judy, a certified Duncan ceramics teacher and ambassador.
The pottery is first heat-soaked to 1,200 F, with the horse hair applied as soon as the vessel is removed from the kiln. Once the temperature has dropped much below 950 F, the ceramic will no longer take the hair. These are low firing temperatures which makes the pottery porous and necessary for applying the horse hair. But it means it is not suitable for holding water. Once the piece is cooled, excess soot is brushed off, and the pot is cleaned, waxed and polished.
Horse hair pottery is considered a native American art form, the process discovered when a potter leaned over her vessel and her long hair accidentally came into contact with the fired clay, leaving its distinctive ash imprint. Angie believes horse hair pottery was made at the same time natives came into contact with horses that arrived from Spain in the late 15th century.
“There are historical pieces of pottery that were done in earth ovens, or what we call pit firing. Horses were part of their culture, and making horse hair pottery was a way to honour a favourite horse, or to celebrate the birth of a horse.”
Today, horse hair pottery by renowned native artists has become collectible art. Prices for Angie and Judy’s work range from $15 to $250. Judy has been selling the ceramics at the Millarville Farmers Market since 1993, and will be at the Millarville Christmas Market, Nov. 9-11.
For more information, Two Springs Ceramics is developing a website at twospringsfiredarts.ca.