Sustainable Ceramic Practice

Ceramics Monthly and the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts’ Green Task Force present the winner of the NCECA Green Task Force Student Writing Competition. Student members of NCECA were invited to submit entries focused on sustainable practice in the ceramic arts. Brian Kluge, a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Lincoln, received a cash prize for his entry, as well as publication of his winning entry here. Thanks to all the students who entered, and thanks to the NCECA Green Task Force for providing Brian a few bucks to buy some (local) studio supplies.

In any study of sustainability, one is likely to come across the phrase “the triple bottom line.” John Elkington named this concept in his 1994 book Towards the Sustainable Corporation: Win-Win-Win Business Strategies for Sustainable Development. In it, he asserts that, in addition to being fiscally sound, a sustainable business must be socially and environmentally sound. This may sound like a tall order for the studio artists who may already be struggling to run a profitable studio. However, despite the challenges associated with broadening one’s measure of success, the current political, social, and economic landscape is ripe with opportunity for those committed to sustainable development.

It should not be difficult to recognize the mining of raw materials and the firing of kilns as two of the most environmentally costly aspects of making ceramics. The various raw materials commonly used in ceramics have sources that span the globe and often involve large-scale, ecologically destructive mining operations.

The local impacts of mining are subsequently compounded with the global impact of shipping the material-sometimes at distances literally halfway around the world. In this regard, efforts can be made to gather materials locally. I am reminded of the model provided by Marguerite Wildenhain at Pond Farm where she gathered what clay and glaze material was present on or near her property. The same could be done in an urban landscape by developing relationships with local construction businesses to mine clay from their excavation refuse. Additionally, as is briefly mentioned in Robin Hopper’s book The Ceramic Spectrum, it is possible to develop glazes from locally found natural materials. Another approach is to use materials that are locally mined on a smaller scale, as I have done with my own clay body in which half of the clay comes from a nearby brick factory. Perhaps one of the easiest conservation methods is to reclaim all clay scraps and reprocess them into new clay. Mining and processing your own clay and glaze materials or finding local sources is certain to be time-consuming, but must be undertaken to some degree if ceramics is ever going to be sustainable. When this occurs, it will be a great opportunity for ceramic artists to gain increasing regional distinction in their work based on what is predominant in their locale.

Firing a kiln, another studio activity with a hefty environmental impact, is obviously an integral part of ceramics. However, steps can be taken to mitigate this impact by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption. One simple way to conserve energy, strongly suggested by professor Pete Pinnell to his students at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL), is to dry work thoroughly with an electric fan rather than using costly kiln preheats. Another conservation method in line with the Leach/Hamada tradition, also championed at UNL by professor Gail Kendall, encourages students not to fire sub-par work, but rather to reuse the clay in a more satisfactory piece. Developing clay and glazes that favor once-firing would also significantly cut energy consumption. In using an already efficient computerized electric kiln, additional energy savings are likely possible by customizing firing schedules to the clay and glazes used in your studio. Greenhouse gases from electric kilns could be offset entirely by buying wind or solar electricity where available.

With regard to atmospheric firing, I worked in a studio that used an Olsen Fast-Fire wood kiln. While the results were not superlative by wood-firing standards, it did fire a nice cone 10 reduction. It seems plausible that a quick-firing wood kiln or a gas-assisted wood kiln could be adapted for reduction, soda, or salt firing. By using wood from the scraps generated at a lumberyard or mill (they even delivered them to the studio I worked in), waste from a renewable resource is repurposed while reducing reliance on fossil fuels. If you are fortunate enough to own wooded property or have access to a school forest, it may even be possible to harvest trees in a manner that increases the health of the forest while providing fuel for your kiln. This same forest could offset the emissions produced by firing kilns.

Perhaps because they are so glaring, it is easy to become preoccupied with the environmental impacts of making ceramics. Yet, in terms of sustainability, it is important not to overlook the social bottom line. In the words of Laury Hammel and Gun Denhart in their book Growing Local Value: “Growing a successful business is about meeting the needs of customers-and, by extension, the needs of an entire community. By turning your business into a good citizen and weaving it into the fabric of your community, you can help ensure your company’s profitability and long-term success. A mutually beneficial relationship of this sort will give your business a competitive edge while simultaneously growing local value.” This could be achieved in a variety of fashions, including-but not limited to-working in a community studio, donating work to community-based fund raisers, applying for local commissions, volunteering for career day in local schools, volunteering in art classrooms, selling work within the community, and in turn supporting other local businesses. It is through a local commitment that one is likely to develop the relationships necessary to find sources of local clay and kiln fuel in addition to reducing the environmental and economic impacts of sending work great distances.

Any change to your ceramic practice is not sustainable if it becomes economically untenable to make ceramics. A sustainable approach must include a combination of practices specific to your resources and needs, and should lead to a simultaneous enrichment of all three aspects of the triple bottom line. A shift to sustainability should be expected to take time, but opportunity abounds. Furthermore, once you start looking I’m sure you will find other artists and businesses already committed to sustainability (perhaps even in your community) whose practices may be adapted to suit your needs.

This article appeared in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s March 2010 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!



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