Wood Firing: Taming A Feral Aesthetic



Jack Troy Ceramics Art + Perception 108 2018 Art + Perception Home

A feral cat is any cat that was born in the wild and has not had friendly contact with humans. Cats that were once kept as pets and now live on their own are called strays, and are not considered feral. Feral cats are characterized by fearful behavior: fleeing when approached, and attacking when cornered.
If you’re thinking, “I know geriatric potters are supposed to rate a certain license, but what in the world do feral felines have to do with a conference on wood-fired ceramics?”
Well, stay tuned.

Those of us whose introduction to wood firing began in the 1970s have a perverse debt of gratitude to the oil embargo, which began in October 1973 when the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil crisis. By the end of the embargo in March 1974, the price of oil had risen from US$3 per barrel to nearly $12 globally; US prices were significantly higher.
A little background: cobalt oxide was around $50 a pound, and a 50-pound sack of Albany slip cost the same as a standard mug, $3.50.
Peter Voulkos’s big plates were a mind-blowing $750 at Helen Drutt’s gallery during the 1975 NCECA conference in Philadelphia. A vase cost less than $40; a ‘vahse' cost more than that. Garth Clark tried to persuade us to call pots ‘vessel-oriented clay objects’, or VOCOS, and you know how well that caught on.
Don Reitz had been paying 14 cents per gallon for propane and saw the cost jump to over a dollar, comparable to price increases across the US.
Gerry Williams, founder of Studio Potter was one of the first to suggest firing with wood as an alternative to gas or oil, leading to the Phoenix fast-fire kiln. Nobody talked about a ‘wood-fire aesthetic’, because #1, the first wood-fired pots looked a lot like high-fired bisque-ware that needed dusting; #2, potters from coast to coast were saying to one another variations on the following sentence: “All that for this?”;
and #3, a growing sense of pride in being able to flatten cone 10 with enough wood to fit in a VW microbus with two kegs of beer. Odd that nobody appreciated the work enough to buy it.
Pearls before swine.

Garth Clark tried to persuade us to call pots “vessel-oriented clay objects, or VOCOS,” and you know how well that caught on.

Was it going to get easier to market the work, or would we have to learn to make work that was easier to market? That was the more difficult question. The fact, though, is that in the 1970s there was no market for work that didn’t reinforce common perceptions of what ceramics ‘ought’ to be. Wood-fired pots had a long way to go before they met with anything like the appreciation we feel for one another’s work today. If our pots weren’t exactly feral, they certainly strayed from average expectations. One exception to neophyte work should be noted: Alfred grad Ruth Gowdy McKinley, an under-the-radar potter, was making beautiful wood-fired pots in the early 1950s.

A spirit of discovery characterized the 1970s enlivening the curiosity of potters, and wood-firing became entrained in the air we breathed. We wondered what to think of work that was sometimes blatantly confrontational to the ceramics we’d grown up with. We had no vocabulary to talk about it, and ceramic historians like Garth Clark and Elaine Levin tried not to notice wood-fired work. (Clark’s, American Ceramics 1876 to the Present, published 1988, sidesteps the entire folk and salt-glaze traditions and shows one wood-fired piece out of 240 illustrations; Levin’s The History of American Ceramics, 1607 to the Present, published 1989, equally blinkered, identifies 2 out of 352 pieces as wood-fired.) Why should this matter? Because ceramics aesthetics in this country has traditionally been geared to what a friend refers to as prissy-yaki work made by devotees of the muse of white-knuckle decorating obsessives. Lacking a tradition or connoisseurship for wood-fired ceramics, it’s no wonder many beholders found it bewildering, and, in Clark’s case, easy to dismiss. Writing about Peter Voulkos’s wood-fired work, he states, “... these pieces were generally retrogressive in their aesthetic, too dependent on the generosity of the kiln, and too imitative of Bizen, Seto, and other traditional Japanese kilns.” We can only assume that in 1988, in Clark’s eyes, Don Reitz, who single-handedly rejuvenated salt-glazing, must have been lower than merely ‘retrogressive’, because he wasn’t mentioned in the book, being edged out by such luminaries as Matthew Daly (1860–1937) who, Clark informs us,
left his job as a decorator at Rookwood Pottery to become the art director of the American Playing Card Company.

Clark’s and Levin’s taste-based neglect for wood-fired work contrasted to Louise Cort’s Shigaraki Potters Valley in 1980, and to Janet Mansfield’s and Gerry Williams’ willingness to publish articles and images that raised consciousness of the genre. In 1983, Mark Hewitt set up his pottery and, perhaps more than any single person in the US, created an awareness of the genre, in addition to sponsoring apprenticeships for serious potters to be schooled in every aspect of wood-firing.

Yet seeing a wood-fired pot on the cover of Ceramics Monthly was still in the future, as was my book’s appearance in 1995, followed by The Log Book in February 2000. The feral aesthetic was becoming domesticated, kiln by kiln, exhibition by exhibition, article by article, book by book.

If you had lived around here, though, none of this would have meant much, because North Carolina had a robust, ongoing tradition of wood-firing. Unlike the industrialization of ceramic production in the northeast by jigger and jolly machines, potters in the southern Appalachians soldiered on. Somewhere there’s a compelling unwritten novel about the John Henry of US ceramics who tried and failed at turning pots alongside a jolly machine while his fellow potters gathered around, knowing their days and skills were numbered; anything but a jolly situation.

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