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Woodfire: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back                      by Owen Rye

(Originally published as an essay in the catalog Different Stokes, International Woodfire Exhibition, University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, Iowa USA , 1999)

The Different Stokes exhibition is to my knowledge the first ever fully international survey of woodfired ceramics and significantly coincides with a change of millennium. Lacking prior experience of ends of millennia leaves me somewhat unsure how to comment despite a sense of occasion. Look backwards and review? Look forwards and speculate?

I gain some comfort and guidance from the words of Daniel Easterman: The academic treads a nervous path through thickets of opinion, bias and fantasy as great as any to be found in the realms of fiction (1992 p7). Without feeling especially nervous, I can hide my uncertainty behind a mix of opinion, bias and fantasy – as do most other critics and commentators. While this may masquerade as objectivity I know that real objectivity, the kind about which everyone can agree, is very difficult to achieve.

Most commentary in our field has been about the people involved, or the process of woodfire, about clay and kilns and firing. There has been very little direct analysis of the end result, the work itself. Fortunately I am writing this before seeing the work in Different Stokes and so can claim innocence as charged. The writing increases our awareness of the artist and the technical context but adds little to our immediate sensory experience of the work. The difficulty for writers is that the finest artwork exists in a realm beyond words. Even photographs of the highest quality give little appreciation of the immediate presence of the work. So my first comment on the Different Stokes exhibition is to say turn off your mind and experience it as directly as possible, for it may be a long time before you see such an exhibition again.

Given that it is impossible for anyone to see all the woodfire exhibitions, the artists in this one have of necessity become known more through writing about them than through direct experience of their work. Jack Troy, writing almost 10 years ago (1991 p 10) seemed slightly distressed to note that the woodfire genre had then received little critical support and that ceramists who fire with wood are themselves the most reliable and articulate speakers for the movement. This may still be so to an extent but over the interval a much greater literature has accumulated.

There have been frequent articles in leading professional magazines such as Ceramics Monthly, Studio Potter, and Ceramics Art and Perception, and more in-depth examination in recent books by Jack Troy, and Sanderson / Minogue. In Australia woodfirers are represented in Masters of their Craft by Noris Iannou and several general books on ceramics by Janet Mansfield, which demonstrates that woodfire has become mainstream. A full list of all the writing in the United States and especially Japan would be very long indeed. There is in contrast a lack of interest in Europe and one can ponder why this is so. Overall there is sufficient writing over the last 20 years to provide a meticulous scholar with enough material to write the history of the growth of woodfiring in the 20th century.

Given that this is now at an end, this same scholar will do well to consider the conclusions reached in a penetrating and incisive essay by Sasayama Hiroshi (1997) which I recommend to everyone as well worth reading:

“……we should regard firing with wood as a new, and largely unexplored, method in ceramics and not as a traditional method......woodfiring, and even the anagama, is spreading around the world. Its spread indicates a heightened interest in woodfiring as an experience of the unknown and a quest for the essence of ceramics. When the quest leads to an even higher level of woodfired ceramics, we will no longer call firing in a woodburning kiln a traditional ceramic technique. As woodburning kilns are globalised, Japan will shrug off its parochial dichotomy between tradition and the contemporary in ceramics. The past is not just the past; it coexists with the present and the future. Firing with wood is the future, the key to divining the direction ceramics will take in the twenty first century.”

In a very real sense Different Stokes is a significant marker in the globalisation of woodfire alluded to by Sasayama. The anagama, for example is no longer a purely Japanese tool. It would be of great interest to know just how many anagama kilns there are around the world and where they are distributed. I suspect that there are more outside Japan than in. At a recent woodfire event in Australia a well known Japanese potter was troubled by the variety of approaches by Australian ‘kilnmasters’ to firing the anagama and suggested that none of them knew the ‘proper’ way to fire this type of kiln. He had not realised that there is no longer a proper way, but there are as many ways as there are kilns and the people who use them. Westernisation of a technique involves individualisation, and promotes forward looking rather than the unproductive romance (and rules) of looking backward.

As a digression, I prefer to think of the spread of woodfire as internationalisation rather than globalisation. The concept of globalisation carries many negative connotations. One is the tendency to seek ‘efficiency’, to minimise the time and the cost of work done, and to ignore quality in favour of profit. This is entirely opposite to the essence of woodfire, which aims at quality whatever the loss.

One of the questions for which I hope the Different Stokes exhibition will provide an answer is whether or not, in this age of instant global communication, woodfire art still shows not only a national but also a regional character. Is the character of the work still dependent at least in part on the quality of clay, the kind of wood fuel used and the particular style of kiln and management? Can we see national traits or do we see only individuality? What connections can we unravel? To what extent is woodfire attempting to recreate the accomplishments of the past and to what extent does it point to new directions for the future?

The observant reader here will note that each idea leads to questions. Questions point forward and are alive; answers stand still and are dead. Perhaps you will indulge me for a while as I ponder questions I have asked as a woodfirer, on the basis that you will recognise many of them. With luck some will be new to you and possibly even useful.

Initially most of my questions were about firing, since I was self-taught and did not know anyone to consult. Here is this enormous thing full of months of work. Here am I in charge of it. What must be done to get it hotter? When is it hot enough? What is reduction and how do I know I’m doing it? Which is the best wood to use? How do I get rid of this enormous pile of ember? How can I stay awake? Is the person on the next shift going to be here on time? You may add your questions to the list and if we all get together we can end up with thousands of questions about firing. Its like learning to drive – initially everything is happening at once; finally it becomes a matter of deciding where to go and how to get there.

As I recall my next major concern was about form. Being influenced like many others at the time (1970’s and early 80’s) by pictures in books of magnificent pots from Shigaraki, Tamba, Iga and Bizen made it very difficult to imagine other forms more suited to woodfiring. But what was the sense of making medieval Japanese forms in the 20th century in Australia? Especially when the original Japanese vessels had a specific function to fulfil and the new copies would be quite useless? Was enjoyment and contemplation a use? Did painters face a similar problem in that paintings are useless because they just hang on the wall and get dusted occasionally? Was there something beyond function? Should I then be making sculpture, which could make good use of those marvellous surfaces but could be seen as art - unlike pots which were really domestic utensils? What was the lure of vessels, which went beyond that and how could it be captured?

One day a revelation descended. Clay was the key. If utility was not an issue, could I get away with making crude pots from crude clay? Did the qualities of form and surface of some of those glorious old Japanese vessels I had seen derive almost entirely from the nature of the clay? Should I put big lumps of felspar in my clay? Or big lumps of quartz? Should I dig clay instead of buying it? Instead of using white tight clays or dark tight clays is it really better to use unfluxed soft-fired clay? Should it have soda or potash, more silica or less, what should be coarse and what should be fine? Was it an inspired observation to realise that bad-throwing clays led to wonky, loose forms, which fitted in well with the distortions in firing?

Then came the effort to make sense of what came out of the kiln. Why is this not the way I wanted it to be? Could the problem be mental rather than technical- that the work is right and my expectations were wrong? How do I prevent the familiar subverting the new and difficult? Should aspirations be discarded so that perception can develop? Is it better to stop thinking altogether and just do it, accepting whatever happens? What is our aesthetic? Can the very Japanese concepts of wabi and sabi so eloquently revealed in the superb little book by Leonard Koren (1994) be internationalised and reinterpreted across cultural borders?

These questions accelerated and took on an almost religious hue when the work was exhibited. Was there a God up there saying (sternly) “Do as I command”? Represented on earth by the art police, the public who expected a certain style of work and the gallery directors who sold it? How could I deal with feeling besieged by art school colleagues whose sociopolitical theory contemptuously dismissed my internalised, intuitive ambitions for ceramic integrity and hints of new directions? Are we really as they see us – intellectually unemployed? Are these control-based imperatives all wrong - do notions of intuitive acceptance offer a better way? And if so should I go with the Devil (or at least his advocate residing somewhere in me) who says “Do as you will”?

Is it really necessary to think about where you are going? Do only the lost need a map? Are there different states of being lost? Is there something fundamentally different between the frightened lost who search urgently, and the delighted lost who hum and smile and anticipate the surprises across the hill? Does any of this matter in the ‘star syndrome’ environment where careers sometimes can be established by astute marketing despite the lack of contribution?

The ultimate question is where does it end? When will this woodfire phenomenon fade to nothing except art history? What will cause it to cease being? Is the key in looking forward rather than backward? Is everything that is new good and everything that is familiar worthless? Or will the end come not from cultural revolutions in the mind, but from something much more fundamental to life like the air that we breathe?

How should we respond to the ecological imperative? Is the future of woodfiring imperilled by increasingly severe restrictions on emissions coupled with increasingly restricted sources of fuel? The future of urban woodfiring is indeed problematic but this is not new; potters have always been consigned to the fringes and beyond. In order to evaluate the environmental cost of woodfiring we must question the comparative damage caused by other forms of firing, especially with electric kilns, which are usually seen as clean. In Australia electricity is produced by burning coal, which is a major air pollutant. In many other countries there are unsolved problems of disposal of nuclear waste and the inherent dangers of the nuclear fuel industries. I suspect that attempting a thorough examination of the relative environmental dangers of different kiln fuels would not meet with full and free assistance from the large-scale energy suppliers; but there are questions here that someone among us must soon begin asking. Which form of firing really does the most damage?

This endless questioning must ultimately lead to questioning the process of questioning itself, presenting a philosophical paradox that can be ignored for the moment. Spend time with the Different Stokes exhibition, realise that what you see is the consequence of many long periods of individual questioning, and carry away with you a new intuitive awareness of where we have been and where we are going.


  • Easterman, Daniel 1992. New Jerusalems, Grafton Paperbacks, London
  • Hiroshi, Sasayama 1997. Contemporary Woodfiring (pages 299-303) in: Towards a 21 st Century Renaissance in Ceramics, Volume 1, Dohosha, Tokyo.
  • Koren, Leonard 1994. Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, California.
  • Troy, Jack 1991. No ideas but in things. In American Woodfire ’91, (Exhibition
    Catalogue,) The University of Iowa Museum of Art