Topic: Articles

Archive Article: Wood-Fired Realism

 

Tea Pot #6, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, stoneware, wood fired to cone 10 in an anagama.

The work I enjoy looking at tends to be wood fired, loose, crusty, and seems to have followed a tradition of Japanese Zen philosophy. My work is tight, assembled from thrown and extruded parts, and seems to follow a tradition of American industry filtered through Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss. I use a small anagama kiln to fire these vessels in an attempt to achieve a realistic patina of age, corrosion and rust.

The effects that I am seeking from wood firing vary considerably from the norm. In fact, I frequently question my own motivation for placing these careful constructions in front of a river of ash-carrying flame for 20 hours.

In regard to pots created for the tea ceremony, there is an understanding that the scars on the pots and the marks of the flame are metaphors for the beauty of life. While I possess a small intellectual knowledge of Zen, there is nothing in my background to allow me to internalize the perception of my life being “one meditation.” Instead of reveling in the metaphor of a life made beautiful by its scars, my genetic makeup and religious upbringing have given me a kind of guilty diligence that pushes me to both reject flaws and to take the most labor-intensive approach possible in my work.

Wyoming ’42 Tea, 9½ in. (24 cm) in height, wood-fired stoneware.

Michigan ’25 Tea, 7½ in. (19 cm) in height, wood-fired stoneware.

Wood firing for the purpose of achieving realism carries with it a large percentage of aesthetic rejection. I fear that there is some part of me that actually enjoys acting as the punitive god that rejects a piece because of its one fatal defect. I think of the imagery in my work as being found objects from memory, filtered through my artistic experience. I come by my love for assemblage naturally. When I was six, my father made me a toy dump truck. He bent and riveted the tin for the box and cab, used the hydraulic off a wrecked convertible for the dump mechanism, included a spigot handle for the wheel on the functional steering system, and rigged a battery-powered motor for both forward and reverse. This amazing feat of ingenuity carried with it no surprise for me. I learned early on that making what you wanted from what you could find was the norm.

Other important memories from my childhood are visits to my grandfather’s farm in Grand Marais, Minnesota. These memories are ripe with the intoxicating earthy smell of the root cellar and moldering hay in the barn. Aging license plates covering holes in the walls served as theatrical backdrop for oil cans, harnesses, milk cans, watering cans and tractor parts. Behind the barn, the hulks of cars were slowly consumed by rust and vines, their seats sprouting springs and occasionally yielding up a Mercury dime or a buffalo nickel.

The stove and the house were heated with wood. My grandfather, one hand lost to a logging saw, would lead the sapling grandkids to the woodpile, and with one giant arm and a hook, outsplit us two to one. The sweet smell of burning pine pitch was the constant background perfume of the place. I was the kind of child who, excited by the discovery of bleached cow bones, would spend hours arranging them in intricate designs. There was always treasure to be found in the ruins.

As an artist, I have learned that I make my best work when I am honest with myself. It is my intent to use the limitations of my birthright and the constrictions of working with vessels as the launch point for work that could not be made without those margins.

Seat Belts Fastened?, 9½ in. (24 cm) in height, wood-fired stoneware.

I brush a variety of slips and oxide washes onto the pots while they are bone dry in order to mimic the aged and rusted objects I might have found in my grandfather’s barn or tool shed. The marks of the flame and the accumulation of ash highlight the connection points within the constructions. The intent is to create forms that fit so comfortably within their wood-fired skin that the flash and ash seem to disappear into a kind of dirty realism.

I suppose it is odd that, having been raised on Christian guilt, I do not feel any sense of transgression for creating semifunctional vessels. I am comfortable with the idea that the teapot can be adapted as a sculptural form. If the intent was to create functional ware, then obviously I would need to work within that tradition, but my intent is to sound a chord of memory, tuned to the pitch of my experience.

The prehistoric bison in the cave at Altimira are all the proof I need that clay has been used as a sculptural material for every bit as long as it has been used as a functional material. I see no hierarchy in functional versus sculptural ceramics. The use of recognizable objects (bottle, teapot, bowl) is a simple visual device that offers viewers a way to begin looking at my work. I trust them to move quickly from the initial recognition of an object type, to seeing form, texture, color and gesture. I could have used another construct, such as a horse, and avoided the idea of function altogether, but I did not have horses while I was growing up. I had oil cans, wrenches, gears and old license plates.

Creamer,” 5 in. (13 cm) in height, stoneware, wood fired to cone 10 in an anagama.

I work with two commercial stoneware bodies, and my slips are made from stains mixed with a commercial porcelain. I will often coat leather-hard slabs with 6 Tile or Foundry Hill Cream clay as a mold release when making impressions of found objects.The work is fired in a 12-foot-long “minigama.” For fuel, I have a great variety of hardwoods to choose from. Although I usually fire with black locust and wild cherry, I will from time to time buy a cord of apple wood from an orchard that has been razed. It takes between 18 and 24 hours for the kiln to reach Cone 11 or 12 in front and Cone 10 in the back. This kiln was built as practice for a large anagama, but I have been so satisfied with the smaller version that plans for a larger one are on indefinite hold. It is located at Andrews University, and I have found its small size ideal for a teaching situation. We fire it every four to six weeks, using about a cord and a half of wood per firing. This relatively frequent firing schedule allows more feedback on clay bodies, slips and the effects of different woods in a relatively short amount of time.

I am the son of a carpenter. I know how to build things. I am acquainted with tools, pipes, mechanical parts and tin. I have a four-year-old daughter who has reminded me of my childhood love for Dr. Seuss. While I love pots that display the “squidginess” of wet clay, the work of my hands reveals my internal bias for mind over body. My tradition, by genetic predisposition and by the fickle fate of geography, is to construct pots that are about my American Midwestern experience.

The author Steve Hansen is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Art, Art History and Design, at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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