53. Wood Kilns
The expanded role of wood fueled kilns in the culture of ceramic art in the past thirty years has been the single most exciting phenomenon of the period. Everywhere, it seems, potters are being measured by their experience with, and competence in firing, wood kilns. Graduate schools find it hard to maintain respectability without at least one working wood kiln in their inventory. And yet wood-fired pots remain a small fraction of the work being sold and American audiences have yet to embrace the aesthetic with either open arms or open wallets.
Volumes could be (and have been) written on the subject.
Personally, I still have some issues with the typical results of a wood firing – the snotted up aesthetic and the high percentage of ‘wasters’ – but I have no qualms about the process. You see, I grew up reading novels of the sea, adventures of sailing ships harnessing the wind to travel around the world. I thrived on Horatio Hornblower and the ingenuity of a world of wooden ships and iron men. I am delighted that the Coast Guard Academy still sends its cadets to sea in a sailing ship to teach them the practical physics of a life at sea. It teaches respect for forces more powerful than engines and electrons.
Wood-fueled kilns are the same for me, a constant lesson in the physics of heat and the challenges of human strength, stamina, design, and ingenuity. As a teaching tool, nothing else works so well in illustrating all the elements of a successful firing.
I once had to lunge across a kiln room to prevent students from opening the door on a large updraft gas kiln that had just been turned off after reaching cone ten. Raised on microwave ovens, these college students had so poor a grasp of basic physics that they expected to be able to instantly retrieve their finished pots from the white hot interior of the kiln. Technology has made us idiots.
One of the great delights of my life has been to share wood firing with my children. They have seen what fire is and how it works. They understand the labor involved in a wood firing and the peculiar magic of its sights and sounds. We have together faced the universe with a clay box [modified groundhog design] and a pile of wood and used them to create sustained white heat and perfectly wonderful finished pots. The only electronics involved was a radio. They have been liberated.
All ceramics students deserve to be liberated. Hell, more and more, I hear of non-artists helping their potter friends at kiln firing time. They, too, are liberating themselves. (A friend of mine, Jim Kasper, liberated himself completely out of a PhD Physics program into a successful career running Prairie Dog Pottery.) This basic confrontation and negotiation with the physical world is theatre, magic, religion, and therapy. There is no muscle you can flex to make the temperature climb more swiftly, no words you can shout to push the flames between the pots. You must be humble and attentive and patient and enduring.
You must be virtuous in the face of forces indifferent to your virtues. You must be virtuous because that is the only way to succeed.
Firing by other means is certainly more convenient, less work, and less suspenseful than wood firing. Few of us will ever get to do the bulk of our firings in wood kilns and many would not want to if they could. Consistency and product are what pay the bills. And some may be truly grateful for the convenience of their computer controlled electric kilns. But when potters speak fondly of “process” being more important to them than “product,” I always think of firing the wood kiln, hearing the dragon breathe, judging the smoke and flame, and letting myself grow weary in the exercise of a great love. Surely Horatio Hornblower never had a better day.
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