making, building, firing and understanding |
underlying philosophy of my work is very much about process, and my interaction
with process as a maker. Pieces are thrown on a wheel using clays that I have
formulated, mixed and wedged myself. Some forms: mugs, beakers, jars and shot
cups are thrown softly and then vigorously paddled to emphasise movement, the
rims being re collared to create undulating ellipses. Other forms are constructed
using elements, vessels that reference function. Large platters and bowls are
freely thrown as large rimmed discs and then removed wet and dropped onto moulds.
Saucers are cut from large blocks of clay and then impressed with the base of
the vessel that is to sit in them. Handles are pulled soft from mug bodies and
others are press moulded from found objects. I am excited by watching a piece
of work develop, from it's conception on paper, to it's fruition as a three dimensional
object with all the qualities of soft newly thrown clay. It is very much about
control, all be it a sometimes subtle control, it is non-the less total.
However, at the end of the making process I have to give up that control. It is
this handing over of control to the firing which is as important if not more so
than any other part of the process of developing a finished piece of work. This
rhythm of working stimulates me and induces a thought process which ultimately
informs the work which I produce. The importance of firing in a kiln that I have
built is not the be all and end all, I have fired my work in several wood kilns
built by others and enjoyed learning how to manage them.
From those firings I have had results with which I have been very pleased. However,
I know this kiln intimately, Inside out, somehow intuitively I know how to stoke
to coax another twenty degrees at the back. I know the signs, which indicate that
it needs more or less air. I know when the fire needs to be calmed with hard wood
and logs to induce a slow lazy flame and when it needs to rage through the pack
using side stoked pine slats. I know how the flame travels along the top of the
arch depositing ash at the back of the kiln, or follows passageways lower in the
pack touching and engulfing forms, finding the sweet spots. If I have to give
up control I at least place that control with something I trust, and can at least
influence to some small degree.
In building a kiln of this type to fire my work, a bond was built between the
instrument of decoration, and myself. I have never really been a maker that has
enjoyed smothering a considered form with a potentially suffocating layer of glass,
my aesthetic is much more to do with forms and the clay body itself and how they
respond to the fire and the atmospheres that are generated in the chamber and
firebox. With hindsight the bond is as much due to the amount of effort that the
building took, two months through the winter. Although covered, it was still cold
heavy work, many bricks had to be cut to fit specific spaces, expansion gaps figured
out, lots of problems to be overcome. The design is an amalgamation of what I
consider to be the best bits of the other kilns I have fired, to some extent it
was an unknown entity, however in many ways it also felt familiar. The form had
to be sympathetic to the fire which would burn inside it. I knew what I wanted
the kiln to achieve and the options that I wanted to have available to me when
firing. At the end of it all it works a treat and gives me the surfaces that I
had envisaged in the best scenario's.
When the making is done and the work to be fired is lined up on the shelves, the
wood has all been cut and stacked to facilitate three days and two nights of stoking,
it is the end of first stages of the overall process. The next stage, the placing
of work in the chamber is more fraught with potential pit falls. This is the time
I start to get a little anxious about the whole firing, the decisions that I make
at this point will be the largest contributor to either having a good firing a
mediocre or worst of all a poor firing.
Confronted with an empty chamber I have to set the pots out one by one positioning
them carefully, in some areas tighter and in others more open. I sometimes use
a torch to simulate the fire, identifying which areas of the work catch the light
and which are in shade, it's crude but it helps. The kiln has to be packed from
the back to the front, this is where the relationship between placed pots comes
into play. Every piece of work that is placed forward from the very back row will
affect the work immediately around it and will also have an influence on the wider
kiln pack. As the predicted flame paths have to be anticipated and utilised the
pack becomes a construction of negative space, creating paths through which the
ash and alkali rich flames will pass. Ultimately directing the generation of flame
flashing and ash deposits and therefore as important in the overall process of
firing as the positioning of the work itself. It is like assembling an engine
without any instructions and following intuitive judgement, hoping that in the
end all the components will work together. When I'm satisfied, I have to remove
the pieces and then re-place them with their bases wadded to lift them off the
floor or shelf. It is a slow job working forward section by section.
The kiln has only two methods of control and I use the term control loosely. It
has air inlets below the stoking grate, which can be opened and closed and it
has two passive dampers (removable bricks) in the collection box at the base of
the chimney to reduce the draw. These controls such as they are, are used relatively
frequently in response to the way the kiln changes throughout a firing. The kiln
will require many different combinations of air intake and chimney draw to maintain
the desired atmosphere and flame speed, It will change character at night and
again during the day, whether its warm and bright or overcast and wet, when firing
I have to be in tune with these changes and be able to adjust the kiln correspondingly.
It is this constant engagement with the firing process, which I find so stimulating,
and I consider, contributes to the character of the finished work.
I am always very anxious prior to a firing; will it go ok? Will my placing of
the work utilise the flames and ash? Will the whole pack fall down? Then three
days of prolonged concentration, undertaking hot work which requires rest to keep
energy levels up but with an anxiety level that makes sleep difficult. When the
firing is finished and the kiln sealed, there follows the unbearable wait until
it is cool enough to unpack. A sense of relief and excitement that, although still
anxious of the outcome, the hardest work is over.
The final finishing of the work does not occur until after the firing when the
kiln has cooled, the seal of the door is broken and the results are viewed. In
the limited light allowed into the chamber through the door, the front of the
kiln can be seen glistening with fly ash glaze, obvious stickers (work fused to
the kiln floor and front steps), seen for the first time, those pots which were
last seen glimpsed through fourteen hundred degrees of white heat and flame teetering
on the edge of the front step, thinking that surely they will end up in the firebox.
Some of them do, and if they manage to survive the stoking can come out gloriously
charred and distorted, telling unedited stories of the firing process; tantalising
glimpses further in to the kiln increase the excitement and speculation. Each
piece is removed carefully, work at the front of the kiln usually needs a little
persuasion with mallet and chisel as rivulets of fly ash glaze have endeavoured
to make them part of the kiln. It is not until all the work is out that I can
stand back and view the results.
The work has to be sorted out into that which is OK as it is and those pieces
which need careful work with the angle grinder and wet and dry paper, to remove
fused wadding and to polish scars. It is the pieces that require grinding and
more detailed attention, which can be the most stunning, both aesthetically and
as mediums for carrying the story of their process of being. It is a job which
cannot be rushed, these are the pots that have been right at the front of the
kiln, they have endured the most intense heat and atmosphere. The clay having
been pushed to its limits. Pyroplastic action has moved them in form adding another
degree of softness and character to the finished objects, the kiln imposing its
The body may be charred with a course clinker adhering to it beneath which black,
green, grey, blue, purple, maroon blushes give depths of surface that are not
achievable in any other way. Ash, which has accumulated on surfaces to such a
degree; that having been building and melting for three days and two nights, has
now formed deep pools of iridescent glass with small crystals swimming in their
depths, sometimes with hints of phosphorous blue. Sheets of glassy celadon green
fly ash glaze covering forward facing surfaces give way to quieter matter areas
where the flame passed and didn't deposit but interacted with the clay generating
soft warm reds, pinks and salmon hues. Dragonfly eye drips running off the edges
of side fired platters and bowls speak of the movements that have gone on; visible
to me only as a white wall of flame and fleeting mirage shapes, several days earlier.
These are the surfaces and textures that I respond to; handling a vessel that
has many faces, different from every angle, tactile and vibrant.
My emotional connection with the work, and my feeling of the works integrity have
been consolidated by the intense engagement of the firing. Demons have been rested.
When all the work has been done I can finally stand back from the work enjoy it
and let go of it, placing it metaphorically and hopefully physically into another
realm, that of other peoples thoughts emotions and interpretations, put up to
be viewed by an audience. Some viewers will love it and some will hate it, however,
that is for them to decide, and I hope they enjoy making the decision. I have
keepers, which will strike a particular chord with me, they will seed the build
up to the next firing, but in many ways the work is no longer mine, the pieces
exist as objects in their own right, and must fend for themselves.
Brierley October 2005.