Essay: Woodfire Survey 2005 by Owen Rye
Woodfirers continue an ancient heritage dating from the time when man first deliberately fired clay. This link with our ancestors might be viewed as an anachronism, a carry over from outdated practices that have no contemporary relevance. If so it seems strange that in the past five years there have been internationally focused conferences and workshops specifically dedicated to woodfiring in the USA (including two international conferences in Iowa), Canada, Korea, China, Japan, Germany, Czech Republic, England, France, Hungary and Denmark, to list just some. Smaller workshops are taking place every week somewhere in the world. The woodfire movement is alive and well worldwide and continues to grow, as potters using this medium travel and exchange information very widely. Kilns in one country can be understood and operated by woodfirers from another. Work from one country can be read without translation by artists in another. Woodfire knowledge and experience are everywhere; no nation can any more claim to be the source.
Woodfire is an unusual branch of the ceramic arts. Woodfirers have distinctive ideas, attitudes and materials and a unique language. They have regular gatherings where their arcane arts are discussed and applied. Their first large gathering in Australia was at the first woodfire conference in Gippsland in 1986, and this event was accompanied by the first large dedicated exhibition of Australian woodfired ceramics, at the Latrobe Regional Gallery. The 1996 woodfire survey at Strathnairn in the ACT was a major review of 10 years of progress. The Australian Woodfire Survey 2005 at the Arts Centre in Watson ACT marks another significant review of the state of the woodfire art in Australia, and an indication of its ongoing strength. It is timed to coincide with Gundaroo Woodfire 2005, a conference and workshop event organised by Ian Jones and Moraig McKenna.
Prior to the mid 1980's the number of exhibitions of woodfired ceramics in Australia could be counted on the fingers of one hand but since then exhibitions in this medium have been frequent. It is now normal rather than unusual that woodfired work is included, undifferentiated, in ceramic group shows.
From the late 1940s to the mid 60s a few potters in Australia used wood fuel essentially as a means of making heat, and the work was protected from 'contamination' by wood ash. Gradually from then on it became more common to expose pots to ash, creating an entirely new aesthetic. The character of forms was adapted to suit the new surfaces being discovered. This meant that the aesthetics of imperfection and irregularity began to take over from the desire for symmetry and perfection. Woodfiring has for many years now been dominated by this approach where there are few 'protected' pots. Development has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary within this approach, the work progressively becoming more subtle and sophisticated (and sometimes more clichéd). Other approaches to woodfiring have also developed and a diversity of kiln designs have been developed to suit these various styles. Contemporary woodfired objects can be crude, or refined and delicate. Works made from crude stony clays fired near the front of an anagama kiln can be covered in harshly sharp abrasive hard ash that will slice an arm open. Some contemporary porcelains and celadon wares are inspired by Asian precedents that are among the most exquisitely delicate and sensitive ceramic works ever made. Whether the end result is crude or refined there is a tendency to fire kilns over longer periods up to a week. For the more delicate wares this long firing produces the most subtle and finest glaze colours and qualities, otherwise unattainable.
Into the 1980s woodfirers in Australia were mostly self-taught. This changed with the rise of conferences and workshops where knowledge was disseminated more widely so that the next generation has had the benefits of developed techniques - although it is true to say that experience in this medium is still the best teacher. Given that technique and its aesthetic consequence are inseparable it will be worth studying the work in this 2005 survey to see if and how the work of the second generation of potters differs from their predecessors.
More generally, how is the work in this exhibition to be viewed, to be understood? What is the nature of woodfiring, what is it all about? I can only answer this question from the perspective of a maker. The work is made with only a vague image of the end result and in the process of making the experienced artist is usually working though an intuitive feel for the medium, a response to the material, and an anticipation of what will happen in the kiln. And afterwards the woodfired work is felt through the senses. You can describe what you see or touch as colours and textures, but when you are captivated you cannot easily clarify why this is so. We are dealing with the irrational. The woodfire potter on inspecting the best of the contents of his kiln for the first time will have a sense of having achieved something worthwhile, but will be left without any clear communicable understanding of just what it is that has been achieved. This of course is true of any art form; why does music have the effect that it does? Why does theatre or dance or a painting move our emotions? You do not just experience sounds, or colours or an inanimate object, but in a very real way you establish communication, and gain insight into the character of the maker, their intelligence, insight and sensitivity- or sometimes their inadequacies. Chester Nealie once said, "All is revealed, and those skilled with eyes and heart can read your handling as in any novel."1 So the maker must always take the risk that their hesitations, uncertainties and ignorance may be revealed, but the willingness to risk all has always been a part of woodfire.
1Chester Nealie, Woodfire 86 conference papers, 1986, p. 157
Compare what the woodfirer does with for example the work of the digital photographer. It is possible to take a hundred photographs and then select the best one, and if it is not quite right it can be improved using Photoshop until it is. A painter can see where a painting is going wrong and change tack to rectify it; or can abandon it altogether without too much loss of time, and a musician or writer can workshop their creations until they are at their best. A woodfirer though must commit months or even years of work to a kiln which can totally destroy it all with no hope of redemption. Woodfire aesthetics dictate that the best results are obtained in parts of the kiln that promise the greatest risk of damage. So while woodfire may because of its traditional origins appear to be at the conservative end of ceramics, it is always at the cutting edge of risk takings in the arts.
I do not see woodfire as a reaction to hi-tech contemporary arts, but as a counterbalance, as something at the other end of the spectrum. Most woodfirers live in rural surroundings and so are not immersed daily in urban concerns. There is I believe of necessity something of the peasant in every successful woodfirer. They like to - and need to - understand their local environment and their place in it, to even be an active part of it. To know the ways of the earth, the characters of the soil, the whereabouts of trees, the way different kinds split with an axe, the way they burn, the character of their embers and their ash as it falls on clay. Woodfirers need to have this practical knowledge, but many also come to realise the value of a sensory awareness of their surroundings. The experience of the sounds of the green forest, such as water dripping or a distant birdsong; or the vision of dry dusty expanses with great clarity, will in some indirect way feed into the character of their woodfired work. The ability to find pleasure in the hard physical work of mixing clay, or splitting and stacking wood, coupled with a sensitive intelligence about the deeper nature of the beauty of things, reminds us of the distant origins of our culture in Greek philosophies that advocated the blending of a strong body with a sound mind and a sensitive soul.
Certainly for the maker, woodfiring is largely about hard physical work. That may be difficult to understand for many Australians, because our concept of hard work has changed in recent years - the term now generally applies to extended mental effort. The woodfirer must have the capacity to take pleasure in physical work, a capacity which over the past twenty years or so has been handed over to machines that cut or lift or sort or wrap. The woodfirer does not normally have the money to afford the machines, and so must be prepared to move bricks and build large kilns, to move heavy pieces of wood, to cut and split and stack, to mix clay, to physically manipulate and shape large heavy masses of clay, to somehow get these heavy works into and out of kilns, and to fire large kilns over long periods of hot tiring work.
One machine that most woodfirers in Australia use is the potter's wheel. Here most woodfired work consists of wheel-made vessels and there is still not much woodfired sculpture. The wheel is driven either with an electric motor or by kicking with one foot. The choice of energy is usually not determined by how much the wheel costs, but by the character of work that each produces. Unless used with considerable understanding and inventiveness the electric wheel tends to give a uniform and refined character, whereas the kick wheel tends more towards a looseness of form. Pots made on the electric wheel take on this looseness when the wheel speed is very slow, and especially if the clay is crude and uneven. The character of wheel throwing is obvious in the finished work to those experienced in reading the subtleties. If one looks closely though at the work in the 2005 survey, it will be seen that woodfirers have developed a variety of slow wheel forming techniques that would make an interesting study in themselves. I find it interesting that if woodfirers have a technical discussion it is usually about kilns rather than forming techniques which play a major part in deciding the character of the work.
Making woodfired pots in the 21st century is not the product of an economic rationalist mind and some would say not the product of any kind of rational mind. A plumber friend of mine asked me 25 years ago in a puzzled tone: "Pottery? Is there a quid2 in that?" The answer for most woodfirers is that there is not a quid in it. Woodfirers collectively do not contribute much to the national economy, and individually do not impress anyone with their income, and so their expenditures contribute little to the national economy. Then again the true artists in society have rarely been successful, or even interested, in the economic realm. Their focus is on issues which would widely be seen as trivial, insignificant and entirely irrelevant to daily life - like maintaining the integrity of their work in a world where lies and deceptions by our leaders are commonplace. Their reward is found in satisfactions other than financial reward, such as the pursuit of curiousity, the pleasure of discovery and the possibility of unanticipated aesthetic delights.
2Australian slang expression meaning two dollars
So woodfire by itself is not essential, or even important to our culture. If woodfired ceramics disappeared altogether few would express concern. The same might be said of stained glass, or abstract mathematics. Only when the number of disappearing useless pursuits increased greatly and began to include music, and flower gardens, and astronomy and archaeology and many of the things we do at weekends would we hear an outcry for their return. They are collectively, if not individually, essential to our well-being. The value of some things to humanity cannot be measured by their economic worth or their functional value. Singing in the shower, or arranging flowers in a woodfired vase is the alternative to living in a world of meanness of spirit and ugliness of surroundings.
Woodfire involves profound contradictions. The experienced woodfirer who most aspires to spontaneity and seeks serendipity as virtue will carefully plan his wood supplies years ahead , and put away special batches of boutique wood as a wine connoisseur might. All this very practical care and planning is then applied in the most impractical of ways. Most rational people would find little sense in someone making containers that are not meant to hold anything, by a complicated process that is very like to result in failure and where even if the outcome is successful will not be much prospect of selling the work.
Like any risky venture, woodfire can be exciting and dramatic. Witness the expression on someone's face when for the first time they look into an anagama at full temperature, the disbelief, amazement and fear. Witness the tension surrounding the kiln when the firing is not going well, or the hoots of joy (and relief) when a fine pot emerges from the kiln afterwards, or the deep depression that settles when the results are poor.
Despite its prevalence, woodfire is an outsider art, unfashionable to many people, and one can only hope this continues. The contemporary fashion in Australia is for glittery objects with multiple lustres or brightly colored glaze, or more recently for a more sanitary ware style, where stark white predominates. To the woodfirer's eye this work is one dimensional and easily read. See it once and you have seen all there is to see, in contrast to the gradually revealed character of a complex and subtle woodfired work which only reveals its true character over a period of time and contemplation. In ceramic terms, the sanitary styles are based on standardized and uniform clays so everyone's work takes on a similarity of character, with a simplified and stylised form. Woodfirers prefer the more complex and richer path, and often use crude and unique clays that do not respond well to forming techniques and take their own rebellious path to form.
I will finish with a word of caution. There is a danger in repetition of a successful formula. For woodfire as a movement to survive and thrive there is a need for refreshment and renewal, an injection of new ideas and philosophies offered by new prophets. We need to continually involve ourselves in a process of questioning and inventing in order to contribute to progress. It is sobering to consider these 1969 comments of Gwyn Hanssen Pigott (in discussing the then current work of the potters of Haut-Berry in France):
3Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Woodfire 86 Conference papers, 1986, p.32
To borrow a phrase from my friend Graham King (life is all a big adventure), woodfire should be an adventure, a regular departure into the unknown where surprises are frequent. Those connoisseurs who appreciate this medium are likewise adventurers in the world of art appreciation, not bound by formal constraints. The Australian Woodfire Survey 2005 exhibition will, I hope, carry a few pleasant surprises for everyone who experiences it.
Owen Rye is the selector for the Australian Woodfire Survey 2005 exhibition; he is a potter and writer.