In Ceramics Monthly’s annual focus on atmospheric firing, we  explore the experiences of artists who use wood firing, reduction firing, raku firing, smoke firing, saggar firing, and fuming to contribute to their artwork’s conceptual meaning and finished appearance. The artists use the numerous variables involved in these firing methods to coax different results out of their clay and glazes, and ultimately create responsive, dynamic surfaces.

1 Andy Bissonnette’s two-tiered vase, wheel thrown and carved stoneware, terra sigillata, raku fired.

Achieving successful outcomes with atmospheric firing requires skill and experience as well as in-depth knowledge of specific kilns, materials, and post-firing reduction. Several artists featured in this issue explain that the hands-on labor and decision making required in the firing process connects them to the finished objects. Some remark that they consider the kiln to be more than a tool, acting as a collaborative partner or additional voice contributing to the final piece.

Seth Charles has paired his interest in the natural environment with exploring both wood and reduction firing to make pots and sculpture. His focus on appreciation of nature’s subtleties and the impact of place on his perspective guide his observations, investigations, and aesthetic choices, which invite viewers to look closer and take time to contemplate.

2 James Watkins’ double-walled basket, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, fumed stoneware, 2020.

Andy Bissonnette developed his process of carving vessels and coating the uncarved areas with terra sigillata after experimenting with traditional raku-fired glazes and finding that the finish detracted from his forms. When his highly refined pieces go through a raku firing and subsequent post-firing reduction, the finished results create a contrast between the uncontrolled effects of combustibles and flame and the orderly patterns and forms.

Ngozi Omeje creates suspended installations consisting of hundreds or thousands of clay leaves, rings, or other objects that are fired and then smoked to build up varied colors. These are then arranged, sometimes in combination with cut and shaped flip flops, to create ephemeral forms with both personal significance and contemporary relevance in terms of the larger culture she lives in.

Among the diverse materials that comprise the sculptures, pots, paintings, and installations in Theaster Gates’ recent exhibition “Black Vessel” at Gagosian Gallery in New York, atmospheric-fired clay features prominently. Sculptural pieces demonstrate the influence of ash and high temperature on wood-fired brick clay. A room full of large vessels with roots in Eastern, Western, and African ceramics traditions reference a variety of firing techniques and creative cultures. The surfaces created by the firings convey a sense of history, labor, lived experience, embodied knowledge, vast possibility, and transformation.

3 Ngozi Omeje’s vase, 3½ ft. (1.1 m) in height, clay, acrylic, monofilament, metal, 2020.4 Seth Charles’ sculpture, handbuilt, iron-rich stoneware, wood fired and reduction cooled.

Marty Gross has contributed to the field’s understanding of traditional village studio practices through his decades-long project archiving and digitizing historic films that documented the making and wood-firing processes of potters in Japan, China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Preserving this history helps to educate and encourage research, as well as contextualize modern practices.

Spotlight artist James Watkins investigates both saggar firing techniques and fuming lustered ceramics with stannous chloride at low temperatures to create archival surfaces. His aim is to create colors and textures that draw viewers in, engage their senses, and provoke memories.

Whether you’re interested in exploring atmospheric firing or are curious about the ways artists choose and use firing techniques to further their ideas, I hope you’ll be inspired by these artists’ approaches.

- Jessica Knapp, Editor
Topics: Ceramic Artists