The Smoker you get the Player you Smoke?
(with apologies to Joe Walsh)
The norm with wood-firing is to focus on the action of the fire on the pots. The journey from plasticity to rigidity is affected by the build-up of ash from the fire, the effects of the flame on the pots, or the passage of the flame through the kiln.
I am as guilty as the next of obsessing about some of these things. After over 35 years of working with my wood-fire kiln I would like to focus more on the way wood fire has affected, and continues to affect, my life and the symbiotic relationship that seems to have developed.
Wood-firing really makes no sense logically, financially or for the development of ‘my career’, whatever that means.
If I was chasing money, I would be better off using a kiln that delivered consistent reliable results. I have been firing the same types of kilns for a long time, gradually getting to know their characteristics, the way they fire, and the type and size of wood required to obtain an outcome that I can relate to. This is thrown out the window when I decide to make a new body or explore new glazes. This I have done on several occasions and again in 2009.
I initially had a certain reverence for the kiln design, not wanting to change a thing. Evolution, however, does occur and at one stage, after several years of firing the kiln, I took to it with a brick saw to widen the doorways to make it more practical to pack, whilst also changing the shape and size of pots being made.
I almost expected the kiln to fall down after such rough treatment, but it seemed to carry on with no apparent revengeful thoughts or actions; and it was the same when I changed the bag wall construction, moving from protection of the pots to more exposed flame ways through the kiln. Recent reconstruction of the kiln design incorporated some of these rather intemperate and disrespectful changes.
If I was chasing money, I would make pots that the market wants. Initially, the pots looked like pots that could have been fired in a gas kiln with no hint of exposed ceramic skin to the tanning effects of the naked flame. Wood-firing was more romantic in the early days with it being attached to the ‘artist potter’ and independence from the technology that was present in most workshops and institutions.
The market seems to be the dominant parameter that we are urged to pursue time and time again. Designer-makers make for a lifestyle, or whatever consumptive icon is the current vogue, so that we have designer-makers working with the market producing a product that fits a niche in that market. It seems to me that the individual is suppressed to conform to the ways of a structured life.
If I was chasing a career, I would produce pots that would fit into the well-expected wood-fired pots classification, clearly identifiable as such. Whilst I admire some of the pots that the dominant wood-fire ethic produces, I still remain someone who sees wood-firing as a means to fire pots to generate more than just a limited number of outcomes. For many thousands of years across innumerable cultural situations pots have been fired with wood and an incredible range of results has been produced, many of which we still don’t explore.
I have always loved celadon glazes and many people over the years have said to me that you can produce better celadons in gas kilns or other types of kilns. This might be so, but the challenge to consistently produce quality work in a wood-fired kiln does require certain obsession and skill, if not luck.
Yes, I am trying to survive and that requires a certain amount of money. To sell my work, marketing has to be addressed. Stubbornness probably dominates, so making purely for market demands is of no interest. My work follows where I go and my seeking of my private nirvana.
In Pioneer Pottery, Michael Cardew wrote that any artist is in communication with the universe and if one or two other individuals along the way share your vision here and there that is all we can expect. It will never be a communication with all. My expectations have not changed greatly over the years on this. You make your choices and get on with it.
In recent years I have speculated more and more about the influence of cycles on my life. Wood-firing cycles determining a wider range of activities, or perhaps my increasingly cyclic lifestyle, have a link back to my involvement with wood-fired kilns.
A symbiotic relationship? I have begun to wonder more and more and more about the perception that is growing within me that there is an increasing interdependence between the two. The wood-firing cycle has gradually extended over the years from six weeks between firings in the early days, to four to five months now. The cycles of work that take me away from my workshop have become more and more prominent. Initially it was eight years between the first and second involvements, however recently it has become much more frequent at almost one a year. As the firing cycle extends, so the cycles away from the workshop also increase. I have no answer, just an observation.
A recent trip to China provided a new view to my obsessions with materials, process and firing/wood-firing. Disasters can happen with unfamiliar materials and firing techniques, but we learn if our eyes are open. You will find a way forward. After spending many years exploring the local materials that surround me in Australia, having to deal with materials and kiln firings totally out of my control revealed some new ways to approach similar situations. I may be invited back again for a different event, and who knows what disasters lurk in the shadows of a different kiln.
My intention always is to give a view of wood-firing that revolves around the interaction I have with wood-firing and the hold it has on me. No deep and meaningful cultural appropriations, just that it is, or it seems to be, me and my life, evolving, changing and ongoing. The only thing which seems to escape the flames and transformation is that it becomes more and more clear, or perhaps less muddy, that “the journey never ends.”
Geoff Crispin December 2009