Wood Firing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

 

Catherine White’s Kite Vase, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, 2016. Photo: Warren Frederick.

 

The ceramic scholar, Philip Rawson, gave the keynote address at the Iowa Wood Firing Conference in 1991, and compared contemporary wood firing to a 19th-century cult in which artists, who were appalled by social and cultural ostentation, wandered around pulling grotesque faces in mockery of the pretension around them.

Are contemporary wood firing potters those same people, wandering around with earnest expressions on our faces, insistent upon making things virtuous, heavy, and ugly? Are we the outlaw potters, the heretics, the renegades, holed up in remote redoubts, thumbing our noses at the world, scorning those who fail to recognize our wood-fired creations as art?

There is indeed a bunker mentality within our community that sneers at other forms of ceramics as being somehow dishonest, frivolous, and inauthenticthat’s the mindset that elevates the Kizaemon Ido teabowl over Jeff Koons’ sculpture Bubbles.

I for one, think they are equally authentic and valuable, as they reflect different aspects of our culture, and just as we embrace social differences, so can we embrace aesthetic differences as well.

Duality is ever-present; there will always be folk art and Imperial art, the practical and the conceptual, tidy workshops and untidy workshops, white pots and brown pots, irony and earnestness, parody and reverence, Instagram and the kick wheel.

 

1 Linda Christianson’s Red Ewer, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, 2016. 2 Jeff Shapiro’s Landscape Platter Series #2, 25 in. (64 cm) in diameter. Photo: Rennio Malfred.

 

The danger arises when taste and bias becomes prejudice. That’s when the cult mentality can set in, isolating us from the rest of the world, giving us the false, but comforting, impression that our wagon is better than theirs. Instead, we need to examine ourselves as potters, and the aesthetic, symbolic, and practical aspects of wood firing, and the pots that result.

I’ll attempt to do that, in short order of course, by looking at the good, bad, and the ugly of being a wood-fired potter—but in reverse order.

 

First, the ugly (or the potter’s ego)

We’ve all had the experience of unloading bad firings, pulling ugly pots out of a kiln—bloated, kissed, slumped, and dunted. The odds of producing fabulous wood-fired pots are slightly higher than surviving a cavalry charge in a valley against artillery on the high ground, but given the effort involved, and given the risk of failure, all for a few amazing pots, is it worth the risk?

Of course. Risk is what drives us in our unspoken but shared pursuit of making the perfect wood-fired pot.

In some ways we wood firers are aesthetically, politically, and socially deviant. And perhaps this makes us slightly cultish too, because we alone, given our refined sensibilities, see the beauty in the subtle natural colors of our pots—or in other words, in brown.

We alone see beauty in the complexity of wood-fired surfaces—in other words, rough. And if the rest of the world fails to adore what we so slavishly admire, we consider them hopelessly misguided.

Many of us practice elaborate rituals, like obsessively designing and constructing kilns with secret chambers, flow interrupters, dampers, and big chimneys. Then we have the repetitive and backbreaking ritual of sawing, splitting, and stacking wood, not to mention arcane kiln packing rituals with clamshells, big wads, and eccentric placement of pots.

3 Travis Owens’ Covered Jar, 15 in. (38 cm) in height, 2014. 4 Mark Hewitt’s pitcher, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, wheel-thrown, granite-glazed stoneware, wood fired, 2016. Photo: Jason Dowdle.

Finally, we practice ritual incantations to appease the kiln gods, and cast spells as we light the match. And who else but a wood-fired potter would spend days and nights flagellating themselves by stoking a 2300°F fire? And for what? All for the purgatory of waiting for the moment of truth when we open the kiln and see how our pots have fared.

Maybe we are an isolated, self-referential group, out of step with the glittering high-tech mainstream, with its clean lines, fast production, and glamour. We certainly seem to prefer artisanal neo-Luddite-ism, which comes with an obligatory hair shirt!

Let’s be real: the way we fire our work verges on the masochistic, the lunatic, and the idiotic. It’s inefficient, often unpredictable, and inevitably polluting.

 

The bad (or social and economic bias)

Remember the prejudice I mentioned earlier in reference to artistic taste and bias? Well there’s social and economic bias in our profession too, which need to be addressed, not soon, not tomorrow, but now. This is the bad part.

Who makes more than 75% of their household’s income from the sale of their own wood-fired pots? More than 90%? 100%? I thought so…only a handful.

I make about 90% of our household’s income from selling my own wood-fired pots, and those of my apprentices. But I’m a privileged white guy with a thoroughbred’s training, living in a viable location for pottery, and married to a lovely woman who helps me every step of the way. I pedal really fast, and she steers. We make a great team. We are the exception.

Western wood firing is predominantly a white-male practice. Yes, there are wonderful women wood firers, and a few people of color within our ranks, but they are greatly outnumbered. Why?

In a way the problem is not one of exclusivity, but of impenetrability, for everyone interested in joining the profession. It costs so much to get trained, to buy land, and to buy materials, not to mention running a business. It’s extremely hard for anyone to make a living as a wood-fired potter in today’s marketplace.

We must work together to make the playing field more level, so that all have access to our field, through recruitment of students and apprentices, through alternative financing practices, and through lifelong collaboration and mentorship.

Wood firing today is also an academic practice. Some universities and community colleges have terrific wood-firing programs—which are, in themselves, minor miracles—like the one at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, Illinois, or at Utah State, University in Logan, Utah, and even at Oxford University in England. They can provide a tremendous foundation for budding potters.

However, there continues to be a rift between the academy and the marketplace, between the development of aesthetic sensibilities and the development of practical market-driven skills and abilities, between self-expression and making a living.

Personally, I’d like to see more emphasis on function within the academic context, and on the development of the craft skills needed to make enough pots for a potter to support a family from the products of their labor. Function, however, continues to be relegated to the bottom of the aesthetic hierarchy. There is a tremendous demand for skill-based training that is not being met. Nonetheless, the pots made in academic settings are wonderful, but making small quantities won’t make the potter a living.

I also think it’s unfortunate that more potters don’t work in teams. Wood firing has historically been a team effort: village potteries, family potteries, even academic potteries, all usually have some division of labor, with some people doing more of the heavy lifting, supporting one or two experienced makers. These team structures have a hierarchical apprenticeship system that provides training to younger potters. There’s often a specialized decorator, and usually someone else marketing and selling. And, finally, a gang of itinerant pyromaniacs who come to help during firings. Working together requires coordination but it’s more efficient than working on your own.

The bottom line? Making art is hard, making pottery is hard, and none of it makes conventional economic sense. But the struggle is so utterly compelling to some of us knuckleheads that we just can’t say no. What we produce can be so beautiful that we go ahead and make it anyway, despite having to contend with a culture that, in general, doesn’t share our aesthetic and too often may be content to drink coffee from a Styrofoam or paper cup.

Just one more point we need to consider as we consider the bad news: the environmental issues associated with wood firing. How much carbon are we putting into the atmosphere each time we fire? Should there be mandatory scrubbers on all the chimneys of wood kilns? Is wood firing worse for the environment than other forms of firing?

Excessive consumption drives climate change. How much do we consume, and are we, as responsible global citizens, entitled to the luxuries of life that include making carbon-fired pots?

5 Jack Troy’s Flasher Plate, 16 in. (41 cm) in diameter, 2015. Photo: Carolanne Currier.

 

Clearly we’re not nearly the worst offenders, so we need not reconsider our livelihood. But we live on a fragile planet, so it’s worth our efforts to create thoughtful approaches and solutions to the environmental considerations connected with wood firing.

 

 Finally, let’s look at the good

It is possible to fire wood kilns with great finesse and to unload them with almost all the pots coming out looking fabulous and able to be sold. I know, because usually I have very successful firings, and I know lots of other potters do too.

Some say our aesthetic relies on chance, but that’s not completely true. While chance certainly plays a role in determining the surface quality of our work, it’s much more that. Our pots are dusted by chance and painted by atmospheric turbulence. Those of us who’ve spent careers firing wood kilns can predict with considerable accuracy what is likely to happen to the pots we put in our kilns. In addition to relying on experience, we also use digital pyrometers and oxy-probes, so that our firings are not a crapshoot, and beauty is deliberate, not accidental.

Wood firing is no different from any other pursuit of excellence. There are steps you have to take to do anything well, techniques to finesse, talents to develop, and challenges to overcome in clear, pragmatic, scientific ways. And we do.

Making pots has a strong spiritual aspect too. To me, it is an act of devotion, each pot is a prayer, and each firing is an appeal for salvation. My kiln is holy place, an altar, and each time I load it, I am building a shrine, preparing for a celebration that does indeed have complicated rituals. I offer entreaties in the hope they will placate the spirits of the kiln.

 

But what does this activity represent? What does our work signify?

I think wood firing symbolizes wildness, and that in our practice there is primal poetry, a raw, elemental directness, and a sanctifying of natural materials and processes.

We take the earth. We light a fire. We make beauty.

Our pots are landscapes; they are about particular places, particular clay deposits, particular trees and forests. They are geographically and historically specific land art. North Carolina pots are different from Shigaraki pots, which are different from those made in La Borne. Each tradition is individual and old, and each still bubbles with life.

Each region and firing method produces different colors, not just various shades of brown. Wood firing produces all the colors of the rainbow: black, gray, pink, green, orange, red, purple, blue, and yellow. Furthermore, our beloved brown is the color of blending, negotiation, and compromise. Brown is the color of democracy.

The supposed roughness of wood-fired pots belies their stimulation as tactile objects, whether salt-glaze stipple, anagama-fired stubble, or low-fired softness; our pots encode an improvisational Braille. Our fingers trace pleasure and meaning from their surfaces, while our hands, arms, and bodies learn their gravity.

Wood-fired pots are not decorative, pleasant, and safe. They are secretive and possess a refined agency that allows them to inhabit our consciousness as symbols of our relationship to the earth, as reminders of our history, and as talismans of hope. They also carry the aroma of defiance.

We are erroneously criticized for looking backward, nostalgically, towards an idealized, pre-industrial past. Well, I contend that nostalgia is an act of protest, for, implicit in its wistfulness, is a recognition that things aren’t right in the present, and while it may seem romantic and regressive, nostalgia is also a dream of the future. It asks the question: how can we take the best of the past, and our dissatisfaction with the present, and make the future better?

Can we remake the Arts and Crafts movement, with its disgust in the brutality of early industrialism (which still lingers today), and make it clean, make it socially responsible, and make it equitable? Can we take the best economic, social, and environmental practices and adapt them to the modern world? We need to strive for a world where success is not equated with excess.

But we’re not a cult, we’re community, and we are living in one of the golden eras of wood firing. We are making some of the best wood-fired pots that have ever been made; we are experimenting, taking risks, and expanding the parameters of our expression. Our work is linked to a wonderfully rich history of wood firing, and yet we don’t follow it slavishly, but have extended the range of wood-fired possibilities in breathtakingly creative ways.

So, despite my gloomy assessment about how hard it is to be a potter who wood fires, it is nonetheless an incredibly vibrant time for wood firing—although it might be the last hurrah.

 

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.

For those of us lucky enough to piece it all together, we have found an appreciative audience. There is a market for what we do, people love our pots, they respect our endeavors, and they pay hard-earned money to own the manifestations of our dreams. They treasure what we make.

I love wood firing and wood-fired pots. I know other ways of making pots aren’t easy either, but what we do is really cool and complex, and wild and crazy, and noble and heroic. And I’ll do it as long as I can.

When I look at wonderful old wood-fired pots, I know the potters who made them had the same thoughts. They cared as much as we do, and I think they were showing off, understanding there would be potters in the future looking at their work. They were offering up a challenge, as if to say, “Look at this pot, isn’t it wonderful, aren’t I good at what I’m doing? Now shut up, get to work, and show me what you’ve got!”

We will do the same, will continue to honor the potters of the past and celebrate the potters of the present, and make pots that improvise upon and transform the canon, and bring as much beauty and pleasure into the world as we know how.

To young potters, I say: study what we’ve done rigorously, and practice endlessly. Pots are units of intelligence after all, so get smart, and learn how to be proficient. Look at and learn from the great potters of antiquity, go and help the great potters working today and learn our skills, learn our practices. Steal our ideas so sweetly and stealthily that we don’t even know you’ve done it. Make us you glad you did. After all, that’s what I’ve done, I’ve stolen everything I know, and made it my own.

Show us what you’ve got, don’t settle for mediocrity. Let’s create dangerously, taking inspired leaps and risks to honor those who came before us.

This text is excerpted from a presentation given at the International Wood Fire Conference held at Waubonsee Community College.

Interested in learning more about wood firing? Check out the details for the upcoming conference “Woodfire NC,” (www.woodfirenc.com), which will take place June 8–11, 2017, in both Seagrove and Star, North Carolina.

 

the author

Mark Hewitt lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina, where he set up his wood kiln in the 1980s. His work has been featured in many exhibitions, and he has received numerous awards. To see more of his work, visit https://hewittpottery.com.

 


Subscriber Extras: Archive Article

Click here to read the archive article Functional Pride: Putting the fun back into functional pottery by Mark Hewitt. This article originally appeared in the June/July/August 2007 issue of Ceramics Monthly.

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