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Australian Wood-Fire Survey 1996 Strathnairn Ceramics Association Inc. In conjunction with the 8th National Ceramics Conference, International Connections, Canberra, July1996

Introduction                                                                            by Dr Owen Rye

The concept of woodfire in ceramics is in some ways an odd one, focusing attention as it does on a process rather than a product. We may ponder why there is no group of ceramics known as electricfire or gasfire. In part the identification of woodfirers as a distinct group, both here and in the United States of America, has resulted from a series of woodfire conferences and gatherings bringing together those who practice the art. This level of organisation and communication has resulted in very considerable advances in the medium over the past ten to fifteen years.

Some may be attracted to the medium by the superficial observation that the wood fire adds something to the bare or glazed clay as an extra dimension of surface. The flames, gases and particles generated in the wood combustion interact with the clay surfaces giving flashing and natural ash glazing. This creates a particular version of the very ceramic concern with qualities of surface, a preoccupation that is clearly visible in sophisticated form in the current survey exhibition.

In considering the ease with which surface is enhanced in the wood fire Rob Barnard1 was warned by his Japanese teacher that if he could not use bland commercial clay and an electric kiln to make good pots he had no business in fooling around with something as difficult and challenging as wood firing. This could not be considered as a refuge from the burdens of artistic responsibility.

That some see woodfiring as reactionary and traditionalist would suggest a recourse to refuge so in selecting for this exhibition I have attempted to include artists who in their diversity have extended and enriched the medium and have had an eye to the future allied with their practical heritage.

This includes woodfirers whose work shows new directions in surface and form, and also works that show refinement in practical pots, allowing some comparisons.

Looking back on woodfire exhibitions over the past ten years, there has been a reticence to break away from the wheelthrown vessel. This suggests conservatism in a medium where freedom of form has become standard and wheelthrowing has come to be seen as a semi-industrial technique alienated from current artistic concerns. I would argue that development occurs when some aspect of the work has been taken to extremes, to an edge where the work transcends material and process and takes on a unity of concept, form and surface. Woodfirers in the USA have in the past been more willing than Australians to enrich the surface of sculpture with the complexity of surface possible, and some works in the survey show recent developments in this area here.

Although pottery was woodfired in colonial Australiaís history the impetus of the modern woodfire movement is recent. Ivan McMeekin was an influential advocate in the 1950ís and Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, who worked with him afterward, became prominent. Pigott, along with Peter Rushforth and Janet Mansfield are represented in the current exhibition and they are widely acknowledged as influential, long term exponents of woodfiring.

The use of the anagama or tube kiln has become more common in the past ten years in Australia. The aesthetic is distinctive and results from the works being stacked, often in contact with or even being buried under, ash and embers. To my knowledge the first of these kilns in Australia was built by Milton Moon in the 1960ís. This firing technique can produce dramatic works that have been fired on their side so that molten glassy ash runs around them, or works with great subtlety of surface. Works in the survey from the anagama technique include those of Chester Nealie, originally from New Zealand but now an Australian resident, who has considerable experience in this medium and has been influential in promoting this form of expression. Dennis Monks who also works with salt glaze, produces sculptures of great strength. Geoff Thomas manages his kiln to produce very strong flashing and his work shows this to advantage. Ian Jones has recently built a new kiln and is exploring new forms along with his more classical oeuvre. Peter Thompson is influenced by his interest in classical Chinese ceramics. Tony Nankervis, although his recent kiln is different from the anagama, achieves work with a closely related feel and an extreme surface colour and texture development. Shane Toth is new to the field but achieves a rugged character in his work. Robert Barron produces work with a related aesthetic from the firebox of his naborigama (stepped chamber) kiln. Roswitha Wulff creates refined, often severe forms. The current concern in my work is with subtleties of surface produced by firing under an ember bed. Bill Samuels works with glazes derived from the Japanese shino aesthetic using a purpose built kiln quite distinct from the anagama, but using related firing techniques. The technique of salt glazing developed in Germany some 500 years ago. A small group of Australian potters use wood fired salt glaze kilns in contrast to others who use gasfired kilns. The wood ash floating through the kiln as salting takes place creates a distinctive aesthetic. Such work is represented in the exhibition from Malina Monks whose delicate and sensitive constructions defy gravity, by the functional sensitivity of Carol and Arthur Rosser, the lively and vigorous looseness of Sandy Lockwood and the distinctive surfaces of Geoff Maddams.

The diversity of approach to woodfiring in Australia is emphasised by other works in the exhibition. Steve Harrison works with natural ash glazing and also traditional stoneware glazes. Neville French achieves delicate distortions of form in porcelain showing light traces of the fire. Steve Williamsí work is constantly changing and developing particularly as a result of his experiments with making techniques and form. Chris James shows refined functional work. Geoff Crispin achieves subtlety of glaze colour and quality in his porcelain. Among this diversity Neil Hoffman and Iwan Kuczwal are different again, Neil because of his abstracted organic forms and Iwan because of his woodfired lustreware. He is one of an expanding group who have studied with Alan Peascod to learn this difficult art.

1.Rob Barnard Woodfiring: Challenge or refuge? Ceramics Art and Perception 23, 1996, pp 8-12