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Aesthetics Panel - International Woodfire Conference, Flagstaff,  Arizona, October 2006

by Owen Rye

"What a beautiful thought I am thinking...."

(Opening line of Great Speckled Bird by Roy Acuff and His Crazy Tennesseans, 1936)

"Sex appeal is 50 percent what you’ve got and 50 percent what people think you’ve got" (Sophia Loren).


I’m here as an expert to talk about aesthetics, if we use Mark Twain’s definition that an expert is someone from out of town. I suppose that in reality we are all experts, if you consider how much woodfirers around the world have in common in evaluating woodfired work. That might be my contribution for the day – a simple question. What is it that we all have in common, as expressed in our work? The answer to that might be the key to defining the woodfire aesthetic – if there is such a thing. My belief is that there are many ‘woodfire aesthetics’, the most important ones being those we have not discovered yet. The rest of this talk elaborates on that idea.

Before going any further I should, as they say in the media, declare my interests: my personal aesthetic owes a lot to working with the anagama kiln, so what I say here is biased by that focus.  In Australia the term ‘woodfire’ has almost completely come to mean ‘anagama’. Why has this type of kiln with its complexity of setting and firing, and its long firings, and the resulting irregularities and imperfections, variations and asymmetry come to such prominence? The answer may have something to do with the need to assert individual expression in a globalised world where the individual feels powerless and ineffectual. Paradoxically it may have something to do with the desire to relinquish control and let events take their course, a kind of fatalism. That kind of contradiction is very much in the nature of the anagama. So, after trying for some time to present a neat and complete set of ideas here, I finally realised that it was ok to be contradictory and inconsistent, after all that is the nature of the medium we are discussing.

I have two approaches to a personal aesthetic – the private one and the public one. In both, I think like a maker, someone who is involved; not like a critic who is an observer, and by definition an outsider. My private aesthetic judgements are simply reactions, with no thought involved.  Some songs make me feel like singing, some books make me feel like writing and some claywork makes me feel like going home and making something. That’s how I recognise the good stuff, the charismatic ones. But since this is a public occasion I need to dig a bit deeper and try to find my public view of aesthetics.

All ceramics are fired, and all firing needs fuel – electricity, gas, oil, coal – or wood. Wood is seen by everyone as a ‘traditional’ fuel, used back into antiquity – which may be why many people involved in the ‘fashionable arts’ such as painting see woodfired pots as ‘traditional’ and ‘not contemporary’. This is amusing when one considers the cave paintings of Lascaux, or many Australian rock painting sites, date back 40 or 50 thousand years; yet painting is considered a contemporary art by most Westerners.

Still, we can probably all agree that woodfire is an ‘outsider art’, not in any way central to the nature of contemporary art. My way of putting it is to ask what part of contemporary art appeals most to the average woodfirer – the ‘con’, or the ‘temporary’?.  Contemporary art in Australian commercial galleries seems to have been changing recently anyway. My conclusion after seeing the Melbourne Artfair last August, (this is a big show with most Australian and many Asian commercial galleries represented),  is that the conservatism of our times has changed art – a lot of it has become interior design or decoration rather than intellectual challenge, motivated more by economics than deep thought or cultural trends. There seems to be more ‘wouldn’t that look good in our lounge room’ than ‘how dare they call that art’. For more on the subject of ceramics and contemporary art read the excellent Australian book by Peter Timms *.

I have curated two Australian woodfire 10 year survey shows. This job involved thinking about the woodfire aesthetic – how do I decide what to put in and what to leave out? I was aware that there is no ultimate checklist of criteria for good art. Checklists apply to things like the quality control of Coca-Cola, or landing a jumbo jet, where everything is expected to be the same each time. So what did I look for?

One obvious criterion was quality, and that can only judged by comparing with everything you have ever experienced before (and I don’t just mean ceramics, I mean everything) and being open to your reactions. Whatever involves you - theatre, or music, or walking in the woods or city streets, or anything at all, will feed into your appreciation of ceramics if you are constantly observant for anything that captures your attention.  That is why each of us will see any object differently, because we are bringing to it a different combination of awareness.

Another important criterion is innovation. Of course in the recent survey I was interested in showing the newest directions as seen for example in work by Neil Hoffman, Bill Samuels and Sandy Lockwood. All new art is different and not open to easy analysis or understanding and it is important to challenge the audience.

The conclusion I came to after seeing the variety of Australian work is that as woodfirers our strength lies in our individuality. For the survey, I finally decided to put that idea into practice by showing the work of everyone who displayed a basic level of competence, so we could see the full range, and viewers could reach their own conclusions. It makes cultural sense that we each have a distinct style or ‘personal aesthetic’. After all this is the ambition of most Western artists, to be recognised as individuals. In the case of woodfire this individuality is unavoidable - the essential nature of the process is variability, whether we want it or not. So even if someone would like to copy someone else’s work the process itself won’t allow it.  Picasso would be pleased, he said ‘copy anything but not yourself’.

Why would we want to? If a woodfire aesthetic can be clearly defined and explained then we should all take up something else because its all been done before and we have nothing more to say. The only point in continuing is discovery – otherwise we are not artists, but in business as small scale industrialists, serving a conservative market. But given that, we still need to have some standards by which to evaluate our work. As a student I was told that we should look to the past for standards. Now, I think they had the right idea, but the wrong direction; we should look to the future.  Our current view of woodfiring tends to have moved on from past practices anyway.

For example, when we mention woodfire we do not automatically think of Italian majolica, or Arab reduced lustre, or Islamic lead glazes or fine Chinese porcelain, or even some of the pit fired pots of Pakistan, all of which have been woodfired. Internationally now when we talk about woodfire we are really thinking of ‘high temperature woodfire’, with flash and ash effects, mostly obtained by relatively long firings from about 24 hours up to around five days.  So, woodfiring as we think of it is the consequence of a particular process and we are still exploring that process and still determining its future.

And process is central to our art.  Aesthetics – the potness of pots, their essence – cannot be independent of the techniques involved in making the object. This applies in other arts as well – a professional musician will be extremely fussy about their choice of instrument and the change in the quality of sound made by slight variations in the instrument making; and will have a particular style of playing the instrument recognisable to other musicians regardless of the music being played. A painter will be very careful about their choice of manufacturers of colours and as they work will carefully select from their range of brushes. Whether current theory likes it or not these elements are an essential part of the art. For woodfirers the aesthetic derives, at least in part, from the type of clay used, the glazes if any, kiln design, wood type, the way the kiln is stacked and if a firing team is used, the choice of people to do the firing. All these are elements of a personal style leading to a personal aesthetic.

 I have skirted all around the subject so now will try to say something clear and simple about my approach to aesthetic judgments, if you think about the meaning of the word approach.  I ask two simple questions. First, what complexity of emotions arises from my interaction with this object? At one end of the scale is the baby-like reaction: reaching out a hand and saying ‘pretty’. At the other is an ensemble of strong feelings and serious contradictions. These objects are the richer, engaging ones.

The second question is: what do I learn from this object?  What insight do I have that I did not have before?  Allied with the question a maker always asks: where does it lead me, what might I make after experiencing this one?  Sometimes the consequences of these questions are immediate and sometimes they take months or years to ferment and then only bubble up unseen so we may not even be aware of them.

All the above has been about finished work. What about the other end of the process, the beginning of work? Can we go about our work in such a way as to produce a desirable aesthetic? It is no coincidence that our best ideas arise from ‘incidental’ meditative states: in the shower, or daydreaming for those of us who indulge in that fine pastime. This is the ideal state of mind in which to work, where the work leads us into places we had not imagined. This is not the failure of imagination but the success of openness. For a comparison consider improvisation in jazz, where the musicians do not know when they start how their music will emerge. Their openness to the moment leads to a different result each time. If that sounds vague, consider this: real art is a process of puzzlement, of groping in a dark place for something unknown. We approach it through a series of little successes and little failures, the difference never being entirely clear to us. Hoping to get to that point where we say for the first time ‘Well I’ll be darned (that’s not what I say but you can figure your version) – so that’s what I have been trying to do’. That’s what I mean by ‘new insights taking us somewhere we have not been before’.

That kind of discovery is not just available to artists. It’s available to all those who search – scientists, explorers, serial killers. Enzo Ferrari, talking in 1977 about developing new designs for Formula 1 cars, said: "You are in an endless corridor, along which every door is closed. You want to get out but you can’t. You have to find a solution. I find it sometimes in the night, sometimes as if in a dream. When I see a possibility it is like a blinding light, like lightning". And on the same subject Gordon Murray, designer for Brabham Racing, said: "it’s an immense puzzle, made up of simple ideas and complex variables, of surprising successes and inexplicable failures".

*1   Peter Timms: What’s Wrong with Contemporary Art?  UNSW Press 2004 (www.unswpress.com.au), ISBN 0 86840 407 1