I am always drawn to pots fired in atmospheric kilns. All fired ceramics record the interaction of clay and glaze with heat. But those fired in atmospheric kilns are also recording chance encounters with flame, flux, carbon, and variable oxygen levels; interactions and reactions that we can’t typically observe in real time during the firing. The pieces below are just a few of the atmospheric fired cups and mugs I use on a regular basis at home and in the office.
As much as I admire and collect these pots, and marvel at the ways artists have learned to collaborate with their kilns, when it comes to firing my own work, I prefer a neutral environment in an electric kiln. I make a relatively small volume of work in any given month, so filling a larger atmospheric kiln (and thus learning how to best fire that kiln) would take a long time. There is also the practicality of firing in an electric kiln, since I live in a city and don’t have a garage or outbuilding to house a gas- or wood-fired kiln. Admittedly, as I have limited time in the studio, using an electric kiln also means I can rely on the fact that my pieces will turn out as planned, minimizing my loss rate. Still, I never rule out the possibility of exploring other firing techniques in the future.
With gas-reduction, wood, soda, salt, or pit firings, the results fall within a set of expected parameters, but they may vary widely (for better and for worse). I learned this first-hand while participating in an anagama firing during undergraduate school. I enjoyed the rhythm of stoking the kiln, especially as the pace picked up over the last 24 hours of the firing. Paying attention to the visual and physical information the kiln provided to time our stoking cycle was absorbing. Conversations with the firing team during the overnight shift were filled with excitement as we imagined what the pieces that were just visible around and behind the firebox might look like when we finally unloaded the kiln.
Later, while studying or working at various institutions, I had the opportunity to discover the personality quirks and coveted sweet spots in several different downdraft gas kilns as I loaded, fired, and unloaded countless numbers of student pots and sculptures.
The process of making work that will be accentuated in an atmospheric firing, as well as choosing glazes or other surface treatments that show the effects to their best advantage is one that intrigues me.
In this issue, we feature several artists—Ben Bates, Paula Shalan, Lars Voltz, and Ibrahim Said—who have different approaches and techniques when it comes to firing their work in wood, soda, and reduction kilns, as well as in aluminium-foil saggars fired in pit kilns. In all cases, there is a sense of collaboration with the kiln. Bates describes this well, seeing the finished pieces coming out of the kiln as the fire’s interpretation of his work.
We are also excited to include a Spotlight article by Sheryl Leigh-Davault on the rekindling of the Reitzagama at Reitz Ranch in Clarkdale, Arizona. Don Reitz’ legacy of education and enthusiasm continues on in the ranch’s workshops, classes, and firings.
If, like me, you are fascinated by atmospheric firing but don’t have access to the kilns, or need more knowledge to get the results you want, check out our annual listing of summer workshops in this issue. Even if you’re unwavering about firing your work in electric kilns, you’re sure to find a course that will inspire and energize you.