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.

“Viagra Wood Firing: Mine is the biggest and the dirtiest and I fire the longest”.

The quote is from the Australian ceramist, Paul Davis.  Markus Boehm told it to me and it fits my talk at the Third European Wood Firing Conference in LeBorn perfectly.  If you know Paul Davis (great guy, great sense of humour), you will understand that this statement was partly made in jest.  Still, for many, wood firing is all part of the male realm and the building of wood kilns and the firing of them has to be the biggest, the longest, and the dirtiest consuming vast quantities of wood for days and weeks.  As the School of Art and I began to plan for a new wood kiln that would be a learning tool, large kilns with firing schedules more than twelve hours were rejected.  We wanted a kiln that the students could fire in less than a day and fire so often that they could learn through experience.  There was also a huge desire to be kinder to Mother Earth.

Does anyone out there think that this would be a controversial issue?

Over the course of my research on the impact of the Vietnam resisters on Canadian ceramics, it became very clear that many of the men who immigrated believed and still understand that the women who came with them – whether it was a supportive partner, sister, mom, or friend – gave up nothing.  I was told so many times that the women could go back and forth freely without fear of going to jail that I almost took those statements for granted.  But, it is not true.  I was one of those women.  I left behind a very elderly grandmother who had raised me, my parents, and friends.  Others left behind careers, studios, and commissions.  The voices of those women were quite literally silenced.

There are only two Japanese women who fire with wood.  Why?  There is an ancient myth that the kilns will blow up if the women take part in the firing process.  Really?

Ironically, if you look at the percentage of women firing wood kilns, many alone, in Germany’s Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region, north of Berlin, you will discover that there are more women firing wood kilns than men.  Over the years I have been fortunate to meet some of these talented individuals and I am grateful.  They have shown me that women can manage trees, cut them down, haul them to the area for cutting, stacking, and drying.  And, finally, they can fuel their kilns with these logs.  Ute Dreist is only one of many women working in the field.  Others include Birke Kastner, Charis Lober, Katrin Otolski, Angelika Reich, Silwia Barke, Regine Schonemann, and Christiane Lambertz amongst others.  There are similar percentages in other parts of Northern Europe, France, and Scandinavia.  Indeed, a survey in Canada shows that the number of women who choose to wood fire their ceramics is growing steadily.

So what is the problem?  Is it just me?  Or is the books and the journals in North America that continue to feature more men than women?  How about exhibitions that focus solely on wood fired vessels or sculpture?  It is the same.  This is surely bothersome.  In ceramics classes across Canada today, the vast majority are female students.  Last year I had only one male student out of twenty-one in my class.  There are currently no male students registered in my fall wood firing class.  I haven’t gotten to the point – yet- where I am going to start to count the number of women featured in journals, books, and exhibitions like the Guerrilla Girls did when they took on the New York City Fine Art establishment and started a movement —- but I am almost there.  The examples of wood fired work in the display cases at the School of Art have only the work of men.  So who are these young women to look up to? And who is giving these young students ‘their’ vision of wood fired ceramics?

It all comes back to the featured image of the new wood kiln.  The whispers behind my back were not only about the size of the kiln but its style along with great disbelief that a kiln could be built and fired in a week.  I mean the ole’ girl went off her rocker, right?  That is the male view.  And it is that male view that is dominant in Canada.  If I could take these young women and transport them to see Priscilla Mouritzen firing a similar wood kiln or let them have coffee with Julia Nema, then they would have some role models.  But, in Canada and especially in the Prairies where we don’t have anything but planted trees, the ideal kiln is the anagama.  Apparently there are at least twelve of them in the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan.  Now, I have nothing against these medieval Japanese kilns who hurl smoke in the air and consume large quantities of wood except for just that – they hurl vast amounts of black smoke in the air, consumming larger and larger quantities of wood.  There are alternatives.  Paul Davis, who studied in Japan for years, will tell you that there are a lot of “ugly brown pots” coming out of those anagamas.  So why are they so privileged?  I wonder.

Stay tuned.  This whole issue was being discussed by some men back in 1973 including Fred Olsen.

 

 

 

 

 

How one single event can change lives.

Today, was Markus Boehm’s last day in Winnipeg.  He will arrive at Berlin Tegel at 10:30 am on Tuesday (his time).  I hope that he understands fully how this single event of building a kiln and firing it in a week changed the lives of current and future students – and myself.  You see, for years I have either avoided or kicked the old train kiln.  Some days I kicked it really hard.  What the students knew of wood firing was ‘Thomas’, the train kiln, 58 hours of stoking every 90 seconds and never reaching temperature and eating up cords of wood.  Thomas also belched out black smoke from his stack.  But Thomas was tired, the bricks had expanded and contracted and I knew – from being at Markus’s that a wood kiln could reach temperature (cone 14), in less than 14 hours and use only a small amount of wood.  Even with so short a firing, there would be ash, depending on where the pots were stacked. For the students, whose lives often did not include being able to financially travel the world and visit wood fire potters, they did not understand that there was an alternative to Thomas or the anagamas that have become so prevalent in Canada.  John Chalke wrote in an article for The Log Book that Canadian wood firers wait for an outside influence to come in before change happens.  Well, Markus, you were that outside influence.  Bob Archambeau, one of Canada’s most recognized ceramic artists, even brought a German apple cake that his wife Merie made in celebration.  Bob watches.  He once told me that students learn more from watching professors thrown than those who ‘tell them’.  He is, of course, correct.  I wonder if he believed we would be successful?  Must ask him!  On Sunday, he joined us in celebration after the kiln opening (it reminded me of when the eye is painted in on the Buddha, the Daruma, or the Dragon boat). We were happy to have him with us.

Former student, Donna Garafolo, decided that Markus should be the kiln god.  She recognized in him what many of your friends and associates already know:  you do not ‘see’ a difference between men and women who fire with wood (or for that matter in any field).  Your view is strictly level or even.  You told me that this is an ‘East German feeling’.  All of the men and women had to work.  For me, to see that women potters were equal to the men, even at the beginning of the 20th century, in Germany but not elsewhere was an eye-opener.  My friend, Susan, tells me that women were not allowed to even use the welding torch until 1978 at the University of Saskatoon.  How sad.  Things are changing but…

I am giving a talk at the Third International Wood Fire Conference on women who fire wood kilns in Canada and how many have been marginalized – well, women in ceramics in general.  If you are reading this and have a story and do not mind sharing it with me, please write to me at maryannsteggles@icloud.com     Surely I am not the only one!

‘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.

Great firing, even greater crew!

The work coming out of the first firing of the new Bourry box kiln was fantastic.  It was just a wonderful group of people who will stay in touch.  Mike Astill has his own wood kiln in Ile des Chenes but joined us (he is a fabulous former student from the School) and entertained many of the crew while they were here from out of town.  Thanks, Mike and Maria!

The firing survived the old soda shelves that oozed soda and are so brittle they could cut someone’s arm off if broken.  We love Markus’s wadding recipe because it flakes off easily.  His glazes were amazing as were some of the ones the crew brought. There is good biidoro at the lower level which reached well beyond cone 13.  And the kiln fires like a rocket.  Might have said, we had to slow it down by soaking the poplar logs.  We will modify the bagwall, use a smaller shelf on the top and not load the pots so near the roof to even out the temperature.  Everyone was happy!  What a way to end 9 days together – not wanting to leave.

Friday: Day 8 Markus Boehm gives an artist talk for the workshop participants

Thursday afternoon Markus was checking the state of the ember bed in the firebox of the kiln he designed for the School of Art.  For those who have been reading this blog, you will know that we set out to build a new Bourry Box for the ceramics students that would be highly efficient to fire.  Our deadline was building the kiln and firing it in 7 days.  The team succeeded.  A visitor today asked me how I felt.  My first response was ‘Vindicated’ because no one believed that this could really happen.  But what I really feel, after the adrenalin rush of the success, is sheer joy for the students who will enjoy the dedication and hard work of the team for years to come.  Now we need a kiln shed, a cover for the wood, and a secure area where we can pre-heat this kiln.

The Danish White clay we have been using withstood the high temperatures and the flashing from the wood created a rich rust colour on the unglazed surfaces of the test rings.

Today, Markus gave an artist talk about the evolution of his work, the importance of knowing the tea ceremony in order to make tea bowls and the difference in training between Canada and Germany.

Tomorrow we open the kiln after lunch.  Markus will discuss the results with everyone, wares will be packed and the workshop will officially be over.  What a fantastic ten days.

Happy Canada Day everyone!