Joey Burns discusses the opportunities available to a newbie wood-firer
In April 2007 I had the good fortune (or possibly misfortune) of having my first stoke of an anagama, raging at around 1300ºC. The calmness broke instantly when the door was opened and the first chunk of pine was awkwardly fumbled into the fire box; the hairs on my fingers singed through the leather gloves and the heat dried my face in a life-changing second that has, ever since, severely narrowed my interest in ceramics. I no longer think of pushing buttons or fiddling with taps and burners. I want to burn stuff straight from the palms of my hands … and lots of it!
Up until this point I had no idea why people fired with wood. I was one term into the Certificate III ceramics course at Northern Beaches TAFE in Sydney when I went back to my teachers after this experience and started learning about fly ash and flashing. Things got worse. Anything apart from working with wet clay or stoking wood kilns seemed like a chore. Thankfully my interests have broadened slightly in the past couple of years and I still enjoy the majority of tasks involved in studio pottery. However, everything I now make is made to be wood-fired.
One of the most challenging aspects for me is making wood-fired work that effectively communicates with people of my generation. Trying to reference both eastern and western aesthetics (as well as trying to keep alive those traditions), whilst at the same time trying to make pots that attract interest from a generation where the majority have been brought up on mass produced everything, proves to be a difficult task.
I have consciously started to incorporate humour and character into my work, particularly my functional work. It took quite a while for me to realise that these two elements were missing from our homeware collections. It now brings me great satisfaction to see people pick up hand-made ceramics, fondle them and then tell a friend to hold the piece for a second, feeling a connection to the potter and the process. Hopefully, by the end of my studies I can have more of an understanding of how to achieve this, while still making pots I love.
When considering the facilities I knew at educational institutions, I soon realised my interest in wood-firing could turn into a dilemma, as there are very few schools left that have access to wood kilns. By a stroke of luck, I was pointed in the direction of a TAFE that had both the teachers and facilities required to fulfill many of my wood-firing needs. Northern Beaches TAFE has two wood-burning kilns on campus and, although restricted to 14-hour firings, the college gives me access to a high turnover of glaze tests, clay tests and great kilns for producing tableware. TAFE has also provided the opportunity to take part in a number of other class-firing excursions outside of the college.
I am also lucky to have as family friends, two well-known wood-firing potters, Ian Jones and Moraig McKenna, who have been infinitely generous with information and opportunities to participate in extended wood-firings. On average I am able to take part in two five-day firings a year. Their kiln, being an anagama (my dream kiln), gives me the opportunity to learn about firing techniques, fuels, clay bodies and natural ash glazes which are associated with longer wood-firings. So for me (without sounding too cocky), the biggest dilemma is being able to make enough pots good enough to justify turning into permanent objects and filling the kilns.
Being a small branch of the art community, and one that has so much history attached, wood-firing in Australia seems to have reached a critical point in time, with a growing awareness of the need to keep its traditions and techniques alive. For students there aren’t many options for learning the ropes of wood-firing. The most many schools can offer is a bunch of books outlining kiln designs, clays and timber types. But nothing beats dirty, hands-on involvement with the real thing. If a school is not able to supply the required equipment, the next best option is to go in search of already established kilns and potters.
Students interested in wood-firing need to take it upon themselves to go out and get stuck into it – not just with the firing but all the steps along the way: mixing or digging clays, splitting timber, kiln packing and unpacking, etc. Opportunities are out there. It’s just a matter of seeking them out and taking them up and hopefully the knowledge can keep being passed on.
Wood-firing isn’t just a fad. When observing the potters who are still successfully running wood-fired potteries, it’s evident that they’ve all made a lifestyle choice that allows them to be able to keep doing what they love. For students interested and wanting to get the most out of wood-firing, it’s crucial that we show a similar commitment and dedication to our learning practices so that in the future we can maintain these traditions and hopefully pass on the knowledge that we pick up along the way.
Joey Burns, E: firstname.lastname@example.org.