On making, building, firing and understanding
The 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 own control.
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.
Ben Brierley October 2005.