home   info   gallery    articles    diary   links   contact    trivia

Woodfiring in Australia                                                               by Owen Rye

First published in Different Stokes, Proceedings of the International woodfire Conference, University of Iowa, Iowa City USA,1999.

My aim here to present some brief history on the development of contemporary Australian woodfire and discuss some of the current people and issues. I take an unashamedly biased and personal viewpoint - with an apology to the Australian woodfirers who are either not mentioned or not emphasised. The discussion which follows will make full sense only to those people at the Different Stokes conference who have seen the slides – words without pictures can be dull indeed. I have attempted to discuss as many woodfirers as possible without making the result look like a phone book. For enrichment I have wherever possible presented contemporary potters in their words rather than mine. The story begins with a quick comparison of Australia and the USA and has some references to US woodfirers who visit Australia……………….

Australia and the continental United States are roughly the same size on the ground but Australia has considerably less than 10% of the population size, most of which is concentrated in the south eastern coastal arc of the main island. In all there are six states and two territories which means that if Western Australia was a letter Texas could be a stamp.

Both Australia and the US are nations of immigrants (not forgetting that the original inhabitants of both were once also immigrants). In both countries contemporary ceramics derive from a mixture of influences from everywhere on earth, partly from migrant influences and primarily from instant information on what is happening elsewhere in the world. Of course there are differences in the cultural temperament of Australians and Americans but it is worth noting that there has been considerable interchange between the two countries over the years, a notable example being the large exodus from California to Australia at the end of the California gold rush. A more relevant example is the exchanges which have occurred among woodfirers and which with Different Stokes is certain to expand.

Our brief historical journey through Australian woodfire may begin by looking at ceramics overall. In the 1950’s we see a few ‘artist potters’ showing in regular ‘art’ type galleries. Most of these potters were also, or maintained close contacts with, painters, sculptors and other artists in the ‘culture scene’. In the 1960’s and especially 1970’s there was a dramatic rise in the number of craftspeople – of whom the majority were potters. Soon every small town had its craft shop. Every city had galleries which sold crafts.

Now, the number of potters is diminishing and those still involved are finding survival difficult. Few galleries handle ceramics. The cycle has begun to return to the 1950’s situation where some ceramicists will exhibit in some “regular art” galleries, possibly for relatively high prices by today’s standards. A very perceptive article by Darani Lewers in 1992 (Art Monthly Australia No 47, March 1992 pp 14-16) foretold changes which were beginning then and accelerating now. Her predictions of the decline of funding via government agencies, closure of some galleries dedicated to craftwork and diminishing number of tertiary level ceramics courses are now reality.

Relatively, the woodfire movement in Australia has continued to thrive; and there are very few survey exhibitions of Australian ceramics in which woodfire is not well represented. It is a healthy part of the remaining ceramics scene.

The early generation

How did woodfire develop in Australia? In the early 1800’s into 1900’s wood and coal were common fuels for firing all manner of ceramics and industrially a few woodfired brick kilns survived through the 1980’s and still operate. Turning to ‘studio’ or ‘art’ potters, Harold Hughan (Melbourne Vic) built a downdraft woodfire kiln in the early 1940’s followed by a 2-chamber woodfired climbing kiln in summer of 1945-6 (which was converted to oil in 1952; see Pottery in Australia 7/2 1968 p 4); Hughan’s work was solidly based on Leach/Sung Dynasty influences.

Ivan McMeekin had a strong influence on Australian woodfiring. His lifelong inspiration was Sung porcelains and celadon wares, around which everything he did revolved. In the late 40’s early 50’s worked with Michael Cardew in England, woodfiring in a temperamental Bourry Box kiln designed by Cardew from Bourry’s original plans. Ivan returned to Australia in the early 1950’s and began woodfiring at Sturt pottery in Mittagong, NSW. The highly refined version of the Bourry kiln developed later by Ivan (published in Pottery in Australia 9/1, 1970) was the model for many built later in Australia. I have no evidence at thus stage but I suspect that Ivan’s developments had an influence on Bourry style kilns used in the US.

Milton Moon, who now lives in South Australia, began visiting Japan as early as 1946/1947. He lived in Japan in 1974, visiting the six-ancient-kilns site and the studio of Toyozo Arakawa. He built an anagama-style kiln, to my knowledge the first in Australia, based on the Arakawa design in 1975. He valued the richness and variety of surface from this type of firing. His pots were glazed inside with ash glaze. This kiln was later demolished due to bushfire risk. Milton told me that wet winters had caused problems with this kiln, that the amount of steam generated from wet ground had made firing difficult.

Peter Rushforth (b 1920) studied ceramics, sculpture, and drawing immediately after the Second World War. He was appointed Head of Ceramics at the National Art School in Sydney in1951, and retired from there in 1978. Since then he has worked and lived in the Blue Mountains of NSW. Peter has had a very strong influence on Australia woodfiring. Currently he uses two woodfire kilns; the first built in 1980 is fired over 26 hours, with shino and unglazed pots in firebox, and his Jun blue glaze in the chamber. The fuel is radiata pine, with some cypress. His anagama was built in1987 and is fired over 3-4 days. Peter says: “My aims are not always consistent: beauty, unpretentiousness, the natural and intuitive as opposed to the mechanical and intellectual. Irregular surface and glaze quality are important values. I am opposed to the pot being a background for the decorator.”

Col Levy (NSW) is one of the most widely respected potters in Australia (and not coincidentally has achieved the highest prices in Australia for ceramics). I believe that more than anyone else he was responsible for starting the woodfire movement as such in Australia, through establishing a curatorial/ collector interest in his Bizen-derived work of the later 1970’s and early eighties. (See Col Levy, 1982, Long Woodfiring in Australia: Studio Potter Vol 11 No 1 pp 31). He began working with clay and fire in 1958 under an apprenticeship with Ivan McMeekin. Levy studied in Japan for 6 months with Yu Fujiwara in 1973/4 and subsequently built a kiln based on Bizen style of Yu Fujiwara. The kiln had two Bourry boxes designed to burn Australian hardwood and was fired over 8 days. Levy has now moved on from this genre.

Gwyn Hanssen Piggott was another Ivan McMeekin apprentice through 1955-7. She then worked for ten years in the UK, and 7 years in France firing a three chambered climbing kiln. She has lived North Queensland over the last 10 years. “I started to look more closely at how pots, perfectly contained within themselves, sit with each other, changing each other. I was interested to find out what could hold the pots together in a bonding that was neither design or intention but could only be discovered after the firing when everything came into play: lushness, coolness, colour, weight, line –and character”. (Ceramics Art and Perception 27, 1997 p79)

Les Blakebrough studied with Ivan McMeekin from 1957 to 1959 and in Japan during 1963/4. He built one of Australia’s better known woodfired kilns, a noborigama at Sturt Pottery (sadly now partly demolished) in the early 1960’s. Fred Olsen had strong connections with Blakebrough and has subsequently made many visits to Australia.

1960’s/1970’s Generation

Bill Samuels studied at that most respectable address, East Sydney Technical College in the late 1960’s. He is now head of ceramics in its current manifestation as the National Art School. Bill’s main interest is Shino and he makes his bodies and glazes from found materials. He is not a publicity seeker but is highly respected for the sensitivity of his work and his deep knowledge of kilns and woodfiring.

Working in an altogether different aesthetic, Alan Peascod is one of Australia’s most respected potters, making profound work in a range of techniques. One of these is reduced lustreware, inspired by Islamic precedents. Although not always having access to a woodfired lustre kiln he prefers the results to those obtained with other fuels. His work in this area demonstrates some of the vast diversity obtainable using wood as a fuel. Alan has recently retired from teaching and now lives near Gulgong, NSW where part of his repertoire will be woodfired lustre.

His next-door neighbour is Chester Nealie – a New Zealander who originally worked with salt glaze and then developed a formidable repertoire of anagama techniques. He was introduced to Australian woodfirers at the Woodfire ’86 conference and after various working exchanges both ways he moved to Australia early in the 1990’s. He has had a considerable influence through the quality of his work and via giving many workshops. His work is characterised by a delicate handling of fine clay surfaces and a diverse range of fired surface qualities. Chester has recently completed a new kiln which looks very promising.

Owen Rye (Victoria): originally studied with Ivan McMeekin in 1960’s and started woodfiring in 1980 in a Bizen style kiln designed by Bill Samuels. My current anagama work emphasises pots fired under embers in the sidestokes and the front of the kiln; and pale to white glazes in the upper parts. Much work is refired, applying slips or glazes before refire, and considerable work is done on pots after firing. Also known for extensive writing especially on woodfiring, and for running a course at Monash University from which many woodfire students have graduated. Despite having written some eloquent justifications of my work I really do not think much at all when doing it. Any originality it contains is based on my very poor memory which means I have forgotten what I did last time.

The back to the earth, self sufficiency movement of the 1970’s brought about the growth of a significant group of potters on the NSW North Coast. Potters such as Tony Nankervis, Kerry Selwood, Denis and Malina Monks and others are still active and many more woodfirers now work in that region. While the early incentive to woodfiring was low cost the woodfirers now do so for the qualities it produces.

Tony Nankervis fires a John Neely inspired train kiln, also an anagama. He attempts to make a connection between landscape and the character of surface on his work; not as a direct transfer but as an attempt to create a self contained micro environment which mirrors the process of its own construction. This sometimes involves multiple firings and post firing treatment. “Although others may enjoy the visual and tactile qualities my motivation is to make this work for myself and my colleagues, who appreciate the complex language and get off twice as hard. Forms are as simple as possible to allow the fire to do the decorating. Dry white and orange seem to me to be the real colours of Australia.”

Denis and Malina Monks, northern NSW. Malina works mainly with woodfired saltglaze and is known for the extreme sensitivity of her work. Denis works in a variety of techniques and his sculptural has great strength. Like many of the north coast potters they have not been concerned about recording their work or about publicising it, but both are well known and highly respected among Australian woodfirers.

The Politics of Woodfiring in Australia

Formal organisations have played a minor role in promoting woodfiring in Australia. Peter Rushforth and Ivan McMeekin were foundation members of the Potters Society of Australia in the 1960’s, and Janet Mansfield and Bill Samuels have been presidents of the society but as a whole that group has not done much to promote woodfiring - although now established woodfirers are included in their survey exhibitions.

During the late 70’s and especially early 80’s many potters started woodfiring. In contrast to the USA where many studied in Japan, most Australian woodfirers were self taught, learning by experience. There was not much overall contact between woodfirers until 1986 when I organised the Woodfire 86 conference (in knowledge that such an event had earlier been organised in US). The speakers were free to talk about whatever they liked, and reflecting this exploratory time, most discussion was technical and focussed on areas such as kiln design. An exhibition accompanying the conference brought together diverse woodfired work for the first time. Prior to and during the conference the Gippsland anagama and other kilns were fired. Perspectives on Woodfire 86 were published in Pottery in Australia; and conference papers and a survey poster were published.

Woodfire 89 was organised by Janet Mansfield and held on the family farm at Gulgong, a location now familiar to many at Different Stokes. This conference has moved into woodfire legend as much for the campsite stories (remember those showers?) as for the quality of its organised talks and events such as the exhibition and fire events. Some of the slide talks in the woolshed were technical but also moved into the areas of motives and ethics. Visitors included Jack Troy (now an ‘honorary Australian” because of his numerous visits), Sanderson and Minogue and others. Conference papers were published, also a special ‘woodfire edition’ of Pottery in Australia (August 89) which Janet Mansfield edited at that time.
Woodfire 92 was put together by Tony Nankervis at Lismore (Southern Cross University). This time there were discussions beforehand about what the focus would be and the decision was made that we should talk about why our work was as it was – the aesthetics of woodfire. John Neely made his first visit. Again there were firings and other events, and conference papers were published. One review in Pottery in Australia (editor Sue Buckle) concluded with the observation that anagama firers had taken over the proceedings; which post 1986 indicated a very real trend in Australian woodfiring. The preceding conferences and publications had certainly given impetus to this development. Meanwhile Janet Mansfield’s magazine Ceramics Art and Perception (issue 10) published several papers from the conference.

Which brings me to Janet’s role in Australian woodfiring (and in Australian ceramics in general). I think it can be summarised by guessing that there will be very few at Different Stokes who have not met Janet. She is our travelling ambassador and has done more to bring Australian ceramics into the international mainstream than any other person or even organisation. Her magazine presents our work internationally and through her relentless travel a great many potters from other countries have been involved in conferences and other clay-based events in Australia. This two way exchange has certainly changed my perspective, from in the early 80’s being a lonely explorer in a field where little knowledge was accessible and where the resulting work was little valued in the art community, to writing here now for an international audience. Janet has played a large part in that change of focus for Australian woodfiring and I believe that other Australians at Different Stokes would be quick to agree.

Janet has carried on the tradition established by Woodfire 86 by organising a series of events at Gulgong. Fire-up, a 1993 woodfiring event emphasised participation in firing many woodburning kilns. John Neely built a train kiln and there are now many versions of this in Australia. In 1995 at Claysculpt, the focus was on environmental artworks. Fred Olsen built his ‘Racer’, a groundhog derivative; and Torbjorn Kvasbo inspired all and sundry. The latest event, Hyperclay 98, was a series of concurrent workshops held in the village of Gulgong. These two later events involved many international artists, including Dan Anderson and Don Reitz . The consequence of this series of events has been international exchanges, travel and contacts.**

The fact that Janet as a woodfirer (firing an anagama, woodfired saltglaze kilns and others) and a promoter of woodfired ceramics, has in the past edited Pottery in Australia and since then has widely circulated her two magazines (Ceramics Art and Perception and Ceramics Technical) has also contributed considerably to the growth of Australian woodfire via the inclusion of many articles by or about woodfirers. A comparable example in the US would be the inclusion of articles on woodfiring in Studio Potter and Ceramics Monthly.

As the impetus of the woodfire movement has increased commercial and public galleries have also picked up their act. I remember leaving one commercial gallery in the early 80’s with my rejected pots and the feeling that I must have unwittingly stepped in dogshit before I entered their glossy environment. Now woodfire exhibitions are a regular and unremarkable event, sales are comparable with other ceramics exhibitions, and woodfirers are regularly included in general survey exhibitions.

Going back to the general survey of people actively involved in woodfiring now, Robert Barron (Victoria) fires a large 3 chamber climbing kiln using mainly cypress (macrocarpa sp) which locally is widely used for windbreaks. He makes mainly domestic pots but over last 5 years a sculptural element has evolved in his work ie pipes and boats. He continues to find areas in the big kiln which produce unique results.

Ian Jones has built two anagama kilns near Canberra after a period firing Bourry box kilns. His work has always included a component of domestic ware but his woodfired output now has a distinct tinge of Japanese influence resulting from his time in that country.

Heja Chong studied with Fujiwara Yu in Bizen before moving to Australia and building a Bizen-style kiln near Melbourne. Her work has evolved from a very traditionally based style to a freer approach. Like Ian Jones she has worked mainly within a higher fired, melted ash aesthetic. Heja has recently been concentrating on painting and has moved away from working with clay.

Carol and Arthur Rosser (Queensland). Up until a few years ago were known mainly for salt glazed ware. They built a ‘split tube’ anagama to evaluate many different kinds of fuel, and have settled on Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), so the central wall is now dismantled. They are investigating reduced cooling techniques. Arthur’s article on an anagama firing in Queensland (Ceramics Art and Perception No 18 1994) is a compulsory and delightful piece of reading for all woodfirers.

Steve Harrison has been influential through his teaching in Sydney, his writing about materials and firing, and his work on kiln design. He has used a variety of kilns and continues to experiment with firing techniques.

Sandy Lockwood (NSW) has concentrated on saltglaze, which is currently fired in a John Neely inspired train kiln (about 10-20 of these have been built in Australia since John built one at Fire-up at Gulgong in 1993). “ I work intuitively and kinaesthetically with clay. I make many pieces in search of a chance convergence of circumstances which will suggest the next step to take. This may be as small as the way the clay is folded on a corner to the development of a completely new direction. I’m seeking a synergy between structure, strength, softness, texture and colour”.

Peter Thompson (N. Qld) fires his large anagama once a year. His Shino derived glazes have developed over 10-12 years. He aims for the combination of a lustred rouge colour with a green ash melt. His clay bodies and glazes are derived from local materials. He enjoys the close acquaintance that develops between maker and mud; and the distortion of soft forms assembled at the point of collapse. Stamps hidden under glaze allude to the Tao of spirit hidden within. Major influence on working techniques is Ho Chi Minh.

Many others have contributed to the woodfire movement in Australia and the number of kilns and potters who fire them is still growing despite a general downturn in activity in ceramics. Paul Davis after a year in Hagi is developing an aesthetic new to Australia. Geoff Crispin, Steve Bishopric, Greg Crowe and Neil Hoffman are well known for their contributions. Roswitha Wulff was responsible for promoting woodfire while she was in charge of ceramics at East Sydney art school, and Martin Beaver in Melbourne encouraged many students to explore woodfiring. The tradition of Australian woodfire is continuing through potters such as Barbara Campbell Allen, Steve Williams, Len Cook, Geoff Maddams, and Peter Pilven. And in that longstanding bastion of culture, the NSW North coast, established potters such as Tony Chinnery and Bill Brownhill produce fine work.

Finally a mention for art schools. Woodfire is actively taught with the help of a good range of kilns through the National Art School in Sydney (Bill Samuels and others), Southern Cross University in Northern NSW (Tony Nankervis), in Bendigo at both the TAFE (Geoff Maddams) and Latrobe University (David Stuchbery) and Ballarat via Peter Pilven, and through my postgraduate courses in Gippsland (Monash University). The TAFE system ( a vocational training system) in NSW, Victoria and Queensland offers woodfire training in a range of colleges. Despite a downturn in the range of ceramics courses in Australia woodfire remains a very healthy component of the education system.