Spotlight: A Void and a Need

Ceramics Monthly: How and why did you choose to become a full-time artist after a long career as a union lawyer?
Chris Corson: I needed to do it. At the union, I was proud to be working for the betterment of others, but after so many years, it was time to attend to my own life and live it from a deeper, more personal place. I’m putting words on this now, but then it was just a void and a need. Clay was my bridge. When I shape clay into human form, it is personal re-creation. The things that matter to me—themes of vulnerability and injustice—flow out through my hands and into my forms. I’m still working to better the world, but as an artist now.

CM: How were you introduced to pit firing? How did you decide on the size and depth of the pit you use for firing?
CC: Before pit firing, I spent years looking for surface treatments and firing methods that would evoke the same empathy as my forms. By chance, a friend took a pit-firing workshop that used trash cans as the reduction chambers. She knew I had enough land to dig a traditional pit for longer firing. Since we both had pieces that we wanted to try to fire, I basically dug a trench until I got tired. We fired the pit twice that week, and eureka! We were rewarded with earthy colors and finishes, with strong visual and tactile appeal. The pit is 5×2 feet and about 2 feet deep. I can fire three large figures, buried in hardwood sawdust, some straw, newspaper, and sticks. It takes three days to burn down, and I use corrugated metal sheets to cover the pit to protect it from the weather.

CM: How did you decide on the scale of your figures? Are there special considerations when firing larger, figurative work in a pit-fire situation?
CC: Size helps figures inhabit the same physical space as the viewer. I build as large as I can and still be able to bisque fire in my four-ring electric kiln, scaling each pose to just fit. Seated figures can be half life-size. A standing figure that I’m doing now, truncated at mid-thigh and hunched over, will be ¾ life size. When I wanted a prone figure to be longer than my kiln is wide, I bisque fired it on a shelf that I tipped up in the kiln to make extra room.

Finishing these works in the pit is actually simpler. In terms of fit, my tall pieces merely need to lie down. I am often asked about cracking or breakage issues, but my experience has been very good. I build carefully and use a clay body with good tolerance for thermal shock. I think it also helps that the temperature in the pit stays well below my bisque temperature, and the pit burns down so slowly. Since I love to fire bare clay for the earthy surfaces, I have no glaze issues. The hardest part of pit firing—and the most profoundly rewarding—is waiting for my figures to emerge from the ashes and reveal who they have become.

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