A Look At Pit Firing

Michael Wein

“Contemporary methods employed for pit firing can fall into two categories:” Dawn Whitehand writes in her book, Pit Firing: Modern Methods, Ancient Traditions, “those used by the traditional potters of India, Pakistan, South America and North America, who continue to use this technique to fire their unglazed functional wares, and those used by ceramicists, who use the technique for the artistic outcomes they are able to achieve on their artworks.”

She opens with a look at historic practices, offering excellent diagrams of various types of early pit firings as well as her understanding of them. Her focus, however, as her title makes clear, is on studio potters working today and the very diverse work they produce.

We see the Canadian potter Maeva Collins’ brick-lined cement block pit that she uses to fire her highly burnished covered jars and bottles. Her fuel consists of wood shavings, sawdust, and kindling wood (Collins also works in high temperatures with a wood-fired kiln).  For special effects, she tosses dog biscuits, pine needles, whatever comes to hand, into the pit with her wares.

US potter Hilary Chan makes rock forms that fit in your hand, each with a “unique serial number,” and fires in a small open pit. She asks, “If the colorful fuming patterns on the surfaces of the rocks are to a very large extent the accidental/incidental contribution of the fire, can I still claim ‘intellectual property’ rights to these resulting imageries? Indeed, how much of them is the result of my work, and how much is that of the natural forces that I have collaborated with?”

Nearly all the artists showcased in Pit Firing Ceramics burnish their work and bisque in an electric kiln. Many favor a post-firing treatment with paste wax. None of their pieces are functional, though many are functional in form. Jars, bottles and vases predominate. There are also sculptural pieces, pillows, figures and constructions. Whitehand herself is a sculptor.

The book is informative and fun and introduced me to the work of potters with whom I was not familiar. If I were to make a complaint, it would be that some of the profiles are written in the third person and some in the first. But then I see the same “crime” on websites and even in our own Artists Open Studios brochure here in northeastern Connecticut, so perhaps this offence won’t bother anyone else.

Note: Pot illustrated is by Australian potter Michael Wein.

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