The second wood firing had its challenges but it was very successful and all were happy.

It is one thing to fire your own wood kiln so many times that you know its behaviour.  And, yes, we can predict certain things but students brand ‘new’ to wood firing or only having participated in a single wood firing workshop are handicapped to say the least.  Our kiln was designed to use Poplar logs but we cannot get Poplar logs in the late fall.  They have been cut and split for firewood sales.  So, we tried oak slabs, very hard oak slabs and a partial grate.  What did we discover?  The kiln can reach 13.5 on the Oxyprobe in 12 hours with a 3 hour gas pre-heat.  The top of the kiln needs to be ignored.  Oak by itself is not good.  It creates immense amounts of ember but if you want to raise the temperature and finish the job, it had to be mixed with scrap lumber and pine.  The ration was 1 part oak to whatever else we could lay our hands on.  The pots, as anticipated, that were placed in the throat had amazing yohen effects.  Kusakabe would love them!  The students also learned many things about the glazes.

In the ceramics area we have big pails of ‘shop glazes’.  I have no idea who started this practice and, at times, it is a hindrance, not a help.  The students – because the tiles show the glazes by themselves and then mixed with one other studio glaze, cause a lot of dipping.  Dipping without thought, dipping and getting the glaze too thick and when the work comes out fantastic the dipping often causes blank looks on the faces of the students!  Of course they have been told to have a method of recording so that they know what they did and could replicate it.  One of the best of these ‘dipping’ pieces was a tea bowl by Jiawei Dai.  I wish I had a photo of it.  She put temmoku underneath and Haystack Green on the upper half.  It was fantastic.  In fact, those old Sun dynasty glazes fired in the wood kilns of 9th and 10th century China are superb.  The other glazes were the ash ones that we made out of the Poplar ash from the first firing.  Those included a Nuka (gorgeous soft white), a red made with half ash and half low fire red clay, and an amber.

The bagwall question plagued us.  In the end, we put it at the back and loaded the middle half of the kiln tight and put Kewen’s walls there so that we would, hopefully, keep the flames dancing about and the ash as well.  It seems to have worked great!

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We also had lots of ash…did someone say a 12 hour firing in a Bourry box doesn’t produce ash?  It does!  and almost all of the students got to experience what every wood firing potter in the world knows:  grinding is a part of the process.  They also learned about alumina hydrate and the difference between wadding made with it and without.

They were a great group, full of laughter, great at problem solving, and community minded.  Everyone did their part.  Even one of the students who had recent foot surgery showed up on the last day and found that while they couldn’t be outside in the cold, they could grind and clean shelves.  Incredible.  They are such a good group and the plan is to fire the kiln again in April when the weather has warmed up (or in May) outside of a class for fun and also for them to be able to undertake it with some assurances about the oak and the other scraps and pine – that it works!

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The final group critique for the Beginning Wheel Throwing Class

It is hard to believe that it is now December 6.  The students in the Beginning Wheel Throwing class worked for the entire month of September to perfect their cylinders.  Then they moved on to throwing bowls off the hump as well as with throwing individual bowls on bats in October and early November.  For the last few weeks they have been working on their final project for the course.  This was a chance for them to add some originality and innovation in their work rather than following the strict guidelines of the previous two projects.  Using a minimum of 8 different forms, they were to create a single object or a set that represented their aesthetics.  The range of work really did reflect much about their own personalities and aesthetics.

Miao Liu loves copper red glazes and was very disappointed that the School did not have a copper red in the studio glazes.  But she worked with what was available and discovered that the combination of two glazes, equal parts clear and Haystack Green, can, if fired in the right part of the gas kiln in a highly reduced atmosphere, produce copper red.  Her study in small flower vases was tied together through glaze.  Haley Bean chose to make a very contemporary tea set with straight sides and pulled handles, formed in such a way when she attached them that they had an urban edge.  This was in great contrast to the more vibrant curves of the mugs made by Leandra Brandson.  Allison Banman took an entirely different approach.  Her project would be, in the end, gifts for friends and family.  She successfully carved and incised special quotes for one, cats for another, dragon flies for yet another – a time consuming task that often fails for beginners because they get the cut outs too close together.

Bowls are the mainstay of potters around the world.  A former student did a project and in it, Anwen described the meaning of a bowl for the Chinese.  It is what you eat out of every day – not the plates of Westerners.  Various shaped bowls are used for soup and rice.  If one loses their job, their bowl is symbolically broken as they have shamed their family.  Thinking about other cultures such as the Anazasi, they placed bowls on top of the heads of the deceased, piercing the center of the bottom in order to release the soul of the dead.  For us, bowls are comforting.  You can wrap your hands around them and warm up in the winter.  You can fill them with nourishing food holding your hands out in offering.  Carolyn Dyck created two series of delicate mixing bowls using a specific dowel to make certain that the height and width complimented one another.  One set was in the shape of the Sung dynasty lotus rimmed bowls while the other was plain.  One was made out of Danish White while the other was out of Death Valley – giving her an opportunity to explore the reaction of the two clay bodies with a similar glaze in the reduction kiln. Hyounjung Lee worked on rice bowls while others opted to challenge themselves by taking on the teapot.  Ellina Pe Benito was not frightened away by the thought of a tea set complete with serving plate, creamer and sugar.  But, as she knew, you have to make more than one because, invariably, something happens.  Greenware can break, pieces can stick to the kiln shelves while others may tip over in the kiln and stick to one another.  You have to always have a back up plan.  Ellina also remembered to keep the top of the spout higher than the rim so the hot tea would not go pouring out all over the table.  Tingjung Meng worked on serving and eating dishes in the Asian style while others, such as Hae Lim Choi, made coordinating cups, saucers, and plates.  Cassandra Cochrane created tiny espresso cups with rolled handles.  Lauren Sneesby is the only person I have met who created mosquito coils in the shape of pigs while Hannah worked on a sculpture in the shape of a watering can.  Eun Choi opted to paint her rose with acrylics knowing that the colours would be washed out in a cone 10 firing.  Kendra Wile surprised everyone with what was hidden inside her cups – landscapes of the ocean and the desert.  I really hope that I have not missed anyone!  Each was very special.

This group of young women stuck it out through the throwing of hundreds of cylinders to get 40 good ones for grading.  They spent all their spare time in the clay studio for approximately six weeks until the pressure was off and they could center the clay without it controlling them.  I cannot wait to see what they do in the future.

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Hospitalfield Residency

It was such a wonderful surprise Friday morning to open my mail and find out that my submission to be a resident artist at Hospitalfield in Arbroath, Scotland was successful!  Located outside a little fishing village on the North Sea about an hour and a half’s drive from Edinburgh, Hospitalfield was founded in the 13th century by Tironesian monks.  Back then it was a hospise for those who had either leprosy or the plague.  In 1665, it was purchased by James Fraser.  Wikipedia tells me that Sir Walter Scott stayed here in 1803 and 1809 and used it as the model for  ‘Monkbarns’, in The Antiquary published in 1813.  Patrick Allan-Fraser later gifted the property to be an arts center.  Hospitalfield was Scotland’s very first School of Fine Art and the first art college in Britain.  Many prominent Scottish artists have spent time here, either studying or as a resident.  They include Joan Eardley, Peter Howson, Wendy McMurdo, Callum Innes, Alasdair Grey among a highlighted list of others.  Today, the center encourages artists of all ages, disciplines, and backgrounds to apply to work together in their beautiful natural lit studios.

My project examines the transience of time using ceramics, photography, and weaving.  I will be photographing the landscape many times during the day while I am living there.  Those images will be translated into colour slips for my bottles.  Eventually, there will be 56 finished works representing the time spent in Scotland.  These are part of a much larger installation for an exhibition at the School of Art Gallery, University of Manitoba, in the summer.  It is especially inspiring that a jury, consisting of individuals who did not previously know me or my work, should give my project a vote of confidence.  For me, personally, it comes at a time of transition in my life and work and to say I am excited about this opportunity would be an understatement.

Afternoon tea with Destiny, Gunda, Terry, and Harlan

I am not actually having afternoon tea with Destiny, Gunda, Terry, and Harlan but, oh, how nice that would be!  But they are here with me regardless.  Harlan House’s Row House candle holder is always somewhere easily in sight.  Oh, what a nice man Harlan is.  He stopped having his annual open houses a couple of years ago but he still takes calls from collectors and clients and hasn’t stopped working.  He just wants to set his own schedule and after more than 50 years of working with porcelain surely he has earned it.  Harlan has also left another legacy.  He spent the past couple of years working on a digital book.  You can find it on his website – just search Google or ask Siri.  Last week he said that I knew everything that was in it but he hoped it would help my students.  And, indeed, it will just like the videos that he has inserted in his site have helped them to understand the great amount of effort that one has to put into trimming if they want to work with porcelain.  Most are too much of a hurry to allow the porcelain to cure as it dries.  For those of you who read my article on Harlan in Art and Perception you will know this story but, for those of you that don’t, it is a good way to remember to take care with your work.  You can have a giggle, too.  Harlan built a room within his carriage house studio to dry his porcelain.  He put regular household bricks on the floor and there were windows and those baby humidifiers from the 1970s shooting out their warm mist.  His thrown pieces were on shelves where he could see them through the windows.  He said, “These platters are kind of like a love affair.  At first, everything is perfect.  Then about two weeks in you start to notice little things begin to happen” – an upturn of the lip -.  He would remove the pieces, place them back on the wheel and return them to dry.  I never did find out how many trips those large thrown platters made in and out.  By the time they made it to the gallery they were exceptional. but

Gunda is never far away but, this weekend she is firing her wood kiln in Canyon, BC getting ready for the last big market of the year.  Her temmokus are luscious – I do repeat that often.  They break at the rim and over the finger marks into a gorgeous kaki.  Someone told me once that she could “just fire them in a gas kiln”.  Of course, she could but then she would not be part of the complete process.  She often makes her own clays and mixes her own glazes.  She is part of every aspect of the firing and my back breaks when I think of her climbing in and out of her Manibigama kiln with the heavy silicon carbide shelves.  But, if she put everything in the gas kiln it would lose that subtle softness that only comes with wood firing.  Gunda is the only studio potter I know of that makes her teapots so that you can actually fit, with ease, one of those large strainers in the top opening.  I thank her every time I want to make a full pot…and she is with me in spirit every day otherwise I would find myself travelling to BC far too often.

This is what I mean when I talk about the joy that quality handmade items make to your life.  I am not talking about the “crap” out there and the word “craft” still gets a bad name from people who purchase bags of parts of things and assemble them together and call themselves an artist.  It takes a long time of study and the mastery of the material to be someone whose work won’t make it into the garage sale in five years time.  Terry Hildebrand is young.  I wrote about my favourite plates of his yesterday.  Today one of them is holding the offering of lemon and rosemary scones to my guest while Destiny Seymour’s textile ties the whole lot of these lovely people together.

We have a very close friend, Ruby, who is a Cree Medicine Woman.  She deals with the dead.  But she has imparted a lot of wisdom to me over the years (thank you, Ruby).  One thing that I learned is to only surround yourself with the work of “good” people.  Remove the objects made by those who carry negative energy.  The world is full of it, why bring that into your house?  How lucky am I then to be having Saturday afternoon tea with such a remarkable, creative group of good and kind people?  Think about that when you are shopping, too and support these wonderful makers who have chosen to live a creative life.

The Learning Kiln, Round 1

I haven’t added anything to this blog since the beginning of the term but, it is now time to once again praise a great crew of people.  The students from the first Wood Fire Class at the School of Art:  Jaiwei Dai, Julia Beasley, Kendra Wile, Kewen Qiang, Monique Chartier-Kroeker, Sara Berg, Yijia Zhang, Zach Dueck, Anastasia Waly, Alexandra Ross, and Hyoungjung Lee – in no particular order.  I would also like to thank a former student and Ceramics Club co-president (with Selena Panchoo), Donna Garafolo, and a current student in another class who came to help and really did, Keith Barber.  Of the eleven students in the class, only two had ever fired a wood kiln. The learning kiln did everything that ‘it’ was supposed to do.  If a university is about learning and problem-solving and if woodfire is about building community, teamwork and collegiality then this firing was one of the most successful I have ever been a part of.  I would be proud to fire with any of these respectful, hardworking, and tenacious individuals and I am looking forward to another firing before the end of the term with this teamIMG_0365IMG_0374IMG_0380IMG_0385IMG_0391IMG_0394IMG_0399IMG_0407IMG_0409IMG_0413 if we can procure dry logs of the right length and diameter.

While I would like to be showing you amazing pictures of lovely glazed work this morning, I can’t.  We ran out of wood at cone 3 after using up every available piece of wood and borrowing a table saw from Keith and a chainsaw from Donna.  The Oxyprobe worked brilliantly.  Students learned how to translate numbers into reducing or oxidising and even neutral atmospheres inside the kiln.  They were, however, disappointed at not having bellowing black smoke go everywhere – the kiln is, after all, a smokeless one.  They learned about building a proper ember bed and not blocking the flue, about ‘stoking on the hobs’ – even the word was like one from a totally foreign language – hobs, what are hobs?  Oh, those are the hobs!  It is interesting, as a teacher, to find that actually doing something is more of a learning tool than reading and talking about it (a bit like reading how to put a diaper on a baby and then being presented with a real child)- especially when most of the students do not know the language of wood firing.  The majority did not know what an ember was nevermind an ember bed.  They do now!

These students did everything right according to Steve Harrison’s Laid Back Wood Firing and Markus Boehm’s instructions in the summer.  They pre-heated the kiln with gas (thanks Sara from coming out in the middle of the night) and then started using sticks and branches to start the ember bed before going full fire on the floor.  They built one of the most beautiful ember beds I have seen in a long time.  They went to the hobs following the schedule in Steve Harrison’s Laidback Wood Firing – a book that I will now require for this class in the future.  But it was there with them at every moment.  And the temperature rose slowly not to warp or dunt the pieces inside.  One of the surprises to them was one that caused a moment of problem-solving.  The flames which had been ‘going down’ in the Bourry Box began to look like a ‘campfire’ – they were coming up.  When we ran out of dry suitable wood, they attempted to use some cut off slabs (remember I said they didn’t want to give up) and one of these blocked the flue into the main chamber for a bit.  Back on track they built up their ember bed, went back to the hobs, and then got to full-blown fire resulting in reduction.

Harrison lists the possibilities for a stall and we carefully examined page 14 and his list.  We ruled out not enough ember pile to preheat combustion (see feature photo with logs on hobs), going to the hobs too quickly (we followed the medium length firing schedule in the book), top of the firebox was hot enough, and we had good dry pieces when we went on the hobs (again see above).  The firebox design was made for one-metre poplar logs and worked well at the first firing.  And the students did not forget to clam up the bottom stokehole door.  This left us with two choices and they were the two culprits that defeated us at cone 3:  too big a cross-section of timber because of the large mass it took too long to reach the flashing point and that wood was wet.   We sealed up everything and cleaned up.  The area looked fantastic due to their efforts.  And, in the midst of all of this, we also did a raku firing.

So I want to repeat something because I do not want anyone to consider this firing a failure; it is not the student’s fault that the wood we had available to us at a crucial juncture was too big and too wet.  This is a learning kiln and if University is about learning and problem-solving, then this firing was 100% successful!  I do not want the students, or anyone, to think that a kiln full of beautiful glazed ceramics is ever the only goal.  If this firing had gone perfect, I actually suspect that the learning aspect would have been minimal.  We, me and the students, are humbled along with all other wood firing potters, even Steve Harrison, who have had issues firing their kilns.  I suspect that that is what, over the years, inspired Harrison to write his book so that we could learn from his experience.  Next time we are going to measure the diameter of the logs and their length.  I would give anything for the tool to measure the wetness of wood.  We will have our own chainsaw (and gas – thanks again, Donna and Keith).  We will, once again, check what to do in the ‘Harrison Bible’ and the firing will result in lovely glazed cone 12 ceramics.

Third European Wood Fire Conference, continued

Today was officially day 4 of the Third European Wood Fire Conference in LeBorne, France.  It is just such a magical place.  To reach LeBorne from Bourges, about a 40 minute drive using winding country roads, you pass through corn and sunflower fields.  As you get closer, you enter the forests that have supplied the potters in the area with wood for centuries.  Indeed, several Roman-Gallo kilns have been unearthed and the conference has recreated two of these for the participants to see how they were constructed.  My very good friend, Dr Julia Nema from Budapest, spoke to the influences of Malevich and Moholgy-Nagy on her light sculptures while Fred Olsen provided everyone with a reason to use cartable for building a wood kiln instead of bricks.  Other events included a round table discussion on the future of wood firing, tours to two local museums, and, of course, the numerous open studios of the potters living and working in LeBorne. You do not have to look far to find pottery sitting in gardens, on shelves of buildings or gracing gardens.  The anagama kiln will be finished firing tomorrow and if the rain would stop we might actually see the bottle kiln finished!

The first conference was held in Brollin and my friend, Markus Boehm, who came to build the Bourry Box kiln for the School in June, headed up that committee.  Priscilla Mouritzen was part of the team that hosted the second conference at the International Ceramic Research Centre in Skaelskor, Germany.  At that time only Denmark was wanting to host the second one.  It appears that was the case with the third being in LeBorne but, the events are so successful that this time there are four centres vying for the fourth conference in 2022.  It reminds me now of the Olympics.  But, I keep asking:  who decides who will be the host?  Since this has not been a problem previously, no one seems to be able to answer.  The short list contenders are:  Russia, Latvia, Barcelona, and Belgium.  Everyone will find out Friday morning!

Meanwhile, I am staring at a stack of catalogues and books that I would never be able to readily find in Canada or on Amazon – as well as some pottery – and trying to figure out how I am going to get this back to Canada next week.  The local potters would have sold much more to ‘the foreigners’ if someone had the foresight to have a ‘for charge’ packing and mailing business locally for this event.

‘She’ is just about finished…needs some tweaking for the next firing. Did we learn anything?

Those of you reading my blog know that the idea for the new Bourry Box kiln came because there was a need for a ‘learning’ kiln.  A kiln that is easy to load, clean, fire and that can be fired numerous times in a short period of time to cone 13/14 and by one or two persons.  We just about did it.  The bagwall will be adjusted, new shelves will be ordered (please don’t use old soda kiln shelves), and a nice coat of Adobe will be spread.  Anyone have any ideas what colour we should tint that Adobe?  And we need some new insulating bricks for the door – we used the ones we had but it takes far too long to mortar them if they are broken.

The kiln requires a proper shed or it will simply deteriorate.  Putting a temporary one up is an option but then people begin to see that this might work and they give up on building one that would cover the space, the ware carts, and the students when they are loading and firing.  Hopefully,  we will have this before winter sets in.  Then the lever and pulley system can be installed allowing for one person to fire.  But, we also need to figure out a way to safely pre-heat the kiln in a public setting.  But, for now, this chimney needs to be attached to the building!

The kiln went up as Markus and I had planned and as we knew that it would.   But others were caught off guard.  You cannot mortar a proper chimney and weld all of the metal supports in two days.  It simply cannot happen with other demands such as the welding of the fibre board firebox lid.  And then if the scaffolding company comes and you haven’t finished, well…I can’t do a tell-all in my blog because in about a year the story of this kiln is going to appear in Ceramics Monthly and, hopefully, it will help others planning a community build.  What I will continue to do is to praise the participants who signed up to learn and help; they were very thankful and repeatedly told me and Markus what a good experience this was.  As I have said many, many times in this blog, it was their motivation, respect, and desire to build something the right way that made this possible (and, of course, Markus).

For now, though, I have to move on.  The ashes from the first firing have been fathered (yes I wore one of those horrible masks) for experiments with Nuka glazes.  I am going to go and see my friend Gunda Stewart in Canyon, BC in mid-July.  She has a beautiful manibigama kiln and her wood-fired domestic vessels are solid.  Then it is Guldagergaard and finally, The Third European Wood Fire Conference is in Le Borne, France at the end of August.  Check it out.  Paul Davis is giving a workshop on Oribe at Sturt (Australia) in early July (won’t be there but some of you might be able to jump on a plane; there are a few spaces left).  There are lots of things happening around the world within the wood fire community.