Firing sculpture often presents many challenges, and they only increase along with the scale. An innovative, lightweight bottle kiln reduces the problems and expands the possibilities.
The ceramic world lost a major figure with the death of Danish artist Nina Hole last year. Nina was well known for the fire sculptures she built all over the world. These architectural sculptures were built primarily as performance pieces, where the sculpture also acted as a kiln. The sculptures were wrapped in fiber blanket and unwrapped at top temperature.
Finding the Right Expert
In Star, North Carolina, Estonian kiln master Andres M.I. Allik has been working for the past four years with ceramic artists from around the world at STARworks to design and build a sculpture kiln that can be used for both sculpture reveal performances (where the kiln is dismantled at the end/during the firing to reveal the hot, glowing sculpture), but also as a versatile kiln that can be used to fire large-scale sculptures easily and safely with conventional cooling.
Allik, a professional kiln builder, founded Kerako, an Estonian branch of the Finnish company KeraComp, a manufacturer of high-efficiency kilns. Allik has also built a reputation as a master builder of wood kilns, building many across Finland, Iceland, Germany, Denmark, Russia, and the Baltic countries. Over the past few years, Allik has worked with several Seagrove, North Carolina, potters to help design and build more than six wood kilns in the area, ranging from cross-draft tunnels to bourry box and multi-chambered kilns.
We first approached Allik about helping to create a fire sculpture event at STARworks’ annual FireFest. FireFest is a weekend-long participatory sculpture building event that culminates in the creation of public arts sculptures—in ceramics, glass, and metal. The first two years we simply wrapped the sculptures in fiber blanket as Nina Hole had successfully done for many years. But removing fiber blanket from a sculpture at top temperature presents hazards: loose fiber flying about is noxious. Removing the fiber blanket layers starting at the top of the sculpture and working to the base of the sculpture takes time, and is somewhat dangerous. The first STARworks fire sculpture, Fire Bird (2013) was designed by the Estonian artist Anne Pärtna and was wrapped in fiber blanket supported by curved elongated tiles that acted as a framework to separate the sculpture from the fiber blanket. The following year, ceramic artist Cristina Córdova built a two-meter-tall figurative piece, Star Man (2014), using a heavily grogged, stoneware clay body. We continued using a fire blanket but experimented further with the construction and firing techniques.
Developing a New Kiln
Allik had designed a sculpture kiln at Guldagergaard International Ceramic Research Center in Denmark that consisted of a series of metal-covered fiber rings, which eliminated much of the environmental health problems of working with fiber, but would not work for reveal performances. These types of firings required a more permanent sculpture kiln that could be opened safely and effectively to minimize the health issues of working with fiber and to provide good dramatic effect for an exciting performance.
Allik’s solution was the STARworks “flower-style” bottle kiln. The seed for this idea came in 2009 when he helped build and fire Andreas Rührnschopf’s sculpture in a kiln that resembled a tulip flower. Elegant in its simplicity and efficiency, the kiln is shaped like a large bottle when in the closed position. Seven tall panels that fold up can be lowered at the same time to form what look like petals around the base of the sculpture. The kiln can be fired with wood or gas, at temperatures reaching higher than cone 10. The kiln is relatively light and portable, and can be set up quickly. Each section of the kiln is a metal frame to which fiber is attached with ceramic buttons. All seven petals are attached to a metal ring, a collar of sorts, that sits on the firebrick foundation, which acts as a firebox. The petals are connected to the bottom collar by a bolt and a nut. Ideally the sculpture would be built and fired in situ, where the firebox ends up being the pedestal, eliminating the need to transport the piece.
Putting It to the Test
Normally the firing of these sculptures starts with using an electric blower for a few days to dry the sculpture followed by using a propane burner for a day to slowly increase heat. The firing is finished up with one day of using wood as the fuel source.
The new petal kiln was first used the following year to fire Carol Gentithes’ sculptural work, Tree (2015) and it was a big improvement: the unveiling was easier, safer, and more dramatic. In 2015 STARworks also worked closely with East Carolina University, giving the ECU ceramics students an opportunity to build a large-scale ceramic sculpture and participate in the unveiling on the university campus.
There is always a danger of cracks developing in the sculpture due to the rapid cooling that occurs with the unveiling performance at high temperatures. It is the nature of this process and should be anticipated.
We also needed to test the kiln with a more conventional cooling cycle. STARworks resident artist Ibrahim Said was the first to use the kiln to fire a two-meter-tall sculptural vessel using a more conventional cooling cycle (without the reveal). This proved successful in helping to eliminate cracks. Said’s firing proved the kiln could be more than just a performance tool.
Since then, the kiln has been used to fire other sculptures, including Earth and Sky, a piece by artist Sergei Isupov at FireFest 2016. Isupov’s sculpture had no internal support structure and involved more glaze work. Despite some of the cooling cracks that developed, it showed that more complicated forms with detailed surface decoration could be fired successfully in this way.
Expanding the Possibilities
Others are now borrowing the portable sculpture kiln design, primarily for ceramic sculpture unveiling performances. The town of Cambridge, Wisconsin created their own “Midwest FireFest” in July 2016 using the kiln design for a fire-sculpture performance there. There are several upcoming firings of the same kiln, including a sculpture by Andy Nasisse at STARworks’ FireFest 2017 in April, and a sculpture at the NC Pottery Center in conjunction with the NC Wood Fire Conference in June 2017.
The STARworks sculpture kiln is the result of several years of testing and several iterations to create a tool that can provide a means for many ceramic artists to create large-scale sculpture in public and private settings. More information about the kiln and FireFest 2017 can be found at STARworks Ceramics (www.starworksnc.org).
the author Nancy Gottovi is the executive director of Central Park NC (www.centralparknc.org) and STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise in Star, North Carolina.
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Click here to read Nina Hole: Fire Portraits by Glen R. Brown, from the September 2001 issue of Ceramics Monthly.