Atmospheric firing—whether fueled by wood or gas—produces pots with surfaces that reflect and record the amount of oxygen, the path of the flame, and any added flux that were present inside the kiln. The firing imparts something unusual and dynamic to the vessels. The atmosphere and flame can accentuate throwing and trimming lines; enhance curves and angles on the form; and create blushes and streaks of color on the clay, slips, or glazes. See Ryan Coppage’s article for great examples of using the kiln environment to create specific visual effects.
Pots that are wood, salt, soda, and pit or raku fired have layers of information added to them during the firing based on a number of variables: there’s the kiln itself; the size and number of pieces in the kiln; the way the shelves are stacked; the timing and duration of when the kiln is put into reduction; as well as if and when added fluxes like salt or soda are introduced (and in what form, and how much). The weather is another variable for anyone using kilns located outdoors. The type of gas or wood used and, in the case of wood, where it is from are yet more factors that influence results. This list is not exhaustive, but you get the idea.
These variables produce effects that the artist can coax and encourage (or discourage), but never fully control. Mark Goertzen, who makes wood-, soda-, and gas-fired bodies of work, articulately describes how this aspect of firing is integral to his fascination with making pots: “Pottery will always be interesting to me because of the delicate balance between claiming and relinquishing control that occurs in each piece. Being able to command every curve and nuance on the wheel gives way to trusting your work to the fickle fire of the kiln.”1 This dialog between the artist and the kiln can lead to unexpected results that lead to additional creative discoveries.
Florian Gadsby’s interest is in pairing simple, angular forms with a feldspathic glaze that is sensitive to the differences in atmosphere within the kiln. The firing’s effect on the surface adds a looseness to the pots, creating an interesting tension with his controlled forms—sometimes softening, sometimes accentuating the angles and planes.
I feel it is important to note that Gadsby searched for a studio space in London for almost two years, a search made longer as he fires his work in gas kilns. That type of restriction on kiln type is a reality for many potters, especially those living in urban areas. If you don’t have access to a wood or gas kiln or an outdoor area for pit firing, but you want to fire pieces in an atmospheric kiln, there are some options out there. In addition to researching whether studios and art centers in your area offer kiln rentals or group firings, if you’re able to travel, check out the residencies listing starting to find facilities around the world that offer a great variety of firing options. The following resources can also help you find kiln owners near and far that offer space in their firings. Flash and Ash (www.flashandash.com) is a text directory of wood kilns and also has a link to Simon Levin’s Google map of wood-fired kilns. Kiln Share (www.kilnshare.com), which we featured in the April 2022 issue of Ceramics Monthly, is also a great resource for connecting kiln owners and kiln-space seekers.
While this issue focuses on atmospheric-fired work, the artists’ mentoring, training, and rationale for using these methods to achieve a specific, personal aesthetic are central to the stories shared. Whether through an apprenticeship or internship (like Mark Goertzen, Florian Gadsby, and Mark Hewitt), academic training (like Lindsay Oesterritter), or learning through family traditions and study of an ancestor’s pots (like Raine Middleton, Jabu and Thembi Nala, and Raku Kichizaemon XV Jikinyū), the artists used the knowledge learned from others as a springboard. As Oesterritter describes in her article probing the influences and processes that Mark Hewitt, Jabu and Thembi Nala, and Oesterritter herself use to create the distinct surfaces on their vessels, “The pots that we make are capturing a moment in time and place in the kiln, but it is all that we cannot directly see that finishes them.” It is the community, traditions, careful observations, and accumulated knowledge of the potters that infuse the work and make it what it is when it emerges from the kiln.
1 Mark Goertzen, “Goertzen Pottery homepage.” Accessed November 16, 2022. https://goertzenpottery.com.