Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Clay, Wood and Fire

This is the English transcript of an email conversation with the Dutch magazine Klei. The article appeared in the July issue, 2015.

I learnt pottery at evening classes. I worked in advertising, I was always late for class, consequently the wheels were always occupied so I would find a corner and make pots by other ways. There was this preoccupation that throwing was the only real way to make pots. Later in the evening the wheels would become free, but I never liked cleaning up someone else’s ‘clay soup’.

When I realised that two hours each week was not enough to make good progress, I found a small space at home, but there was not enough room for a wheel to make my pots. My potter friends all ask me why I don’t use a wheel, I get plenty of offers for free tuition and sometimes have tried. It’s a bit like golf, I know what I should do, but it never happens how I would like it to be. Maybe I am obstinate, but after so long now, I like it this way. I can achieve exactly what I want with no worries about technique or process. Anyway I have no desire to make mugs and plates in quantity, I enjoy the slower pace of working with just clay and my hands.

Making pots with coils is probably the oldest method of making pots, certainly large pots, long before the wheel was used. Coils are long ropes of clay, rolled out with the fingers. Coiling is a strange word even in English, ropes is usually better understood by non potters. The coils are joined with my fingers and then beaten with a flat piece of wood or paddle. In the USA they call it paddling. Everyone develops their own way of working, this is mine. 

I made some boxes with ceramic lids, after all that’s what we are supposed to do as potters. I didn’t like the way fired clay against fired clay grates and rattles. My Dad made walking sticks and he suggested I found a way to use up all the beautiful pieces of wood that get left over. I was good at wood work at school, it was a natural progression to make wooden lids for my pots. My inheritance when my Father died was some boxes of wood, some unfinished walking sticks and his tools.

Now all the wood is mainly given to fire the kiln, some is too good to burn. It’s a symbiotic process. Waste wood is burnt on the kiln, the good pieces saved to make lids, the residue is burnt on our wood stove in winter to keep warm and the wood ash used to make glaze.

Wood work requires very different skills to working with clay. I enjoy that challenge and a lot of thought goes into finding the right piece of wood for each box. The marriage of wood and wood fired pots somehow seems appropriate.

Making sticks follows very traditional rules, so all the wood for the first few boxes are made from English hardwoods. At the moment I have Myrtle from Australia, Wenge from Zaire, these are left overs from trendy kitchens. Sometimes pallets used for transporting stone from India are made of really beautiful exotic woods. Such waste!

Because I build by hand I can use very coarse clay with lots of grog. I also add some fire clay. As I build I scrape the surface, I love this texture and all my work is made this way. I smooth the inside of bowls with a rubber tool to provide a contrast.

I usually make small batches of ash glaze, the colour is brighter when it is fresh. The results from each mix will be slightly different as wood from each tree will produce a different colour in all shades of grey, green, olive. I love these natural colours and when they are wood fired, the extra ash from the kiln can make them very complex, sometimes unexpected natural glass will be formed.

I am mainly self taught, my ash glaze recipe is from Bernard Leach. I wash the ash in a bucket and skim off the charcoal and scum from the surface, rinse a couple of times, sieve it and dry it in shallow pans in the sun.

Recipe :- 4 parts wood ash, 4 parts potash feldspar, 2 parts china clay.

I also have a shino glaze and a celadon, I like to keep things simple.

The kiln is my most important tool, how it is fired, the kind of wood used even the weather can give a different result. Understanding what happens in this very hot box takes a long time to learn. No two wood kilns fire exactly the same or produce the same results. After a firing I take some of the pots that catch my eye and study them for a few days. This is a cycle of events, the pots from the kiln inform the making, glazing and position of the pots in the kiln of the next firing. There is a constant process of learning, evolving and moving slowly forward.

Why did I start pottery? Partly because I had never worked with clay, it was not taught at my school, partly because my job was not very fulfilling and I wanted to make things with my hands and get them dirty.

Clay is extremely malleable. You can stretch, bend, make marks in it, make it liquid, beat it and glue it together with it’s self and if it doesn’t work out, recycle it and try again. Wood is very unforgiving, make a mistake and it’s game over.

The possibilities using clay are endless, go to any ceramics market and see the diversity of work, yet it is such a readily available material. If I dig down half a metre in my garden I will find clay, not much use for high fired pots, but maybe for bricks or making a nice plum coloured slip.

At evening class and at all schools, firing is in electric kilns, both for bisque and glaze, no one gets to load the kilns or fire them apart from the technician. So firing is a mystery for students. My first kiln was a little electric top loader and I learnt to use it from reading books and just getting on with it. All the pots that we have bought, love and use every day are mostly traditional and have been fired in a kiln with flames. Either gas, oil or wood, it’s this warm and interesting surface that makes them special. My early electric fired pots lacked this quality and I set about reading everything I could about wood firing.

I discovered a weekend course to build a small, simple kiln and fire it with wood. Looking back the results were not great, but I was hooked and built one for myself in a space in my garden. Once you join the wood firing community you are invited to help fire other kilns and so a journey begins.

I have built several now and have been there to fire many more, from Anagama kilns that can take five or six days or Fast-fire kilns that can take as little as ten hours. There is no going back now, there is so much more to discover.

I don’t give titles to my work, they are just simple pots. They get given ‘pet’ names like Swirly Whirly, dribble bottle, flat vase etc, but this is only for my benefit.

I once entered a pot for an exhibition in a museum and called it “Fat boy”. The museum changed it to ‘Round bottle’ so that it did not offend large people! 

This article preceeds a solo exhibition at Theemaas, Rotterdam.