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Why Wood?

On October 11th of 2006, over 400 people representing 13 different countries and 23 states across the U.S. came together for “20 + 1 Years of the Tozan Kilns, An International Wood Fire Conference” in Flagstaff, Arizona. Sponsored by Northern Arizona University (NAU), this event not only celebrated 21 years of NAU’s two Tozan Kilns, the Noborigama and Anagama, but also served as a platform for the continued dialog about the wood-firing process and ceramic art making. Through a series of panel discussions and lectures a variety of topics were discussed over the course of 4 days. During the days preceding the conference, October 3–11, all seven of the wood kilns on the NAU campus were fired. In total, there were 12 kiln firings, which consumed some 43 cords of wood. A catalog of the exhibitions and a compendium of all of the lectures at the conference will be available in March of 2007. We interviewed conference presenters about their methods and motivations. Following are the full transcripts from these interviews.

Gary Hatcher, Pine Mills, Texas
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
Firing with wood produces surfaces that are unmatched by any other form of firing. In our Bourry Box kiln, we get light wood ash that enhances the raw surfaces as well as the glaze. I have developed glazes that respond to the wood ash as well as the constant oscillation between reduction and oxidation. The fluctuation between reduction to oxidation every five or ten minutes is impossible to simulate with any other type of fuel. This is one of the main benefits wood provides other than the wood ash surfaces.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand what the wood-firing process means to your work?
I always explain the process to those interested, since I feel it is my responsibility to help educate others about ceramic art. I am happy to go into detail about the wood firing process, although most people are primarily interested in the finished piece, not the making process. It is important that a ceramic artist not get caught in the trap of thinking that some intrinsic value is added to a piece just because of the way it was fired, or because the process of making or firing was difficult. There is no magic in materials, making or firing processes. The magic is in having a really exceptional finished piece. Only the results achieved are important. I often remind my students that it is immaterial how hard they worked on a piece. If it walks like a dog and barks like a dog, you need to call it a dog. Firing in a wood kiln for a week cannot transform a dog into a diamond. Wood firing may make a good piece even better.

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
I would gas fire in reduction.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
Wood firing keeps one connected with the work through the entire process. If you are not fully engaged with the firing, the kiln will not fire, unlike gas or electric firing. With other types of firing it is too easy to forget about the kiln, answer a phone call or check your e-mail since the kiln will continue to fire without your presence.

There is also a sense of community that develops around many wood firings. Larger wood kilns require teams to fire, and the exchange that takes place between participants while firing is important and memorable. One of the unique aspects of all ceramics is the wonderful community of friends we all enjoy. This is not so much the case with many other art mediums and the community of wood firers is more connected than most.

Daphne Roehr Hatcher, Pine Mills, Texas
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
For me, from an aesthetic creative perspective, firing with wood completes the cycle of making in a more tangible and contemplative way. Just as pottery can be slip cast or ram pressed, yet I choose to form my pots by hand, putting wood into the kiln and truly experiencing and understanding the effect of each stoke gives me a great deal of knowledge and satisfaction. The physical feel of the responsive clay in my hands and the physical act of stoking the kiln is something I enjoy. It is sensual, organic, direct and elemental.

Secondly, wood is a renewable source of fuel. In our case, we planted 30,000 pine seedlings on 35 acres of our land in 1985 and while we do not always use our own wood from our plantation, I feel that we have replaced the wood we burn in our kiln in the larger scheme of things. We recently completed a large thinning for the health of the plantation, far more than we could ever have burned in our kiln, and are in the process of readying some acreage for a new planting of pine seedlings in the winter. We currently use hardwood scrap from a local lumber mill that would otherwise go to waste. If one is conscientious, there are many responsible sources of wood to burn in the kiln.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand what the wood-firing process means to your work?
I find that most people purchasing my work are interested in the process and, by that, I mean the whole process, not just the firing end of it. I am happy to explain what I do and why I do it to interested individuals because it gives them a deeper appreciation and connectedness to the work. When they take their pot home and it inhabits their life, perhaps in daily use or as a visual element of their space, they remember that it was handmade by a human being in a manner that has been utilized for centuries and I believe it gives them a sense of being part of an unbroken chain of civilization. I know that sounds grandiose, but I believe that humans crave symbolism and ritual in their lives. The pot they choose to bring into their life symbolizes something to them: a remembrance of a pleasant drive out to the pottery studio in the country, a connection to a life that contrasts with their own, a reminder of their place within humanity. Having their morning cup of tea in a handmade cup may very well be the only meditative ritual in their busy day. That is important, and on some level, people sense this.

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
Being a creative person I know that I would find a path for satisfying expression. That is who I am. I live the life of an artist, creating a gratifying life with each choice I make over the course of time. There may come a point when I am forced to make the decision to fire with a different fuel, or even to change my medium of expression altogether, but I have already made long-term choices and implemented the means I felt necessary to continue with wood firing (living in a rural setting, planting trees). I am in this for the long haul, but I am creative enough and flexible enough to change if need be.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
I have been firing our Bourry-box wood kiln with my partner, Gary Hatcher, for 23 years. I know this kiln; I know this man. What I have learned through firing with wood is complex, yet simple. With each stoke, each charge of wood into the kiln, there is a fluctuation from reduction to oxidation as the bundle of wood ignites, burns smoky and heavy, then slowly subsides into a clean hot crumble of embers. The temperature of the kiln drops initially, then inches higher than the previous charge as each stoke burns clean again. Be steady. Be patient. Listen to the kiln, watch it, pay attention. I have learned more about myself through wood firing. I have learned to be attentive, to stay the course and know that I will be rewarded if I am fully present, not just in the outcome, but on the journey, as well.


Richard Hotchkiss, Sierra College, Nevada City, California

What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
I have been firing with wood since 1968. The reason I chose to do so had nothing to do with the aesthetic of wood firing, because I had no idea what that was about at the time. Of course, over the last forty years I have learned that there are great differences in surface results and glaze variations when wood is used as the fuel.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand this, and what the wood firing process means to your work?
There are subtle aesthetic things that a wood-fired piece will bring to the table, but I do not even attempt to communicate those things to the buying public. If a customer is curious, I expound. When I exhibit a piece in a show, I announce that it is wood fired on the label, but do not bang the drum otherwise. In essence, I feel the method of firing is not important to anyone other than myself. If the piece has been kissed by the process and that increases the aesthetic value, then great. Firing with wood should not be an avenue to pretentiousness. The piece should stand by itself without reference to the methods used to produce it.

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
I would spend more time cleaning my house and working in my garden.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
All of the organization relative to the kiln and the fuel must be tight. You become the responsible charge person. All of the things that can go wrong will go wrong in wood firing if you do not cover the bases before the match is lit. Firing with wood makes you a better firing technician, because the balance between success and failure must justify the massive expenditure of energy necessary to proceed. Wet wood does not get it. Too many pieces in the kiln does not get it. Wood firing teaches you fire mechanics. Those bits of knowledge can be used to fire all other fueled kilns.

Wood firing is a lot of work, and it can become a cult situation. How many cords did you burn? What was the air temperature? What was the barometric pressure? What kind of wood do you use? For me, all that is bull****. When we look at a piece, we cannot know any of those things. It is either good or not so good. It must stand by itself. The person or the process that created it is really not an important factor. Wood creates heat; heat creates closure to the process of creating with clay.

Louis Katz, Corpus Christi, Texas
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
I don’t fire with wood. I think about people who do and why. This informs my work. Firing with wood ties us to our past. It is an often-conscious acknowledgement of our lack of control and lack of ability to visualize, and an acknowledgement that honest work has value. There is humility in submitting your work to a process that will produce variable results, an aspect of ego control.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand this, and what the wood firing process means to your work?
People rarely buy my work, but I hope that my new WoodFiredVideo will sell. Also, I am looking for a wood-fired camcorder. When wood is just a fuel, I am disinterested, but really it cannot be just a fuel. Everything impacts the meaning of work.

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
I make fake wood-fired ceramics on occasion, but I work in the genre of ceramics not necessarily the material. I am not so much interested in doing wood firing, just thinking about it and watching wood firing grow.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
Most useful would probably be that the backs of SiC [silicon carbide] kiln shelves are very good for sharpening axes. Also: What you make and what it means is hopelessly intertwined with how you make it.

Marc Lancet, Vacaville, California
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
Perhaps the most significant fact about contemporary wood firing is that artists choose it as a means of expression. 1000 years ago there was only wood firing, and no choice to be made. In the 21st century—an age when kilns are computer driven, providing almost effortless firing—artists choose to wood fire, engaging in up to a month of gathering wood and preparing before a firing that could require ’round the clock tending for seven days or more. This choice of intensive labor, which is not easy to fit into a contemporary life, has tremendous significance for fine artists.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand what the wood firing process means to your work?
For me, art is a process of profound visual communication. It is important to me that people understand the form, the surface, the visual choices, the methods and the meanings of a given work. If I have done my work well, this will take some time of living with the work. While it is important to understand the visual role that wood firing plays in my work, it’s not more or less important than other aspects of the work.

Art is a required nutrient for human existence. Like vitamin C. Do without it and you get scurvy. Without art, the human spirit withers, becoming smaller, feeling less, seeing less, experiencing less. Without art, the human spirit fails to achieve its potential. As with many maladies stemming from nutrition deficiencies the effects are subtle, slow, incremental, and difficult to notice as the human spirit diminishes. Fortunately art and artists abound and the cure is everywhere. Have you had your recommended daily dosage of inspiration?”

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
This is a significant question for many reasons. Not the least of which is that many of the countries where wood firing originated, for very different reasons, no longer have easy access to wood. Wood firing does not prevent me from exploring other means of expression, including other ceramic techniques. It has raised the bar substantially on what I seek in my work. I continue to work at Cone 10 in reduction, mixed media, bronze casting and welded steel. The lessons from wood firing permeate all my work.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
I just completed co-authoring Japanese Wood-Fired Ceramics. It is a 320-page answer to this question. I think I am most surprised by how much I am learning about collaborating and cooperating with others, and how much I am enjoying that.

Kirk Mangus, Kent, Ohio
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
I was in a foreign country, shoveling clay with a friend, preparing to make and fire some things. A rich and famous artist, who also wood fires, came to visit. “Why do you work so hard?” he asked, “Are you crazy?”

Wood firing is relatively inexpensive and it works with all ways of firing; high or low, oxidation or reduction, fast or slow. It is good exercise. It offers a sense of commitment and self-worth. An artist does not have to be a slave to the rest of the world in order to make work. Neither Euphronios nor George Ohr had the tools we have in the 21st century. They did, however, have a solid understanding of their materials and considered nature with respect and intelligence; not with callous expectations.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand what the wood firing process means to your work?
I think people who buy ceramics really understand the desire to create, they are just confused. They have, like any person, a prejudice about beauty, work, labor, intensity, and our nature to share.

I deal with one of the oldest technologies and art forms. My competition is thousands of years old. Much of human civilization, it’s beauty, misery, and cultural directions are directly related to someone making a pot, pipe, or a brick around a wood fire.

Stephen Mickey, Brush Prairie, Washington
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
Using wood as a kiln fuel ties us to the great traditions of pottery making that are centuries old. It is not unlike inheriting a religious tradition and a way of doing. I need a community to finish my work and I like that interdependence.

Besides creating very beautiful and exciting pots through the use of wood , the firings continue to be a learning experience. There never appears to be a final answer or one right way to do things. I think it also of value to realize that, for thousands of years, potters fired with wood and reached these astoundingly high temperatures long before those of us in the West ever had a clue. Firing with wood has taught me to proceed with patience and keep good records. Knowledge from ones own firings accumulates slowly.

Thirdly, I love the excitement and the gamble of firing with wood. There are always pots that are far more lovely than I could have imagined and I try to build my work on those results.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand what the wood firing process means to your work?
Yes it is. When I had my first exhibition in my studio for regular clients, I sent a newsletter to them describing the nature of the wood fire and what I was looking for. My regulars streamed in, swept through the pots armed with their new knowledge, and bought far more of those pots than my gas-fired pots. Probably the coolest experience I had was with my kiln welder Hank who had never been around pots. He and his wife Jean came early to get repaid in pots for the welding. They immediately had a kinship to the wood fired pieces that really surprised me. For years, they continued to always be the first ones at the event and always seemed to know which were the best pots.

I think it is important to educate our public about what we do and why. When they understand the one-sided nature of the firing event, they begin to look for subtleties in the pots that they will not find in the gas-fired work. It also helps that they know how labor intensive firing with wood is and how that affects the prices.

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
I would fire with soda in a cross-draft kiln to continue to have the one-sided effect of a flame sweeping through a kiln, leaving its trace of memory.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
Patience. I have learned that you can’t push the river.

We fire my kiln at home for brightness and color. We are pretty much looking for a through melt of the ash on the ware and we use a lot of porcelain. Our best firings seem to happen when we use a lot of fruit wood the first 24 hours and lay down that base of ash. We finish off with Fir and don’t do any stirring or fluffing for the last 12 hours. We will continue to rod the ash pile to allow air to consume the coals.

Steven Schaeffer Ceramics Faculty Northern Arizona University
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
I think in this age of digital information and technology it is important that ceramics artists keep producing work that, in theory, cannot be reproduced. Mass culture has assimilated to Pier 1 and Target for their dinnerware and collectables. More educated audiences can appreciate the beauty and importance of wood-fired ceramics. This does not mean uneducated people cannot embrace the qualities of wood-fired ceramics; they simply have not been exposed to the value of its rich tradition and process.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand what the wood firing process means to your work?
I want every viewer of my work to get some understanding of my concepts and ideas. Yet I feel it is important that art lies somewhat open ended to the viewer. I do not wish to give all the answers away within the work. I want the viewer to draw some of his or her own conclusion about the work.

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
Ceramics has so many possibilities; I would never feel as though my work is pigeon-holed into one method of firing. I believe there is always another answer for the surfaces I want for my work. Until then, I’ll keep stoking.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
Wood firing has taught me more about myself as an individual than any other ceramic process. It involves tremendous determination and self will. It also requires the ability to let go of your work and surrender it to the kiln. Often high percentages of work are lost in the firing. But the ones we receive in gratitude are irreplaceable.

David Smith, Stoughton, Wisconsin
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
I have reached a point in my life where I understand the value of decades of experience and practice in my chosen discipline. The art of wood firing has offered me opportunities to travel and work with some incredible people. It has been an experience of total immersion in which I have found tremendous personal satisfaction.

The feel and function of our tools are closely knit to our experience and they are ultimately reflected in the end result of the process. Strength, endurance, focus and experience are required of the individual who wishes to produce something of merit. The collaborative and coordinated effort of a team, however large or small, is essential to the attainment of a common goal. At the same time, we must be willing and able to respond intuitively as conditions change and take their natural course. Spontaneity, cooperation and humility are great virtues to apply when contending with the forces of nature.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand what the wood firing process means to your work?
Not really, aside from the interest that some people express in knowing more about the process. In a society of right click and left click, I find that many people are in awe of the fact that someone tends the kiln around the clock for seven days, or that I’m willing to expend so much physical and mental energy in creating and interesting surface on clay. As long as the image is strong, I don’t think it’s that important to many serious collectors.

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
I would experiment with saggar firing at stoneware and earthenware temperatures. I would also experiment with multiple firings at various temperatures using a range of slips and glazes.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
Patience and discipline, for starters. When wood firing, the balance and interplay between the form and its surface is a challenge. I have progressed from using wood firing as a means to produce a subtle patina to a point where the natural ash glaze plays a much more important role in the final image.

I have provided a few examples of my work, The Fundamental Series, which are figurative pieces that reflect the tenuous balance between humans and the environment.

Tara Wilson, Fairhaven, Massachusetts
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
For me, the value lies in the process, and the interaction with the pots as they are transformed. I also think the wide variety of surfaces that can be achieved by this process, from very subtle flashing to extremely dramatic runny juiciness, make it valuable.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand what the wood-firing process means to your work?
Not necessarily. If they like the work and feel some connection with it, that’s really all that matters. But it’s great when they do understand.

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
I hope that I’ll always be able to fire with wood, but I think soda firing would be my second choice.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
Communication skills: How to ask for help.

Eva Kwong, Kent, Ohio
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
Wood-firing teaches us the basics about the transformation of clay materials when it is subjected to heat, time and atmosphere. It is direct and easy to follow. The interactions between when you throw a piece of wood in to what happens in the kiln is right in front of your eyes. It does what just a book does not do, it makes the firing process real to us. It will always be valuable as a teaching tool. It explains the whole firing process so we can understand what happens in electric kilns, gas kilns and propane kilns, etc.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand what the wood firing process means to your work?
I believe the first responses to any artwork is intuitive and visceral. People will respond to the sense of the fire whether they are consciously aware of this or not. But the more anyone knows about a subject, the deeper appreciation they may have.

I am attracted to wood-firing because of what I termed “the Radiant Blush.” The sun is the source of heat and light for all organic life. We respond to the direction and intensity of the sun in our daily lives. We can feel the radiant warmth of the sun upon our skin. When we pick up an apple or other fruits or vegetable, we can see by the fruit blush which side of the apple faced the sun and which side faced away from the sun. This fruit blush registers the impression of heat and light from the sun upon the surface of the fruit. It documents the direction the fruit was growing in relationship to the sun.

Wood-firing does the same thing. It gives my work a sense of direction of where the heat was. The wood ash and flame patterns are burnt onto the surfaces of our pots and sculptures during the firing process. When we view these pieces later at home or at a show, the sense of the fire becomes vivid again. We respond to this Radiant Blush of the Flame. We can feel the sense of the radiant heat by the color changes, melted ash, flame and wadding marks on the surfaces. It shows us the direction of the firebox. It is like looking at our tanning spots after a day in the sun at the beach. It is this sense of our encoded memory of the “Radiance Blush” that draws us back again and again to the source.

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
I fire in salt, gas, electric and raku also. Wood firing is only part of what I do. It has helped me understand how to use the firing process to enhance my work using these other processes.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
Wood-firing has taught me how the clays and glazes respond to heat, flame, soaking time, oxidation and reduction. It taught me how the materials change at different segments of the firing, how and when ash is deposited and when they melt or not melt. It is a more dramatic exposition than the other firings. I would include wood-firing in a beginning class if possible. It would help the students understand the whole firing process. They would then be able to use the other kinds of firing with greater understanding.

Ben Richardson, Tasmania, Australia
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
The value of wood firing today is that it offers ceramic surfaces that present an alternative to the uniform surfaces of globalized designer ceramics. It affords a chance to create surfaces and textures that suggest the range of variegated surfaces in nature in an increasingly artificial world. As a teacher as well as a maker, I appreciate that it offers the chance for students to benefit from collective creative activity rather than isolated individual creative effort.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand this, and what the wood-firing process means to your work?
By understanding the story that surrounds wood-fired work, people who purchase my work have a connection through place and process to my way of thinking and making. It is through this understanding that we achieve the differentiation of individual making (and the unique results achieved by wood firing) from the production of industrial designer ceramics

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
I do fire with gas as well but often when I am not wood firing I am left longing the mark of the flame, as wood provides not merely a fuel source but also a surface fluxer that affects both clay and glaze. I use wood firing as an exploration tool as I search to discover the potential of local clays and glazes made using simple combinations of indigeneous raw materials. If wood firing was no longer available, my range of exploration would be more limited but still satisfying.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
Probably the most important thing that wood firing has helped me to develop is a deeper aesthetic insight and judgement. The necessity of deciding whether the process generated effects of ash deposit, stacking marks and vapor marking have worked on my forms, has been a vital and important part of my making development.

Dan Murphy, Logan, Utah
What is the value of firing with wood in this day and age?
The contemporary ceramic artist has a wide range of firing processes and techniques: electricity, oil, gas, and almost anything that will combust, including wood. Working today, as a ceramic artist is wonderful, I can choose any of these firing processes or combinations thereof, but I choose to fire my pieces in wood burning kilns because I find endless possibilities...and huge challenges. After firing wood burning kilns for twenty years I feel that I am just beginning to understand how much I still have to learn about this process. The value is an internal desire to investigate; I am inspired to continue to learn.

Is it important to you that people purchasing your work understand what the wood-firing process means to your work?
I’m not necessarily concerned with people understanding all of the details about wood firing. However I am concerned with people understanding clarity of intent, whether or not the piece is successful because the surface and form are unified or work together. The same goes for any atmospheric firing process.

If you could no longer fire with wood, what would you do in order to continue creating satisfying work?
I fire my work in many different processes and work to maintain independence in each firing process, if I couldn’t fire with wood I would work in one of the other areas which allow me to express my creative process.

What is the most useful thing you have learned through wood firing, in contrast to other methods of firing?
That after nearly 21 years of firing I am just now beginning to understand the endless possibilities of wood firing and how I can apply firing a wood kiln to my ceramics. Teamwork. I have learned a way of questioning and critical thinking because of my professors, teachers, peers and students. Wood firing is a community effort!

 
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