Monday, April 16, 2012

Why wood firing?

This is part 2 of my three pare series on Woodfiring. As it is supposed to be a part of a paper, it is still a first draft, so editing and adding stuff is gonna take up most of my week. But yeah, Why fire pots with wood?

Pottery , until a few decades ago, was considered a “craft”. There was a distinction between an “artist”, who made art, and a craftsmen, who made furniture and consumable goods. This distinction has been destroyed in most circles now, with pioneering work of Robert Arneson, Peter Voulkos, Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Grayson Perry, Peter Voulkos, and many other pioneering ceramic artists and potters. However, to answer the question why?, we need to look at the roots of pottery, what it implies, its visual, and aesthetic underpinnings and its ethos. Rather than being factual as in the previous sections, I shall attempt to find a personal reason and explanation for the question. We need to keep in mind, that art is an intensely personal process, and there can be infinite reasons. I can only claim my own reasons.
The first question we can ask is, Why Pottery? In most cases, people take up pottery for the sole reason that it is a very enjoyable process. Most of these “hobby pots#” can be put in the category of art brut for reasons of lack of pedagogical underpinnings and unintentional and unsubstantiated choices made in the process itself. Simply put, if it is “art”, it is unexamined art. On the other hand, there are pots made by professional potters in large batches and for large scale consumption. These pots are mostly well made, and the potters are technically proficient. However, the aesthetics of the pot, the form, shape, style, glazing, are mostly conventional and conservative. This is so for the reasons of mass sale and ease of production. There is a small section in the middle of these two groups, populated by studio potters, who use techniques from both sides of the spectrum to make creative, technically proficient work.
The question arises, that what place does art have in such a utilitarian trade such as Pottery, which makes tools to make our life easier. An argument could be made that all a potter has to do is to make competent pots, that fulfill their function. However, the same argument could be made for a house painter, and an “art” painter. The major point of difference, in my opinion, that differentiates “art” pottery, from “consumption” pottery, is the intent. Does the potter make choices that lead to the creation of a “art” pot, or does he make no choices, and ends up with an “unexamined” pot. The thing to keep in mind is that pottery has certain processes that need to be completed before the potter can even start making the pot. The choice of clay is the first step. Each clay, stoneware, earthenware, other misc. clays, have characteristic properties. They behave differently in each stage of wetness, they behave differently when dry, and they behave differently in a firing. For example, stoneware clay fire properly at a temperature that would reduce earthenware to a puddle of weak glass.
I recently went out on a limb and decided that I wanted to work with something other then stoneware and earthenware, and so I decided that I will make my own clay. I was however constrained by the lack of material at my disposal. On further looking, I found a bag containing 5 kilos of pine ash that I had saved up from a camping trip. I decided that the ash would be the base for my new clay. That put some problems ahead of me. Firstly, the question of plasticity. Ash mixed with water would give me a paste that would be corrosive and unworkable. Thus I needed something that would neutralise the corrosive nature of the ash, and make it more pliable. The first thing that came to mind was Bentonite. Bentonite is a clay of volcanic origin, that expands on contact with water, which makes it an excellent sealant. Another advantage is the fact that it is commercially available as cat litter. A small amount of crushed bentonite was thus mixed with the ash. Now come the question of its heat stability. Ash has a relatively low melting point, which can easily be achieved in a cone 10 firing. I obviously did not want a glaze on the kiln instead of the pot, so I had to correct the lower melting point. I used quartz powder that led it to have a higher melting point. I also added coarse silica sand to the mixture to open it up. I made a few pots with the clay, with the intention of firing them in a stoneware kiln, because I predicted that the ash and bentonite would give the body a soft texture. I recently had a chance to fire a test tile with the material, and found all my predictions were correct, except the temperature sensitivity. The test tile had stuck to the trough I kept it in. This was possibly because the clay body was its own glaze. This tangent serves to show that even the process of choosing the clay body is one that leads to many choices.
The choices that follow are equally complicated. To glaze, or not to glaze? Underglaze? Enamel? The reader needs to keep in mind that glazing is not a simple chromatic process, but instead is a physical and chemical process, where compounds show colours in high temperatures, and undergo physical and chemical changes due to these temperatures. As such, they also react with the compounds in the clay. For example, Shino, a japanese family of glazes yields white to light orange colouration. However, in certain conditions, it becomes black, due to carbon trapping, which occurs in reduction stages of a firing. Also, the Shino can react to certain clays to give reds, greens and browns. ( In the anagama firing I took part in, the Shino pots were in a noburigama chamber, which reached cone 14. At this temperature, the glaze on the vertical surfaces ran to the inside of the pot, leaving a very thin residue on the walls, and the bottom had all the glaze. However, this glaze filled up half the pot, because it was mostly bubbles. Apparently, Shino takes on soap-like elastic tendencies under extreme high temperatures. The glaze on the walls was green, which is an uncharacteristic colour for a Shino.It could be argued that the batch of clay the pot was made from was adultrated by lead-oxide, but that seems implausible because the clay was sourced from a clay mine in Washington state.)
I realise that this seems like a continuation of the kiln firing variables mentioned previously, however, it is important to keep in mind that these questions all lead us the the movements that have made our art world as it is. I especially refer to Abstract Expressionism, and Process Art.
Process art can be called a thought process in which the objet d’art is not the principal focus. Instead of that, the process of making art itself has higher meaning, and value. Pottery, I argue, can be classified as an intrinsically process based based art. This is so, because of the various steps going into its creation. Again, I shall rehash a list of things that need to be done to make an ideal pot, with approximate times needed to make a pot from a kilo of clay.
1) Collection of clay- involves finding correct vein of clay, and collection. 4-5 hours
2) Drying and processing of clay- clay needs to be dried, ground, and sieved. 1-2 days
3) Mixing, pugging of clay- any additives like ball clay, kaolin, need to be added and mixed in. A mechanical pugger makes this easier. 6 hours.
4) Seasoning the clay for a year- Seasoned clay is always better. Hamada used clay that was 4-5 years old. Fresh clay can be used, but yields less than optimum results- 1 year
5) Wedging the clay- Clay needs to be wedged before use, to ensure uniformity in the clay body and to ensure there are air bubbles. I wedge a half kilo ball of clay for 15 minutes. Hamada got his balls wedged for 3 hours.
6) Adding any additives to the clay itself, like sand- This could be called a part of wedging, however it is a separate step, that also necessitates further wedging. 30-45 minutes.
7) Centering/ slab/ ball/ coil formating- Either the wedged clay can be centered, or it can be worked into slabs, coils or balls. Centering can take from 1-2 minutes, to hours depending on the size of the ball. For a ball of clay a kilo heavy, it takes me 40 minutes to perfectly center the clay.
8)Making the pot- Making the pot itself takes maximum 5-15 minutes.
9)Drying- Proper Drying can take a week.
10) Bisque firing- A bisque firing makes a pot workable and stable. It takes a day or two.
11)Glazing- Glazing can take up to an hour per pot. Most of my glaze work is done in 5 minutes per pot.
12) Drying- The glazes need to dry, otherwise they develop glaze defects like crawling etc. 1-2 days
13) Kiln loading- loading a kiln is an art, with an improperly loaded kiln giving defective results.1 hour - 5 days
14)Firing- The firing itself can stretch from a day to a month.

In the 14 states illustrated, the potter actually directly handles the pot’s “look” in two stages, making the pot, and glazing. The rest of the states influence the pot, but indirectly. If they are incorrectly done, they will yield a bad pot, and properly done would yield a good pot. Thus it could be said that making a pot is a journey, and not just a end product. Similarly, it can be argued that amongst the greatest catalysts for development in ceramic forms, the Japanese Tea Ceremony is itself a process oriented performance art.
Abstract Expressionism was an American artistic movement that mixed the radical subjectivity and powerful lines and colour of expressionism, exemplified by artists like Munch, Kandinsky, Chagall, and Otto Dix, and combined it with Abstractions pioneered by cubists (Gris, Braque, Picasso), Die Stijl (Mondrian, Doesburg), and Futurists (Boccioni, Goncharova). In making a mixture of these different styles, Abstract Expressionists came up with a style that was expressive, powerful and which symbolised the rise of America’s ascendancy in the art world. Artists like Motherwell, De Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Hoffman took the art form and constantly explored their consciousness, and making strong marks on the canvas or the workbench.
It can be argued that each pot is a work of abstract expressionism. While throwing a pot on a wheel, the pot is extremely response to every movement of the potter. This starts off before the artist begins to throw the pot. The first step taken is to center the pot. For right handed potters, the wheel spins in the anticlockwise direction. The left and is used to press in the clay horizontally, and the right hand presses in the clay downward. The centering is a very important part of throwing, because a poorly centered pot will be off balance and, indeed, off centre. Also important is the fact that during this stage, the width of the pot’s base is determined. All these things are done by the simple actions of pushing inside or downwards. Next, using only tactile feedback, a hole is made in the centered clay’s top. This hole is then widened using upwards and outward motions of the hand. All these times, the traces of the potters hand remains as throwing marks. These dry into the pot unless expressly taken out.
It has to be kept into consideration though, that wheel throwing is not the only method to make pots. Entire styles are based on hand building of pots. Case in point being pinch pots. Traditionally Raku pots are pinch pots. A pinch pot is made by pinching into a ball of clay to make a bowl. This leads to a bowl showing the pinch marks and finger marks of the potter.
In both of these cases, the potter’s hand marks are intrinsic parts of the pots, and a major part
of using and appreciating the potis the visual and tactile exploration of the pot. This not only leads to a more well rounded experience of using the pot, but also leads to a better understanding of the pot and how it behaves. This step is an important step in the tea ceremony. The creation of the marks on the pot itself is strongly reminiscent of the action paintings of Pollock , and the visual exploration of the pot is analogous to the exploration of a Pollock. The piece is the actual account of the creators movements and actions, and can not be appreciated in proper gravity without the observation and analysis of each mark as a part of the greater scheme.
The rise of studio pottery in America was engineered by a handful of artists, including Arneson, Voulkos, and Soldner. Arneson used ceramics as a form of sculpture, whereas Voulkos and Soldner used Japanese techniques to make ceramic forms, that stood on the fine line between pots and sculptures. Raku and wood firing were brought into the consciousness of the American masses, and began to flourish. On the other side of the pond, Leach and Hamada had made made considerable inroads into the traditional pottery market with their Mingei influenced pots. The confluence of the european and the american pottery lead to the ceramic world today.
We have established that
1) “Art pottery” is comprised of informed and well examined technical and aesthetic judgements that may, or may not, be based on conventional pottery aesthetics.
2) Pottery, specially “Art Pottery”, is a process based art, and can be seen to have abstract expressionist tendencies.
We still haven’t touched on the question of why do wood firing in an Anagama (or any tunnel/ chambered wood-fired kiln for that matter). To answer that question, we will need to keep in mind the two assertions that I proposed in the previous paragraph.
As a part of my work with George, the wood firing potter in Payette, Id., I kept a diary to record my daily activities at his pottery. Presented here are pertinent extracts from the first four days. The next 4 days were taken up by the firing itself, which shall be discussed in some detail later.

Day 2: Wadding: 50% fireclay, 50% grain. Make lots of wadding.
Loaded kiln back. Rougher wadding on the supports. 3 levels.
Chopped wood into smaller pieces for firing.
Cleaned kiln surroundings to make circling it easier.
Chipped off old wadding off slabs.
Applied lots of wadding.
Day 3: Wadding tends to fall off. Removed and stuck on new batch of wadding on most pots of kiln load.
Loading Kiln. Anagama chamber almost full.
Make wind shelter around shed.
Carried wood for preheating.
Day 4: Increased height of chimney.
After the first 4 days, the remainder of my trip, 4 days, were taken over by 12-15 hour shifts at the kiln, stoking, and making sure that everything was as it was supposed to be. A log that I kept of the kiln temperature and the time is affixed in the appendix. After we stopped stoking the kiln, and sealed it up for cooling, we waited a week, and opened it up. The unloading took two days. All in all, two weeks of firing that took a full month of planning, 6 month’s worth of pots, 4 cords of wood, 12-15 hour shifts by 6 people over 4 days. Keep in mind that the kiln we fired was a small Anagama compared to most used by potters.
Diametrically opposite to this style of firing is the gas firings done at the college’s ceramic studio. The loading takes all of 6 hours, and after the gas is switched on, all that needs to be done are checks once in a while to see if everything is going as planned. After the firing is complete, the gas is stopped, and the kiln cools in a day and the pots are out. Making concessions for the size of the kiln, in my opinion, it is still a more easier, economic, and in all seriousness, sane method of doing a firing.
However, an artist is not often accused of sanity. In this case, let us refer back to my twin assertions. There have to be informed and well examined choices, and pottery is process art, with elements of abstract expressionism. Now we need to look at the disadvantages of wood firing.
It is Highly Inconvenient: The amount of wood that needs to be stoked is prodigious, and on top of that, the kiln has to be stoked at regular intervals. Thus there needs to be considerable manpower at the disposal of the potter.
It is Highly Expensive: The wood alone puts a steep cost on the firing. On top of that, the slabs used inside the kiln are made from a special compound, and are very expensive. They also progressively disintegrate with each firing. The kiln also gets damaged with every firing, due to excessive deposition of ash glaze on the walls.
It is Very Unpredictable: There are many ways to predict how the glaze will act on a pot in an Anagama kiln, however, it is never possible to predict with absolute confidence the final “look” of the pot. The kiln is a very dynamic system, and a simple error like putting too much wood in too fast could make it a reducing kiln, drastically changing the pots. In addition, a misplaced stoke could cause a pot to tumble off the wadding, or move it and make it stick to another pot, both of which are irreversible.
On the other hand, the advantages are:
The Ash Glaze: The ash glaze, and its characteristic effects are impossible to achieve on any other kind of kiln.
The Unpredictability: The very thing that is a disadvantage can also be an advantage, with the fire and the ash taking control of the pot’s “look”. This gives the potter a measure of uncertainty in his work.
The Process: Wood firing is the ultimate expression of process in the firing. The firing is dependent on every detail of the process itself, and each little thing leads to massive differences in the outcome.
The brief overview of the alternatives available to a potter are shown above. Each potter can do a cost benefit analysis of sorts, to see if wood firing is for him/ her. From my personal experience, and from my interactions with practicing potters, I have gathered that not everyone can work with a wood fired kiln. It is not an issue of technical acumen, but of personality and preference. In a manner, Anagama  firing strikes at the root of pottery. It is less of a profession as much as it is a way of life. A potter can not go back home and proclaim day off, pottery is too involved a process. It is a very hands on method of production, and the potter stays in the mode of production most of the time. A wood fired kiln is, in a manner, the potters style of pottery, for it is the most involved style of firing. It is hard, takes skill, patience and a personality that is rarely found amongst people who are not “in” on pottery.
Moving back to my personal experience with Anagama, after working at the studio for a week, and coming back, The first question I asked myself was, “Why?” Indeed, it was, and is a perfectly valid question. In the 4 days of the firing itself, I slept for 7-8 hours, and spent all my waking hours in the kiln, save for lunch and dinner breaks. In process, I lifted 4 cords of wood to and fro, personally chopped a cord, endured extreme heat and cold, built a 7 foot high chimney in a day, wadded and loaded an entire kiln. Was it worth it? I would say, yes. But then I am also an art student so it was akin to a class. And in addition, I got to take two weeks off from college. I pondered why would any sane person ever go through such a long convoluted process like a wood fired kiln, when there is a perfectly decent, cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly alternative in a gas or electric kiln. I talked to George, the potter I was working with, and I talked to my Japanese contacts. All were surprisingly cryptic on this matter, especially considering the wealth of information they provided to me on other matters. And one day, out of nowhere, which I was working in our college’s ceramic studio, I came across the answer, at least an answer that works for me.
An Anagama firing atleast in pottery is the ultimate expression of renunciation. It encourages you to do your duty and not worry about the results. The results of an Anagama are unexpected. They may not be perfect every time, but then, if everything was perfect, what challenge would there be in it? It forces the potter to do everything necessary to get the results. Most processes force you to get the results too, but in this case, the results are given to you, as a reward for your work. Somebody at George’s kiln said that each kiln unloading is like christmas. I would tend to agree.

No comments: