As a technique, firing work in a kiln or pit where the fuel and atmosphere around the pieces have a specific, sometimes variable, effect on the clay and glazes is quite old. As old, in fact, as the first piece of fired ceramic, which is currently thought to be a figure named the Venus of Dolní Věstonice that was made about 29,000–25,000 years ago, and discovered in 1925 in what is today the Czech Republic.¹ While we don’t know exactly how the Venus was fired, wood or charcoal was probably used as the fuel.

Fast forwarding to modern day firing, we have options when choosing kilns and fuels. We also have collective knowledge of which materials, minerals, and chemicals (salt, soda, metallic salts, etc.) can be added to a firing to create a glaze, fume or flash a surface, or achieve different results with applied glazes. Artists are constantly making adjustments and changes to these firing processes to get new and different results that fit the concepts and visual presence they want to convey with their finished pieces. 

In this issue, a number of artists share their experiences working with various atmospheric firing techniques, including wood, salt, soda, pit, saggar, and raku firing. 

Zac Spates’ side-fired oval vase, fired in a wood kiln and showcases the powerful effects of wood ash and flame on the pots’ surfaces.

Jessica Cabe shares how Zac Spates arrived at his current work. He learned to wood fire while in school, and continued to expand his understanding of the process through assistantships, apprenticeships, and traveling to help many potters fire their wood kilns. Now that he has his own anagama kiln, he continues to confer with others as well as develop techniques—including adding charcoal during the firing and while cooling in reduction—to achieve the surface results he’s pursuing.

Alan Willoughby discusses his foray into using terra sigillata in wood firings when he switched from low-fired processes to high fired and atmospheric. He thought, rather than let leftover terra sigillatas from his former body of work go to waste, he might as well test them out in the wood kiln. The discoveries resulting from that curiosity continue to propel his work today.

Lauren Kearns introduces the salt-fired work of Suzy Atkins. The added flux glazes the pieces and fumes the painterly brush marks of metallic oxide and other colorants, adding fluidity while softening edges. Gold luster accents applied after the salt firing accentuate the resulting movement.

Artists Chris Corson and Clive Sithole both rely on traditional pit- and saggar-firing techniques to convey the concepts in their work. Corson explains that he fires his figures in a pit dug on his property. The surfaces he achieves relay the expression of emotional and psychological states. Elizabeth Perrill examines how Sithole honors historical and traditional vessels from Zulu, Sotho, and Venda cultures in Southern Africa while also making contemporary cross-cultural connections with his coil-built pots that are electric-kiln and saggar fired.

 Zac Spates’ bottle, fired in a wood kiln and showcases the powerful effects of wood ash and flame on the pots’ surfaces.

When it comes to the history of various firing methods, some processes were developed simultaneously in different cultures and regions, while others migrated from one to the other with the movement of people. Coreen Abbott talks about a 1000-year-old fast-firing technique that she learned about in China. The kiln is a covered pit heated with coal, flanked by post-firing reduction chambers that incorporate smoking the surface using sawdust. Interestingly, the technique may have links to the father of the first Raku master potter in Japan.

Wood kilns have been built for thousands of years, and the designs are constantly refined, revised, and changed to fit the needs of the artists who use them. As with firing a wood kiln, building one is a team effort. Mary Ann Steggles shares the experience of building a new, smokeless wood kiln at her university as part of a group workshop led by Markus Boehm.

If you don’t have access to the type of kiln that you’d like to experiment with or fire your work in and there’s no one in your area to reach out to, taking a summer workshop may be a great option (see Summer Workshops). In addition to having access to atmospheric-fired kilns, you’ll also discover new building and decorating techniques, materials, and ideas for forms or concepts that take advantage of the collaborative possibilities with these types of firings.

Jessica Knapp
Topics: Ceramic Artists