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This was originally published in 2009 in The Log Book No 40, pages 21 to 24

Homage to Stokers

by Owen Rye

A large wood fired kiln that takes anything up to 10 or 12 days to fire cannot be fired by one person. It’s a group activity and over the years I have fired with at a guess something like a hundred different people. That’s not counting students, or workshops. At one workshop firing of Janet Mansfield’s anagama at Gulgong we had about 200 stokers.

Twice only I have been involved in a 4-5 day firing with just two people. The first of these is the most memorable, partly because it was the first time I ever did a long wood firing. Teaching part time at the Canberra School of Art, I decided to fire the Bizen style kiln (built there by Bill Samuels in the late 1970s) working with my good friend Terry Kirk. Five days seemed about right. I stacked the kiln, piling pots on each other without using any wads or other form of separation (and after the firing very few had stuck together). We worked in four hour shifts. About 12 hours into the firing we realised we had not split any wood, so we changed the shifts. Each of us did four hours stoking, followed by four hours splitting. I have never been so removed from the rest of the world as at the end of that firing, I slept for more than 24 hours. Some good pots came out. And some good lessons were learned: have your wood completely ready to stoke before the firing starts; and have a group of people sharing the work so tiredness, with its accompanying loss of commonsense and danger of accident is not a factor. Pilots call it ‘lack of situational awareness’, that’s what they experience before they crash or are shot down.

Years later, more experienced, Chester Nealie and I did a five day firing doing 6 hour shifts, showering at the end of each shift and eating something before sleeping, and being woken about 15 minutes before the next shift started. There was very little conversation. We survived the experience in good condition and it was a good firing.

Over 25 years or so of teaching I was involved in many firings with students. That’s the main reason I only work now with experienced stokers who understand what to do when things go legs up. I learned to put the right student on the right shift, i.e. over-stokers when heavy reduction was required, and lazy stokers when temperature rise was appropriate. The best students to work with were the ones who knew very little and listened very carefully to discussions about how the firing needed to go and how to steer it that way. The worst were the ones who knew everything about woodfiring. One memorable student firing had about six of these experts involved. Each one’s approach contradicted all the others and big egos allowed no compromises. After five days, burning all the wood saved up for the years ahead, they had achieved high bisque firing.

Attitudes have changed since my early days when the conservative kiln firers drank red during and after firing, and the trendy smoked dope and watched the flames through purple-lens glasses. Unlike the movies where the word ‘wow’ would have been used frequently we Aussies tended more towards an exclamation beginning with F. Visitors to the Canberra Art School seemed puzzled that the Bizen kiln always seemed to have smoke coming out the chimney although it was not being fired. In the early days woodfired work was looked down on by those with good taste or an eye for fashion and the work could not be sold anyway so we were free to play around and try anything – an attitude that I still try to maintain, if in diluted form.

Now I tend to work with five others, three 8 hour shifts a day, with either the newest or the youngest on the night shift. Two each shift, one stoking the main firebox and one the sidestokes. No booze, no radios. It’s a work place, not a lounge room, and any distraction from getting the best result possible is a pointless risk to 12 months of my work. I don’t mind taking worthwhile risks with the firing process. I need to keep experimenting with the stacking and the firing otherwise why bother - repeating is too difficult in a practical sense anyway, but if it was possible repeating means becoming a factory worker instead of creating ‘new work’.

The ‘collaborators’ have work in the kiln and that means you are trading kiln space for help. This can become an exercise in extreme diplomacy sometimes. I used to spread their work throughout the kiln to avoid giving up the best spots but now I make work for each part of the kiln so it can get a bit tricky. The ideal helper is my son Michael who likes firing the kiln but has no interest in making claywork.

I keep a record of who was involved in each firing. They use a hot poker to burn the names into one of the wooden posts holding up the kiln shed. Apart from compensating for a poor memory this ‘stoker’s log’ becomes an artwork in itself.

Stacking is the part where I need to have nobody else around. It can take two or three weeks and right through I need to concentrate and think carefully. The only ‘helper’ who was helpful rather than distracting was Graham King who would sit patiently for half an hour while I mentally constructed a three dimensional puzzle from 30 pots that were available, considering the spaces for flame and the markings from wads. When that was done and I was ready to place the first pot in the puzzle I would turn around to ask for the one I wanted and Graham would be holding it out to me. He seemed to know what I was doing better than I did.

Turning all this around, I try to avoid helping anyone else fire. That’s not because I am an ungrateful curmudgeon but because of asthma and the experience of being in hospital half-dead with a dose of pneumonia caused by a smoky firing years ago. I avoid firing at any other kilns or at least keep well out of the smoke. At my kiln I have a large industrial fan set up over the main front stokehole to blow the smoke away and I avoid working along the sides of the kiln. Using an old fashioned watering can to keep the dust down is my other way of ensuring a long life.

After all that - its time to make some changes. Firing a large kiln only once a year, with the obvious risk of losing a year’s work if it all goes wrong has somewhat lost its attractions. For a start stacking the kiln means crawling up and down a tunnel too small to sit up in, and three weeks of kneeling is just too much for an atheist who is also badly out of condition. The bad back and strained muscles are exaggerated by firing in the winter to avoid bushfire risk. That time of year here ensures that pots are carried from the workshop to the kiln in pouring rain and cold winds. So I am considering a small kiln with at most one sidestoke that can be fired by two people in a day or so.

That might be more practical but would have a big disadvantage, in losing the feeling of a group of people all working to the same end where every member of the group has responsibility for the end result. That’s rare these days, apart from sporting teams – the bullying style of managers in many workplaces makes workers feel insignificant and undervalued.

Even with a smaller group, the question that has become currently topical in Australia remains. Can we claim the work as ours individually, when others fire it? The question has come up generally in ceramics here because it has become fashionable to have work made in China by skilled workers in ceramics. So then whose work is it?

My attitude about my woodfired work is that it is mine. I choose and prepare the wood (unashamedly exploiting my sons or any willing visitors as labourers), make the work, stack the kiln, direct the firing and do the post firing clean up of the work, and make a point of mentioning those who have helped, at exhibition openings. Seems to me that attitude is shared by most woodfirers.