Wood Fire: The Ancient Touch

Nov 30, 2014

I believe we all are drawn at some point in our lives or maybe all through our lives, where we feel a strong desire to make something with our hands.

For some of us, it can be as simple as building a birdhouse, knitting a scarf or baking some bread. For others, it moves beyond craft and into art and maybe even into a piece of work for the ages. For most of us, however, it is enough for the pure joy and satisfaction of the “making.”

I may have tried my hand at making things as a young boy and man but my first real moment came on a beach near Gimli Manitoba in 1972. Linda and I took a staff of twenty nine people down there for a weekend of art and craft as her suggestion for an alternative to typical “professional development” courses. It was a brilliant idea.

I got interested in the pottery course and met an amazing potter named Steve Repa. He introduced me to clay and the wheel.

I took to it…

For the next decade, pottery played a very formative role in a chaotic life. I remember thinking how interesting it was to me that the making of a vessel from clay would involve all four essential elements…earth, air, fire and water. I was fascinated by the Japanese tradition of pottery making and their ancient and modern approach to design (minimalist) cultural practice (tea ceremony) and commitment to function as well as form.

I loved that they still carried on the tradition around firing their pieces with wood firing and the history of wood fired kiln building and firing in Japan.

I had a modest little studio on our simple little hippy plot of land and I soon became determined to build my own wood fired kiln. I was inspired by potters in Saskatchewan such as Randy Woolsey who was born in Saskatchewan, but has spent most of his years studying with masters in Japan. He also built a wood fired kiln in Ruddell, Sask. (population 20)

So over thirty years ago I built a catenary arch wood fired kiln. I scrounged some hard firebrick from an old bakery in Manitoba, bought some shelving and posts from a ceramics supply house and scored a sweet wood connection with three hillbilly brothers from north of us who ran a small sawmill.

Kilns go back to 6,000 BC. Apparently some of these early kilns could get up to 900 degrees Celsius. Todays stoneware kilns need to get up to 1300 degrees Celsius.

I was not even close in 1976.

Linda and I fired that thing for twenty-four continuous hours. The flames shot twenty-five feet into the midnight sky and we were exhausted and filthy black from the smoke and soot.

But it was a thrill.

A couple of pots have survived over the years from that first wood firing …

One of the most beautiful aspects of the wood fire is the action of the smoke, the flame and the free floating wood ash as they lick and brush against the body of the pots.

The aesthetic of the wood fire product is not for the faint of heart or the search for something pretty. It is often crunchy and hard bit. But it appeals to me…and to millions of Japanese, I suppose.

When I count my blessings, one of them is the Mount Pleasant Arts Centre here in Calgary. A big reason why I left pottery by the wayside decades ago was that I just could not afford to keep relocating such a complex studio as we moved around this country. I am not sure there is another city in Canada where one can pay a monthly membership and have a full course studio with all the bells and whistles including kilns fired by electric, gas, salt and a brand new wood fired kiln.

So recently I had the opportunity to be a part of a team firing of the new wood kiln. It takes four days to fire this thing. Day One you load, Day Two you fire and stoke your assests off from early morning to mid evening, Day Three you let the kiln rest and cool down and Day Four you have Christmas in October.

Below are some shots of the firing and the continuous stoking, and the firing team with the goods after the opening:

 

Here are some of the vessels … I love (note the ash licks on the walls)
Here is a tea bowl, plate and vase that I felt worked pretty well.