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Wood-Fire Apologia

Added: Fri, Nov 10, 2006

By Jane Herold, Ceramics Monthly, Feb. 1999, p. 54-55

"Why," Jack Troy asked, "since you don't use the natural accumulation of ash as decoration or glaze, do you bother firing with wood?"

I should state right from the start that I am a Westerner who likes a mug with a handle on it; I even put milk in my tea! My addiction to wood firing has nothing personally to do with Japan, "accidents" of the fire or the tea ceremony. After almost 20 years of potting, I do what I do because it feels natural and right, but there are "reasons" that might satisfy a logical mind.

So why do I make dishes from clay in the first place? At this point, it is really and truly the only way I can find things to eat from that please me. I have a strong conviction that dishes matter–almost as much the food they serve. A cup of tea from a diner cup and saucer (cold because the cup is cold and thick, or too open, or too small and the water never really boiled anyway) can almost reduce me to tears.

The fact is, I care that the tea is good, hot and plentiful. The joy, when it is, is every bit as pronounced as the disappointment when it is not.

So I have to make pots: bowls for specific foods, plates that keep sauce and juice in (but not in a puddle in the center), cereal bowls that let me drink (comfortably) the last bit of milk, pots to bake and serve in that make the table look beautiful and the food appetizing. As Michael Cardew eloquently explained, machine-made pots, though practical and functional, often fail to feed the human spirit.

My potting is a consuming attempt to ensure beauty and pleasure and sensuousness in everyday life. These qualities cannot be overstated without becoming hard, superficial or cheap. Beauty, if one strives for it, becomes mere prettiness, pleasure becomes indulgence and sensuousness degenerates into gloppy formlessness. The qualities I care about have to occur naturally, less "created" than "allowed to happen."

To make that possible, I throw on a kick wheel, using very soft clay. It is too soft to make pots so thin they feel brittle or, even worse, like blown-up balloons. The clay demands a certain weight and fleshiness to stand up. The slow wheel will not make hard, fast profiles any more than a very slow-moving crayon will make a hard, fast line. I then glaze and decorate the pots while they are still soft and impressionable, eliminating the unlovable, frozen bisque.

Wood firing is also a slow process. In all types of firing, time matters as much as temperature. The wood-fired glaze doesn't just sit on the surface of the pot, but has time to form an interface with the clay. This layering makes the difference between a glow and a shine. The fire warms and toasts the exposed clay surface. The finished pots have a richness and depth I've never matched with gas. Okay, "rational" reasons aplenty.

There is another, even more important reason to fire with wood. Most wood kilns, to be practical, are fairly large, so firing always feels like a special occasion. This infrequency, added to the nature of the work involved, makes it impossible to be detached when firing a wood kiln. It demands full attention, both physical and mental. If I scrimp in these matters, the firing will surely do something to bring me quickly back to my senses, quite literally.

Listening to the fire, judging how much air is needed and when to stoke, is intelligent work. It calls for sensitivity, perceptiveness, an ability to think (sometimes under duress!). Tending the wood kiln keeps me feeling and caring with an intensity that gas and electric kilns simply do not invite.

I started wood firing while a student of Michael Cardew's at Wenford Bridge Pottery. Everything there was done form the ground up; mixing clay in a ball mill, grinding materials for glazes and grogs, cutting firewood by hand, growing vegetables, baking bread, just about climbing into the fireplace to get warm and dry. Wood firing was just the natural way of working, not a doctrine or an ideal. It felt as though Michael really didn't know there was any other way to do things, or if he did, he had no experience of how to do them. I fell into this life as though I'd been waiting forever for a sensible world to emerge from chaos. I felt as though I'd come home. Being passionately opinionated about what plate I would or would not eat my broad beans and potatoes from was accepted as completely normal, and if anything a sign of good health. Polite indifference to one's dish was an indication of a lack of sensibility about not only what you ate, and what from, but who you were.

I think people question the advantage of wood firing because it is so much work. Once I started doing it, however, it just became a way of working, like wedging in a spiral, raw glazing, or throwing on a kick wheel. To come up with reasons for wood firing now, when I've been doing it for years, it is a bit like trying to explain why I put milk in my tea. I just do, and I can't imagine not wanting to. The fact is, wood firing is a lot more interesting than turning knobs on a gas or electric kiln.

I make pots because I am happy at the wheel, happy decorating, because I love a freshly slipped leather-hard jug, glistening on the shelf. Because scratching through glaze into the still-soft clay is lots and lots of fun. The night I light the match to start the fires is filled with the kind of hope and wishfulness and even prayer that seized me as a five-year-old on the eve of my birthday. It's a kind of innocent idealism that anything (even a pony!) is possible.

We have compromised a great deal already in the pursuit of the "advantages" of an industrialized world. I don't advocate turning back the clocks and reinventing "village life." But I do think thoughtful choices can be made about what to accept in the way I work, that "efficiency" is not always "progress"; that I can shape the life I live.

No one asks me why I throw instead of jiggering or casting my pots. It is understood, at least among potters, that both the process and product of throwing pots are more intrinsically gratifying (if not more lucrative) than the alternatives. Maybe someday it won't be necessary to ask, "Why fire with wood?" Maybe someday we won't have to ask, or answer, as Michael Cardew did, "Why make pots in the last quarter of the 20th century?"

I hope that one day we will create a world where most people will care so deeply about their time on earth that they will believe and assume that pleasure in everyday living is what it's all about.

Wood-Fire Apologia, by Jane Herold, Ceramics Monthly, Feb. 1999, p. 54-55