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!
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!
My students and I prepared for the worst. But look at the faces of Sara (left) and Monique (right). It wasn’t all bad. No cones down, Oxyprobe reading said that we were only at about cone 3 and, of course, no real view into that wood kiln when we ran out of wood. We were disappointed but at every turn, there was something to be learned. Today, as a few of us unloaded the kiln, there was confirmation that the shelves were too close to the back wall. Next time, they will be 10 cm away! But, of course, we need wood. Manitoba surely isn’t known for its abundant forests. Too bad. Several are searching to try and help us. So, what we need are logs, no bigger in diameter than 15 cm but at least 1 metre long or able to be cut to 1 metre. And they need to be dry. But…for the disappointment, there was also some joy. Some of the pieces did get some lovely ash and some of the glazes did mature. Have a look!
The anticipation was in the air as wood firing potters began arriving in the village of La Borne for the Third European Wood Fire Conference. The first was held in Brollin Germany in 2010 and the second at Guldagergaard in Denmark in 2014. From the looks of things, the French have studied both of those conferences and have things well in hand.
La Borne is home to the Contemporary Ceramic Institute, which helps. The main building holds a sales area for all of the members of the institute plus one of the finest book shops focused entirely on ceramics I have ever seen. There are both French and English sections. Oh, if books weren’t so heavy! There is, in addition, approximately 1000 sq feet of exhibition space. Behind this is the kiln shed with three different types of wood burning kilns. Tents have been set up, t-shirts have been printed, and only the French would think of building a kiln out of wine bottles. Down the road is the museum linking today’s potters with those who were working here in medieval times. There are maps showing the directions to the individual potter’s studios that are open for tours. To combat what might be a lack of restaurants – after all – hundreds are planning to descend on this sleepy pottery village –
many have set up cafes in their garden. Some are even selling homemade jam. And as I write to you I am enjoying the end of season strawberries so sweet and tiny along with a chocolate croissant and strong cup of coffee. Life could not be any better!
Stay posted. I will try and fit in the week’s events on a bi-daily basis!
I have written about Gunda Stewart before. If you missed it, here is a little synopsis. Stewart studied with Tam Irving and Sally Michener at the Vancouver School of Art. She works on a treadle wheel and is a great follower of the Leach tradition. Both of us love the rich temmoku pots that come out of her wood kiln in Canyon, BC. Her ash glazes and her Shinos are also spot on. Lately, she has been experimenting with ‘blue’. Some of the results are now sitting on a few new shelves in my kitchen. They are lovely soft grey blues, far distant cousins from the coldness of the cobalt I have seen elsewhere. Stewart has been firing her large Manabigama kiln designed by John Thies and Bill van Gilder for ten years. I like it because it is easy to fire, using less wood and human hours than many kilns of the same size. The results are also stunning. What I don’t like about it is the crawling inside to stack the shelves. That has to be the only drawback and Stewart is wondering herself, even though she is in fantastic physical shape, how long she will be able to wood fire her work. For me, I hope it is much, much longer. Stewart used to sell her work to a gallery in St Louis and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics shop in Toronto. I say ‘used to’. Many potters/ceramists, clay artists (what each individual cares to call themselves) rely on prestigious shops such as these not only for large sales such as the market in Toronto affords but also as a validation that their work is ‘excellent’. Stewart now sells all her work locally, either at the Saturday market or through her studio. Her buyers are repeat customers, often several generations from the same family, and tourists that come to the East Kootenays. She has trouble keeping stock and her recent, lovely ‘blues’ fly off the shelves as do the more traditional Sung dynasty glazes. How satisfying it must be to know that in an area with a small population your work is valued, even cherished. If you are in the Canyon area, follow the blue artisan signs. Her shop is open most days from 11-7 during the summer and fall.
As for me, I want to publicly thank her for hosting me, for talking pots, sharing her recipe for Quinoa brownies (delicious), and taking me for a walk in the beautiful cedar forests. I envy her the quiet tranquillity that surrounds her in addition to the reasonable, very reasonable, indeed, cost of wood in the East Kootenays. The wood here is not as good and is 5x more expensive – but, hey, we don’t have the trees that they do. It was also very refreshing that when I asked her if she ever felt marginalized as a woman wanting to work in the world of wood firing that she said ‘never really.’ Tam Irving was super supportive to her as a student and both Cam Stewart and Robin du Pont, wood firers from the Winlaw area, have been nothing but great and giving. Fabulous!
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.
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!
Believe it or not, with all the heat, the sweat, the need for a shower – when the kiln reached temperature, it was almost disbelief by those standing doing the last shifts. Amazing group of people who then dug in and cleaned up the kiln pad and who can’t wait to hear a talk by Markus tomorrow and see the results late Saturday.