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.

I visited Jugtown the first time in 1972, bringing a potter’s wheel, pitching a tent under some pine trees and more than anything, you might say, “stalking authenticity”. I wanted to get a sense of how it might be to step onto the stage of an ongoing pottery tradition. It would have been easy for Vernon Owens to just suggest that I go back up north and start my own local tradition, but that never occurred to him. He had better things to do than wonder why I was so interested, and besides, that all got worked out anyway in the conversations we had during the week or so I fit in, or was made to feel so. Watching Vernon drizzle table salt onto the shoulders of jugs in the ground-hog kiln at a scary heat showed me some Randolph County alchemy: solid turning liquid to gas.

In those days, there was a concrete swimming pool inlaid with hundreds of shards of old Jugtown pottery. On a sunny afternoon, the rippling oval teased your eye with shapeless colors, some brilliant as tropical fish, others like the salt-glazed stoneware, more taffy-colored. You tried to concentrate on a single fragment, but couldn’t, the way when we try to look at history, it just shimmers back at us. Slipperier under foot than the sharkskin-stippled concrete clenching them, those Chinese blue, mirror black, tobacco spit, frog skin and copper red glazes sparkled so pretty you hated to come up for air. You could just float above this mosaic of repurposed parts of pots that hadn’t quite worked out, thankful for the dose of originality giving them this fixed, resplendent life. You’d submerge, touch a piece of a curve and imagine a whole pitcher or vase sunk deeper in the concrete. One morning you’d slide in before anyone was up, and make a point of touching each bright reminder: “Good morning, Mr. Jacques Busby, Ben Owen, Charles Moore, Vernon Owens. Thank you for making all the parts to this stunning underwater puzzle.”

I set my wheel under the shed roof covering the old horse-operated clay mill like one I’d read about in 19th century Pennsylvania, where when the mule was retired somebody would have to go out and move him away from the circles he walked so he wouldn’t graze himself out of grass. Vernon suggested I make some wren houses, and that morning I turned 44 of them. After lunch I asked him to look over what I’d made. He got real quiet and said, “Well, I guess we can use this one, and those two and I guess this one,” then went on about his business. I went in the sales cabin, got a Jugtown wren house, set it up in front of my wheel, wedged up forty bird houses any wren would have been pleased to call home, and all afternoon I made, you’d better believe, Jugtown wren houses. Turning to the mark, it’s called.

A year or two later I brought a couple of carloads of my students to Jugtown so they could experience a working pottery. We camped out, stacked wood, and were made to feel right at home. We also took little field trips to visit Vernon’s daddy, Melvin, Nell Cole; and feisty old Zedith Teague whose wheel, as I recall, was connected to a Model A gearbox. She had a truck’s rear view mirror attached to the outer wall of the shop so as she turned she could read the license plates of the cars that pulled in. Zedith must have been gifted at reading the names of various states backward, because when we came in she said “PennsylVAnia? What brings you here?”
I introduced my students and said we wanted to learn what we could about traditional pottery.

She seemed flummoxed that making pottery could be taught in a college, as if there might be too many other distracting subjects competing for a person’s attention – something I often felt, too.
“So you’re the teacher? Can you turn?”
I tried.
“Can you turn a pitcher?”
I tried.
“Can you turn one that feels empty?” That query will never leave me. You can wallow in the word-pit of the eye-hand relationship, but the only woman I ever met named Zedith put it best: pitchers ought to feel empty.
“You turn settin’ or standin’?” she asked.
“I sit.”
“Had a old guy round here set to turn. Had his bag shot off in the war.”
I think it was about then that we headed for Dorothy and Walter Auman’s.

The Auman pottery was like no other place –the past met the present, under one roof. Dorothy turned out front in plain view of people coming through the door and perfected the art of being polite to strangers right in the middle of measuring a lid she was turning for a little honey jar. She was as welcoming as she was uninterruptible, and how many of us have synchronized those contrary aptitudes?

Dorothy would wipe her hands and if you seemed interested, she would, with humble pride, guide you back to the stupendous collection of traditional pots which, if it existed today, would be worth at least double the price recently paid at auction for Jerry Garcia’s Wolf guitar. It was as if the Auman’s love for unique pieces of pottery had drawn crocks and jugs to their life like iron filings to a magnet. There was a reverence to walking around in there; a feeling that would have made a potter proud to be represented among so many others, and to have the work cared for by such a caring couple. Every piece had at least one story about who had made it and when and where that potter was situated in the complex genealogy of mostly local makers – elegant pots made by non-elite people with the first names of Arie, Cheever, Cleater, and Nub, and as of 1986, 28 Coles, 18 Owens without the ‘s’ and 8 with the ‘s’. How much you could learn was only limited by your curiosity. Living with old pots is, for some of us, an ongoing adventure. Sometimes we wish we could meet their makers, and then we remember Margaret Atwood’s observation: “Wanting to meet an author because you like what they have written, is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate.”

Dwight Holland might have been drinking from the same well as Dorothy and Walter when he began collecting pots, and exercising his discerning eye, trusting some wordless urge to reach out for pieces that seemed to be reaching back. You know the feeling, those of you who live with other people’s work. (Warren MacKenzie said that using your own pots is like talking to yourself.) I wish there was a Dwight Holland in every state; they could teach us all a lot about how looking at one pot helps us see others. Also, his graciousness is in short supply, as all graciousness seems to be these days.

Don’t confuse talk like this with nostalgia, because it is not. Nostalgia is a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for the return to, or of, some past period or irrecoverable condition. What I am talking about is felt learning that comes from handling, using, and living with thousands and thousands of pots
over a lifetime.
Not long ago I was having lunch with a visitor who suddenly looked at me and said, “Jack, I am constantly surprised by how few potters I know have any sense of the history of what we do.” He was exasperated when he said it, as if such folks were deprived of something they didn’t know they could use.

My own sense of pottery history happened twice – first in a browsing moment in the town library in West Chester, Pennsylvania in the early 60s. Chester County, in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania, whose southern border was the Mason-Dixon Line, is almost precisely the size of Randolph County, where we find ourselves today. Between 1796 and 1942, according to Arthur James’s The Potters and Potteries of Chester County, Pennsylvania, 202 potters worked at 33 different potteries.

Many of Chester County’s so-called Bluebird Potters were Quakers and abolitionists, farming in summer, potting in winter, and firing in spring, when the bluebirds returned from migration. Many of them risked flouting the Fugitive Slave Law by hiring and hiding escaping slaves, often transporting them from one potter to another in wagons piled with straw; that’s how they transported their wares.
Here is a poem about them:

The Wind in the Jug
Bluebird potters, they called you,
your kiln-smoke grafting winter onto spring.
You had the power to call birds north
with a gallon crock, rung by your knuckle,
toning the fire-birthed heat to the breeze,
that clear note drifting south
below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Your county’s hills enclose me here
the way that sleepers’ knees push up green quilts.
In this fieldstone cellar hole, open to March’s sky,
I find your stoneware jug tamped in a niche
one hundred fifty years ago.
Blue-gray clay hide defines the bulbous dark inside.
I sniff the vinegared past; tip to my ear this conch,
this echo-holder, stamped by a whorl at the handle’s base.
I read you by your thumbprint, potter.
Mahlon Brosius, John Vickers, I hear you in there.
My breath across the jug-mouth rumbles.
Sound spills from this clay chrysalis
like that of distant tumbrels, or your wagons
mounded high with straw-packed mugs and porringers.
Slaves – runaways – were the heart of your cargo.
Scheming their freedom, you trundled them north,
Quaker to Quaker, binding the law’s weak wrists
with stealthy compassion.

Within these cellar walls I’m centered,
like a man who wakes up in a bowl.
This stony jug’s the gift of time, and flesh, and fire.
Its hand-fixed form now shapes the wind
these bluebirds ride and liven with their song.
Hold back here, jug, the earth from closing down.

...you are a pottery immigrant, perhaps a refugee from an academic program, seeking to establish some sort of relationship between your work ethic, your local mortgage holder and your grocery store.

If you grew up around here in North Carolina, or have come to call this area home, you live in this country’s pottery heartland. If you are a potter living anywhere else except the southwest, where the First Nations people have maintained pottery traditions for over a thousand years, you are a pottery immigrant, perhaps a refugee from an academic program, seeking to establish some sort of relationship between your work ethic, your local mortgage holder, and your grocery store. Otherwise, you are probably living where there are no geriatric crippled-up potters in your neighborhood anxious to tell you tales from how-it-used-to-be. You yourself are making history by becoming the history that was cut off from you. When I moved to Huntingdon in 1967, I had been making pots for five years, and Huntingdon’s last potter had hung it up in 1885, 82 years before I started kicking my Randall wheel. Our best potter, Henry Glazier, ended up clerking in the courthouse; nobody knows why, and as far as we know, no picture of him survives. I located his grave, and wrote a letter to him. Reading the whole thing would have every one of you checking your e-mail, but here are two excerpts:

There are still no shortcuts; no correspondence courses for learning the craft and art of pottery. The skills we make look easy come heavily mortgaged to the Bank of Constant Practice. Converting a ball of clay into a five-gallon jug in the time it takes a skilled surgeon to remove an appendix accomplishes no less a miracle. No books can ever explain how to fire a large wood-burning kiln, and the aptitude to learn is both a hunger as well as a source of frustration pointing towards satisfaction. The same goes for making handles on jugs appear so naturally ‘right’ as to seem they had grown there because of jug-genetics rather than looking as if someone had stuck them on. Some of the world's best pots have been made by illiterates who were wonderfully articulate with clay, which has its own tactile vocabulary, its own three-dimensional syntax. Even if books had been available, they would have served no purpose. Eye, heart and hand, guided by curiosity and the capacity to learn by discovery, have always been the main assets in acquiring pottery knowledge, which, in the final analysis, may be nearly impossible to teach, but quite possible to learn.

Now I’d like to switch gears and get current. I’m going to ask you twenty questions about wood-firing that you might want to consider as we work out our personal histories. Many of us chat these things up informally at firings, pubs, or on highways motoring between kilns and conferences, trying to ignore one of our other carbon footprints. My queries rated a red light at The Log Book’s intersection of acceptability and refusal, so you won’t be reading them any time soon in that publication:
20 Wood Firing Queries
1. Were the first wood-fired object(s) that caught your attention in photographs, or did you encounter them ‘in person’? How did you respond to it, or them?
2. Was your interest about the process aroused by a firing you experienced, by an object or objects, or by some other means?
3. What experiences and events kindle your persistence and have maintained your curiosity about the practice?
4. Do you distinguish between ‘wood-fired aesthetics’ and the aesthetics of any other ceramics genre? If so, how? Why?
5. How would you characterize the development of your appreciation of wood-firing? (Were you immediately/helplessly, ‘hooked’, or did the process sneak up on you? Have you had a consistent or on-again, off-again relationship with the process?
6. When did you realize having your own kiln would be inevitable?
7. When did you realize that firing with others in a variety of kilns could be preferable or necessary to having a kiln of your own?
8. What have communal firings taught you about communal firings?
9. Have your observations of other peoples' work affected what you make, either consciously or unconsciously?
10. In the spectrum of ‘wood-fired aesthetics’ – from anagama firebox pieces with aggressively hostile surfaces, to objects that reveal little or no evidence of having come from a wood-firing – where do you see your own work? How has that changed over time, if it has?
11. To what degree has your reading affected what you make or how you fire?
12. How important is ‘efficient firing’ to your practice?
13. What are your thoughts about why wood firing is experiencing a renaissance?
14. To what degree do you pre-visualize how pieces "should" look when they come from the kiln?
15. Chance. Angelic? Demonic? How do you regard chance when you fire? (Or when you don't fire.)
16. What kind of relationship do you have with ‘variables’ – clays, glazes, wood types, kiln designs, stacking patterns, firing protocols? How curious are you about understanding and manipulating these factors?
17. Regarding the history of wood firing, would you say contemporary practitioners have made ‘progress’ or are simply accomplishing differently what was discovered hundreds of years ago?
18. As to sales, do you consider wood-fired work to constitute a niche market or is it becoming more fully integrated with other ceramic genres?
19. What have you learned in the past year that will affect your future firings?
20. What are your most persistent challenges as a wood-firer? How have you learned to accommodate to, bypass, or surpass them?


Image Captions

The author with the Editor; both guest speakers at the Waubonsee Woodfire Conference, Chicago.

Image courtesy of the Author.


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