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Faith and Fortuitous Beauty
Thoughts on wood fired pottery

Living as we do in a society known for mass production and instant gratification, what a joy it is to discover wood fired pottery, an art form that exactly opposes these qualities. It is a process, similar to but quite unlike gas or electric kiln firing, wherein a piece will always be one of a kind, patience is not virtue but necessity, and the line between mastery and fate is a bit blurry. This guarantees wood-fire artists a larger measure of sweat and tears than most of their ceramist brethren. But after meeting up with humble-looking vessels whose surfaces, upon closer inspection, pulse with flashes of fire in valleys of sand, ashen rivers crisscrossing glossy-rough swirls of brown, red, ochre, one is compelled to explore further.

A first look at a wood-fired vessel invariably raises questions. How did the potter do that? is usually followed by, Do the markings come from special glazes? Is it glaze at all, or some newfangled technology? How do you fire with wood, anyway? What kind of kiln? And won’t gas or electric kilns work the same way? Or is it . . . magic?

There is nothing either newfangled or, strictly speaking, magical about wood fired ceramics. Revered in Japan as high art, it is an old craft, and extremely hard work. Throughout the Japanese countryside the many remains of ancient anagama – single-chambered wood kilns – are testament to the art’s long importance to the culture, as in Chanoyu, the tea ceremony, where tradition demands that bowls and pots conform to strict custom. Going further back, we know that clay has been cured near flame since, one imagines, an observant caveman realized that the earth beneath his campfire was as tough as a mammoth’s tusk, or that a lump of mud dropped into the flames came out later as a durable tool. One of our pragmatic ancestors must have seized on the item’s potential, turned himself into an artisan, then a production-line specialist, and in a wink of history’s eye commercial establishments were rushing out kilnloads of predictable ceramics. But as with most things rushed the soul is, inevitably, left wanting.

Happily for wanting souls, few artists enjoy duplicating their own masterpieces. Did Da Vinci keep a backstock of Mona Lisas? I think not. But wood firing would probably have appealed to him, as it does to hearty bands of present-day artists gathering in groups of two, six, eight, to seek earthy roots or mystical paths, to birth dreams, in a kiln.

What are the dream-laden elements that contribute to each vessel’s unique character?

First, Desire – to make a lovely piece of pottery.

Earth Choosing the proper clay body (earthenware, stoneware, porcelain), type of construction (hand-built, slab, wheel-thrown), and form (tea bowl, jar, sculpture) that will withstand high heat and lengthy firing. Each vessel needs a good backbone – integrity, if you will – to endure.
The Kiln Not your average kiln, though wood kilns come in many profiles. They can be huge arched multi-chambered structures, freestanding or burrowing into hillsides, small pods, square bourry boxes. All require a solid foundation, good bricks, tall chimney, stoking and viewing ports, areas to keep wood and potters dry.

Weather Affects the kiln’s interior temperature.

Wood Lots, perhaps seven or eight cords a firing, chopped and ready to go, preferably salvaged.

Position is Everything Where best for ash to dust a pot’s long body, for fire to impart deep color or bold striations? Lying sideways, upside down, at the front or rear of the kiln? Stacking is an art all its own.

Glazes Used as beauty aids, or waterproofing. Ideally, not used at all, allowing a vessel to inherit its looks from heat, flame, ash, and the potter’s skill.

Patience The kiln is closed, the fire is lit. The artists feed the fire in shifts for around 100 straight hours, raising the interior temperature to a toasty 2000-plus degrees Fahrenheit.

Experience The ages have refined wood firing techniques; still, the failure rate can be high. One often gets a chilly feeling that the whole process falls just short of a roll of cosmic dice. But while artists are supposed to roll dice now and then, craftsmen know not to ignore their ancestors’ whispers. Experience enhances innate skill, and helps sidestep disaster.

Fate It can be argued that all art involves surrender, but it’s a brave artist who deliberately surrenders to as capricious a partner as flame. And surrender he must: as a truly collaborative art form, achieving wood-firing success depends on not only the individual artist and each member of the team, but on the fire, and its whim. Fate, then, is definitely a factor.

But isn’t there something else?
Seriously, now – what does it take to set one’s carefully-reared infants into flames? To tangle with high heat and a cranky kiln for days, risking injury, trusting in an inexact science and weary stoking companions, knowing up front that few of those infants – if any – might survive? I located a potter to shed light on this peculiar behavior.

Why bother? I asked. Why not slap on some glaze, fire up an easily-controlled electric kiln and go for a sure thing? Yes, my friend agreed politely, that was always nice. I realized he didn’t think it was nice at all, so I pressed on. But is wood firing worth the effort, the risk, the heartache? Isn’t there an easier way to achieve the same results? Mustn’t some form of faith come into play, simply for the potter to summon up the gumption to go through all this? Sufficiently annoyed by my ignorance he granted me a firm yes, a patronizing no, a shrugged maybe.

So what kind of faith? Blind? Informed? Or is fate really the master? I fretted. Whatever it is, the wood-fire potter is required to concede to nature, where mistakes can’t be erased with a brushstroke or by absolution, where neither the deepest passion nor firmest hand can guarantee the outcome, where one’s politics won’t sway the matter. Worse, where the artist is burdened by the uncertain temperament of an art form relatively unknown to the consuming public – a situation that usually assures the chronic condition known as “starving artist”. This all seemed rather unsatisfying.

Finally my friend took pity on me, quietly but firmly confiding that each time the smoke clears, once the ashes cool and the kiln is opened, he knows he will find one piece – if only one – nurtured by his own hand and the grace of an entire community, that is stunning, surprising, that transcends an impersonal baking in a conventional oven. And to cradle in his hands that lovely one, he is drawn again and again to wood firing.

Now, that, I do believe, is Faith.

Clearly, then, if there is magic at work here it is the potter’s Faith – faith in earth, in fire, in kinship, in himself – that has illuminated kilns throughout history. How lucky for us that in its journey through time this fortuitously beautiful art form continues to redefine perfection, and how comforting that through our shared connection to its ancient fires we might, if we listen quietly, hear echoes of ourselves, and be redefined, as well.

Susan Neal Roth / Bainbridge Island 2005