Third European Wood Fire Conference in La Borne, France, continued

La Borne has been home to potters since, at least, the beginning of the 17th century.   The oak forests around the village were planted to provide wood to build the navy vessels for King Louis XIV’s fleet.  Today they supply the potters and their kilns and are carefully managed.  For the most part, the potters use the wood found on the floor of the forest and that from the ‘thinning’ management.  One informative talk during the conference was precisely on the history of the forest and its management, something that is not a normal topic in Manitoba because we have so little available wood in comparison.  Indeed, one of the reasons for building the new Bourry Box kiln is to be able to continue wood firing at the School but also, to conserve the amount of wood used in these firings.

The shape and type of kilns built in La Borne has evolved with economic and social changes in the country.  The early, extremely colossal kilns, often known as ‘whale kilns’, were used to fire storage jars for transporting and storing food.  In the 20th century, demands by the local farms for pottery slowly declined because of new manufactured products that served the same purpose but were cheaper to purchase.  After World War II, there was a shift in the type of work made in the village.  Up until this time, the pottery production in La Borne was entirely for domestic uses related to the storage, cooking, and serving of food and drink. After, there is the arrival of the first individuals trained in art school, many of whom worked in creating clay sculpture.  Jacqueline and Jean Lerat were two such ceramic artists.  Their son gave a superb talk about their work and the change in the type of production in La Borne at this time.

Today, the kilns in La Borne are much smaller, suitable for the production of one or two persons.  They range from the Sevres style with a  one cubic metre ware chamber that belong to Atelier Dominique Gare-Roz Herrin and the same style of kiln to Jean and Claud Guillaume.  Dominique Gare has  a six cubic metre noborigama while Svein Hjort Jensen fires a three cubic metre anagama.  Included with the Bourry Box styles and the Asian kiln types are also a number of kilns based on the designs of Fred Olsen.  Sylvie Rigal has a one cubic metre train kiln while Dominique Legros fires a 300 litre Four Dragon kiln.  At the end of October, these kilns will be lit, most at the same time, for the firing festival known as ‘La Borne senflamme’.  It has been an annual event since the 17th century.  This event and the Third European Wood Fire Conference has brought many outsiders to this picturesque village, some 40 minutes from Bourges.  It is hoped that the village and its potters continue to prosper in the centuries to come.  If it is, there needs to be a way to bring more youth to the village to establish their own studios. Indeed, there were many young people who attended the conference so there is hope!

I am grateful to all the members of the Association Ceramique La Borne for all of the events they organized.  It was difficult to decide which talk or workshop to take from the descriptions on line.  This was so unfortunate.  But, like everywhere else, choices had to be made.  The conference took advantage of local resources and the beauty of the Loire Valley.  There was an excursion to the Decorative Arts Museum and St Etienne in Bourges on Thursday and tomorrow there is a trip to Sancrette.  Of course, having time to catch up with acquaintances that you haven’t seen for four years or meeting new friends and having discussions in between the formal events really is what these events are about.

And a correction.  There are three countries interested in hosting the Fourth European Wood Fire Conference.  They are Latvia, Belgium, and Spain (Barcelona).  It had been anticipated that the next host would be announced today but, each of the venues has asked for more time to consider their resources in relation to the hundred attendees (the average of the paying guests during the first three conferences).

 

 

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.