A Passion for Wood Fire

The potters that Amedeo Salamoni features in his new book Wood-Fired Ceramics: 100 Contemporary Artists work in a variety of ways but all share a deep commitment to firing with wood. They are passionate about both the process and the results. Except for two, they all work at high temperatures, many to Cone 13 or 14.

The two notable lower temperature exceptions are Doug Fitch, the Devon slipware potter known for his medieval inspired jugs and jars, and Joy Brown who makes large, pillowy sculptures of people that she fires in her thirty-foot long anagama in the Litchfield hills of Connecticut. Fitch’s pots, made from clay he digs himself, are sprigged and glazed and reflect the warmth of the flames. Brown’s sculptures are made of Georgia clay and are unglazed. You can see the kiss of the fire on the surface.

Salalmoni includes more functional potters than sculptors though many work in both realms. Each artist is given two pages, occasionally more, for an artist’s statement, photographs of individual works, and at least one kiln shot. This is a great way to get an overview of the field. The photographs are very good. Because each artist has written his or her own statement, most are in the first person but a few are in the third, and one, startlingly switches between persons. Oh unpredictable artists!

Reading through the book, we visit Simon Leven who in addition to making his own sturdy pots for the kitchen and table, has taken on the responsibility of creating a map of wood kilns throughout the world. You can see it at www.simonlevin.com/worldmap. We also encounter legendary wood-fire potters Jack Troy, John Leach and Fred Olsen. We meet Linda Christianson, Randy Johnston, Eva Kwong, Ginny Marsh, Alex Matisse, Jeff Shapiro and Joy Tanner. There are highly refined works, lightly salted or glazed. There are pots that are heavily encrusted with ash and the marks of shells. Many have a love affair with heavy reduction.

I smiled reading that ten years ago Ron Meyers built his first wood kiln at the age of seventy. His fires last sixty hours “with a reduction cooling segment that adds another six or seven hours.”

With room for only 100 artists, one immediately notices who is absent – all those represented by Goldmark for instance, such as Phil Rogers and Ken Matsuzaki and Nic Collins  – but that is the nature of a book like this. Karen Karnes is absent. Todd Piker is missing. Perhaps a second volume will be in the offing.

Though not at all an instructional book, there is an appendix with illustrations of 14 kilns, and another with firing logs. There is also a good short bibliography and some clay, glaze and slip recipes.

This is the kind of book that even though reading it will take you out of the studio for a day, and even if you never plan to fire with wood, you will come away inspired. I know I did.

My Guy Wolff Book At Last

There are a half dozen books on my reading pile that I want to tell you about, but, exciting news, at least for me, my new book, Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden is shipping to bookstores now and should start arriving next week. It is, at last, an object that you can touch, pick up and turn the pages and yes, read. And it is beautiful! Between Guy’s wonderful pots and Joe Szalay’s stunning photography, and the excellent design work at UPNE, it is something to behold.

A book lives in one’s head for a very long time, and then there are editors and designers and indexers and sales people, and it is no longer your own, but still, it is not real and for the most part, it remains in your head, and on your computer screen and the screens of your publishers. Until, one day it is printed and bound and becomes real. For Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden, that day has come.

Guy is very well known in horticultural circles where his pots are highly prized. He’s a fast thrower, moving, literally, tons of clay a year. His pots are visually strong, robustly thrown, and connect with people on subconscious and emotional levels. In this biography, I have tried to capture him on the page, using his own words as much as possible. I was fortunate in being able to interview a number of people who shared their Guy Wolff stories – Hannah McAndrew, Todd Piker, Gordon Titcomb, Peter Wakefield Jackson and others, (and thank them immensely). The book is a look at Guy’s life in clay, how he came to be the potter he is, his ideas on the making of a good pot, and the pots and potters, especially the old time potters, that influenced him.

Joe photographed many of Guy’s pots and some of the early pots that he has collected and reveres (they reside in the loft over his workshop). He also brings us into Guy’s shop where we see the pots on his shelves, the tools on his walls, watch him throw, and glimpse his wife Erica’s gardens which feature some of Guy’s very large pots.

I think if you are a potter (and who but potters reads this blog), you will find Guy’s story interesting. If you are a gardener and own or covet his pots, you will enjoy knowing more about the man who made them. There is considerable flowerpot history in the book too, as Guy is an expert on early English and American pottery. I am hoping that even beyond our world of mud and plants, people will find his life by the hand, with its ups and downs, his work for Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs, Joe Eck and others, intriguing.

Joe and I will be visiting a number of bookstores to autograph copies. Guy will be at a few special events. A list is on the Event page of my website.

Meanwhile, I have a making list that is long, so I will be in the studio, and the gardens need attention, but I will get to that stack of books that I want to share. My next book project, also with Joe, is on Sunken Gardens, and after that, a biography of a specific pot and the very different ways it has been perceived by various cultures through the years.

Simon Leach on Making Pots

No matter how long you have been potting, you can always learn something new. That’s the nature of a craft that is so ancient. For this reason, I always look at how-to books, even very basic ones. And being an admirer of his work, I have especially been looking forward to Simon Leach’s book, written with Bruce Dehnert, Simon Leach’s Pottery Handbook.

Leach is the grandson of Bernard Leach and the son of David Leach. He fooled around in his dad’s pottery as a kid, but left to become an engineering apprentice at a helicopter factory. He loved making balsawood model planes and thought aircraft was the thing for him. To his dismay, it was painfully boring, and when the opportunity arose, he left to travel. Out of money, he went to work for his father for “six months” and discovered that indeed, pottery was for him. Six months stretched into years. When his father asked him if he would like to run the pottery, he decided to go out on his own. He has subsequently had potteries in England, Spain and now the US.

Leach has produced more than 800 YouTube videos on making pots and has an extensive following. The book comes with two DVD’s and has pages and pages of thorough illustrations. This is primarily a handbook of throwing. He does talk about glazes and firing but not about handbuilding. The premise is, that with the book and the DVD’s you can learn to throw on your own. I think you could.

What I personally learned from the book is an interesting way to use wood ashes. Yes, ashes again. He burns them in a metal lid, sifts them and mixes them with water to make a thin liquid, which he runs through an 80-mesh sieve. Then, depending upon the temperature he is firing to, he adds Gerstley Borate or Feldspar. He sprays the mixture onto the exterior of a bisque pot with an atomizer. There is a delightful photo of Leach blowing through the mouthpiece of his atomizer. The results are very beautiful.

I sometimes sprinkle ashes onto my damp pots (I single fire). Or I give a bone-dry pot a light wash of Gerstley Borate and Yellow Ochre and then sift ashes onto the surface. But I like the look Leach is achieving with his method: it is more organic and speaks of wood and flames.

The book has a spiral binding, which is not my favorite type of binding because the pages can rip out. But if you are using to book to learn to throw, with the spiral binding, you can open the book and lay it flat so that you can easily see two pages at once.  You could open it to the chapter you are working on, and glance at it as you work.

The DVD’s contain short videos to accompany the chapters. Leach explains what his hands are doing. You know he is having fun, because now and then he starts to hum or whistle! His motto, on the videos and throughout the book, is “Keep On Practicing.” A good motto for all of us!

Krevolin Collection

Disclosure: About six years ago Lewis Krevolin phoned and asked if he could come and talk to me about writing an essay for an exhibit of his collection of pre-contact pottery. Intrigued, I said yes, and he and his wife Jenny drove down to Connecticut from upper New York State and over tea and coffee, we discussed the project. I was immediately fascinated with Krevolin and his collection and of course I agreed to write the piece. After I accepted the assignment, he sent me notes and images of his amazing collection.

Krevolin, not exactly a household name, has had an amazing career in the arts. He attended Alfred University where he studied ceramics, art history and design. He worked as an industrial designer for several illustrious firms, eventually creating his own line of dinnerware. In 1965 he began teaching at Dutchess Community College where he remained a popular member of the art faculty for twenty-five years, teaching ceramics and design. Two years after beginning his teaching career, he published Ceramics, which he wrote with Elizabeth Constantine. In the late eighties, he founded Archatrive to make “Deconstructionist Furniture and Decoration” by repurposing artifacts. Recently, Krevolin exhibited his quilts made of old tobacco cloths at the Montgomery Row gallery in Rhinebeck.

Throughout this illustrious career in the vernacular arts, Krevolin has had a deep interest in pre-contact pottery and amassed an extraordinary collection of these beautiful pots. He is particularly interested in how each pot was made and has spent considerable time coming to understand the forming and firing techniques for each piece in his collection. He worked with National Geographic and later showed his pots at the Museum of the American Indian. By the time he came to see me, he had given his pre-contact pots to the Schein Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University.

I wrote my piece, which Krevolin said he liked. Susan Peterson was also to write an essay, but sadly, she passed away. Ezra Shales then wrote a piece and Krevolin of course, wrote much about the pots. I was generously paid but the project seemed to falter. The museum closed to undergo renovations, delayed the exhibit, and seemingly, was not eager to publish the book. I made multiple phone calls to determine the status (books are not just about the money, they are about readers) and then I stopped thinking about it. Too bad for Krevolin, whom I had come to admire, and his collection, which I considered important, and too bad for me, but publishing, especially museum publishing, is a fickle world.

So imagine my astonishment when googling something else entirely, I came upon Out of Clay: The Krevolin Collection of Pre-Contact Pottery: A Study Guide published by the Schein Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art Alfred University! I immediately ordered a copy from the Museum and I must say, it is lovely.

The book: There are over 200 photos of the pots (not the entire collection), with descriptions, dates, the name of the culture that produced each piece, the location (provenance), and what Krevolin determined about the manufacturing process (such as oxidizing fire, burnished, coiled, molded, etc.). A vast array of cultures is included: Mississippian, Chavin, Inca, Chancay and more.

The book is divided into two illustrative sections, Form and Function and Surface and Narrative and within those there are subsections such as Spouts and Handle; Bottles; Building Tooling and Stamping; and Painted Decoration. You can spend hours with this book (I did and will again). It is meant to help the viewer, especially a student of ceramics or a visitor to the collection, to fully understand the pots.

Krevolin writes of pre-contact pots made in the Western Hemisphere, “…I argue that calling the craft of low-fired unglazed pottery primitive is a form of western elitism that discounts the completely controlled first step in the evolution of the story of ceramics technology. We do not call Etruscan or Greek pottery primitive…why can’t we compare a Mayan painted clay cylinder with painted Etruscan or Greek wares and recognize that they both were made within the same primary technology?”

Out of Clay is a deep appreciation of pre-contact pots. It is a statement of Krevolin’s strong belief in their high place in the ceramic canon. It is not about history or culture nor is it a theoretical critique. It is a book of intense focus, simply and boldly about the pots; a celebration of their good design and manufacture. Krevolin loves and admires these pots. He wants us to come to the same appreciation. That is his mission. With Out of Clay he has succeeded.

Ken Matsuzaki on Film and Paper

I was not going to write about another of the books from the Goldmark Gallery in England for a few weeks, but the three catalogs and two DVD’s on Ken Matsuzaki are irresistible. Elemental, the DVD produced in 2009 is one of the best ceramic DVD’s I have seen. It includes the title video, nearly three quarters of an hour long, two shorter videos, Best in Show and Wooden Boxes, plus two slide shows one of pots from 2007, the other 2009.

Elemental opens with the sound of Matsuzaki and friends on traditional drums while we see fiery images of his anagama kiln (which was later destroyed in the March 2011 earthquake). Phil Rogers, one of the few potters Matsuzaki will allow to participate in a firing, comments on the process from beginning to end. We see Matsuzaki, his head wrapped in wet white towels, a welder’s mask across his face, and silvery fireproof arm guards as he shovels charcoal into the firemouth. When the shovel becomes red hot  he plunges it into a bucket of water to cool. Flames shoot out of the blowholes. The pots glow inside. The firing takes seven days, and consumes thousands of bundles of pine and chestnut wood, plus thirty to fifty bags of charcoal.

After a week’s wait, the kiln is opened and we see Matsuzaki as he unloads one astonishing pot after another. He is pleased. As is Rogers, who exclaims more than once over the fact that every pot has come through the rigors of the fire. There are no cracks or fissures. Rogers holds up various pieces, turns them over, and tells us how the kiln has affected each of them. Elemental closes with the well-attended opening at the Goldmark Gallery.

Goldmark has produced three beautiful monographs, Ken Matsuzaki with an essay by David Whiting in 2007, Ken Matsuzaki with an essay by Sebastian Blackie in 2009 which the Elemental DVD accompanies, and the most recent from 2011 with an essay by Phil Rogers. Miraculously, the pots for the last exhibit and book were already out of Japan when the earthquake struck and destroyed everything. Each of the monographs is well illustrated with high quality photos. A second DVD, which accompanies the third monograph, has a video of Matsuzaki throwing teabowls plus a slide show.

Matsuzaki glazes his pots with shinos, Oribe greens, and the natural ash glazes that cover his pots during the long firing process. His pots are meant both to behold — he places beauty above all other considerations — and if you choose, to use.

The good news is that Matsuzaki has rebuilt his kiln. This past spring, the Pucker Gallery in Boston showed his new work in an exhibit, Rising from the Ashes. I see too from his blog, Euan the Potter, that Euan Craig whose kiln was also destroyed in the earthquake is back in business. So ever so slowly, potters in Japan are recovering.

Nic Collins by Doug Fitch

You know how impressed I am with the work that Goldmark is doing with Modern Pots – an exhibition web presence unparalleled by any gallery either side of the Atlantic, excellent choice of potters, beautifully produced monographs in print and online, and well-produced biographical DVD’s. You also know, I am trying to finish up my own book and should not stray one moment from the task at hand. But the mail carrier left a note in the mailbox for me, telling me to come down and pick up a parcel and curious, I hopped in the truck and discovered that a wonderful package of books and dvd’s awaited me from Mike Goldmark.

Of course, disciplined person that I am, I put them away until my manuscript is turned in, or at least the Roman numeral problem is fixed.

Don’t be ridiculous! Of course, I greedily pulled out one monograph after another, popped a DVD into my computer, tried to take it all in at once. First observation: I hope UPNE does as good a production job on the Guy Wolff book as Goldmark does on their books. Observation number two: I hope we are doing as good a job. Joe is without a doubt. His photos are great. And our book is far more text. I hope as good.

So, though I stayed up wait too late, poring through everything, I am going to, not all in sequence, but now and then so I can go back to them, take the collection one book at a time. We will start with the Nic Collins catalog, with an essay by slipware potter Doug Fitch. Matching them is itself a bit of brilliance, because Nic is a serious, high-fire, take- huge-risks wood-fire stoneware man. Doug, who both wood fires and electric fires, works in the slipware tradition at far lower temperatures. Except that they are both good throwers, and can throw pretty big, and they are each a master of the jug form, there is no similarity in their work.

Nic Collins makes jugs, vases, bottles, bowls, platters, and covered and uncovered jars. Subjected to long periods of intense heat, ash and flames, they emerge requiring hours of contemplation to see all the colors, all the effects of the fire. They bear the scars of the seashells he uses to keep them from sticking. They are crusty. They are luminous both. You need to get to know these pots. The more you look, the more you see. You want to touch, to hold, to gaze.

Appropriately, Fitch tells us that Collis and his partner Sabine have built a cob workshop for themselves. Is that not perfect?

The photographs include images of Nic Collins, the enormous kiln he has made, and the pots, both in formal, gallery style shots and in situ in the rural landscape surrounding the studio. In the accompanying DVD, Collins talks about his work and his evolution as a potter. We see him at the wheel and firing his kiln. This is truly—I hesitate to use such a word – a splendid package.

The Workshop Guide to Ceramics

The Workshop Guide to Ceramics by Duncan Hoosan and Anthony Quinn is clearly meant for the textbook market. I can foresee it adopted in colleges and high schools throughout the country, with assignments handed out chapter by chapter. It’s thoughtfully organized with lots of information. The how-to photos are clear and explicit.  It’s full of useful information that every potter needs, much of it up to date and modern.

You can learn numerous methods of printing on clay. There’s a fun sidebar called “Firings as Theater” (hush my pyromaniac heart). And for those interested, there’s a section on “computer-aided design, modeling and manufacturing” and yes, “Rhino, explained as a widely used NURBS” which is also explained – “non-uniform rational B-spline modeling program.” Whew!

The authors are highly qualified. Hooson “is a practicing ceramicist and a teacher of ceramic art in schools, hospitals, and on community projects throughout London.” Quinn “operates a successful London design consultancy with a varied client base that includes Wedgewood, Leeds Pottery, and British Airways.” Hmm, British Airways. He also teaches ceramic design on the college level and has written prior books.

In the end, though, the The Workshop Guide to Ceramics left me feeling a bit empty, hungry even, because there is almost no mention of ceramic history, and the pieces shown, are, for the most part not very potterly. This of course, says more about me than the book – I am an admitted history nut — so I don’t feel quite right criticizing. Instead, I will suggest to anyone using this book, especially as a text, that it be supplemented with other books and articles or kept on the shelf as one of several reference books. It’s good but can’t stand alone.

The Craft and Art of Clay

In 2009, when the legendary ceramic artist, educator, champion of the pottery of Native American potters, and writer Susan Peterson died, she and her daughter Jan Peterson were revising and updating her classic text The Craft and Art of Clay. After her death, Jan Peterson continued on alone, and now we have the results, the almost encyclopedic fifth edition. As with previous editions, this one will surely be widely adopted as a textbook in ceramic programs throughout the country.

Susan loved the technology of ceramics; all the possibilities; all the things to know; all the things to try, and, as in the previous editions, it shows in the choice of works illustrated. There is a nice history timeline, but if you are looking for lots of images of domestic ware, this is not the book for you. The images here are largely of sculptural work, or non-functional vessels. She is fascinated with innovation though in other books, she describes deep tradition as in her books on Maria Martinez and Shoji Hamada.

What she, and now her daughter, write about, is how to mix glaze tests, throw a bowl, build a wall of clay, create a giant sculpture, use decals, make flameware, construct a mold, stack a kiln, decorate with texture and more. There are few glaze recipes but a new section on shino glazes is included, plus data about glaze materials, including photos. Her extensive charts and compendiums are worth the price of the book.

In the preface, Jan Peterson writes about her mom but –personal lament — not enough.  Reading the book, I wanted more evidence of her mother. In the earlier editions, the senior Peterson perhaps thought it untoward to include much about herself, but here her daughter and descendant potter had the opportunity to add a bit more ceramic biography of her famous mom had she chosen. Give me some story. Show me her pots.

In sections like Susan’s short essay on Toshiko Tokaezu, which is very beautiful, it would have been nice to make it clear that at the time of writing, both artists were in their late years. Poignantly she tells us that Tokaezu was, “Still working and exhibiting in her eighties.”

This is a reference book first and foremost. You can take it off your shelf and look things up. There is a wonderfully extensive bibliography and a separate poster of 50/50 blends of glaze materials at cone 10 reduction and cone 5 oxidation that you can hang on your studio wall. My complaints are small, and honestly, irrelevant if what you want is a good reference book. This is it. It belongs in the library of anyone serious about working with clay.

The Chinese Scholar and Oyster Jars and Such

He sits alone in the wilderness, surrounded by rock outcroppings and bushes. He is dressed in a loose fitting robe. He is the Chinese Scholar, widely depicted by English potters on blue and white tin-glazed earthenware during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. He was inspired by images on expensive porcelain imported from China and Japan and transformed into something quite different.

The new edition of Ceramics in America edited by Robert Hunter, opens with a wonderful essay by Sarah Fayan Scarlett on the Chinese Scholar pattern, tracing the various cultural filters that affected this interpretation of life in distant China before the image reached England and became a staple exotic of the ceramic export business to the Americas. She suggests that the original Chinese Scholar may have been the eighth century poet Wang Wei “whose most famous verse reads, ‘ I walk to the place where the water ends/ and sit and watch the time when clouds rise.’” I love reading this kind of ceramic history. Knowing these stories adds so much to the experience of looking at one of these antique dishes.

Another wonderful essay, this one by Ivor Noël Hume describes the detective work he and others did to discover the makers and use for a strange, brown stoneware jar found in the mud surrounding an old Dutch fort in Guyana. It turns out the mystery jar was for storing pickled oysters and made in the first years of the nineteenth century by a black potter who was a freeman in New York city for an oyster dealer, also a black freeman in New York City. As he did his research, he came upon other examples of these straight-sided, salt-glazed “cap-hole” jars for the same enterprise. So in a few short, well illustrated pages, we have African American history, early American history, a look at international trade, a mystery, and best of all, a little known ceramic form.

There’s a wonderful section on “The Stoneware Years of the Thompson Potters of Morgantown, West Virginia, 1854-1890.” The photos of the Thompson ribs, coggles, stamps and master stamp molds are worth the price of the book. We read about a “Whately Teapot in the Western Catskills,” “A Seventeenth Century West Virginia Indian Basket Rendered in Clay,” “Planting Pots from Gore Place, Waltham, Massachusetts,” and an “Unusual Drabware Strainer.”

Included with this collection of essays about archaeological and historical research on ceramics in America, is a major essay by critic Garth Clark on Ai Weiwie. Call me provincial, but I am not agog over Weiwei’s art. I actually thought the Sunflower Seeds installation was a fiasco when the 100 million porcelain seeds began exploding oxide dust.  However, he is internationally revered as a visionary, a human rights activist, an architect, a competitive cook, a hairdresser, and a great artist. His blog rants were published in April to great acclaim. So I was glad to read the assessment of so well informed a critic as Garth Clark who is also known for championing risk in ceramics. Clark’s title sums it up: “Mind Mud: Ai Weiwei’s Conceptual Ceramics”. I did come to a better understanding and appreciation of Weiwei, though I am still not agog. Informed, cautiously appreciative, but no, not agog.

The Chipstone Foundation, which publishes Ceramics in America, considers it a journal. I suppose it is, as it comes out annually. But it is deservedly dressed as an art book. This year’s edition is hardcover with a dust jacket and a bound-in satin ribbon to mark your place. Lovely. Put it on your wish list. It would look oh so nice wrapped in tissue and tied with a satin bow, coordinated, of course, with the ribbon in the book.

The Kiln Book Revisited

It’s not an eBook yet. There isn’t a fancy edition for the iPad. But the brand new fourth edition of Frederick Olsen’s The Kiln Book is very fancy compared with the first hippie-homespun edition released in 1973. It’s been a decade since he last published a revision, so this new one is welcome indeed.

I still have my seventies copy, slightly tattered, read I don’t know how many times. My younger self believed that if I studied the sections on gas often enough, it would all become clear. In fact, my first burners were homemade from pipe iron. But even today, all these decades of firing with gas later, I do not retain a fraction of what Olsen knows and explains so patiently.

But it was the Tambo kiln and Bizen kiln and Kyoto kiln that most fascinated me in the early version, and I would pore over the drawings and not so sharp black and white photos (the book was emphatically not printed on glossy paper) for hours. Sometimes my heart literally raced looking at all the kilns, the updrafts, the downdrafts, the crossdrafts. I still like to look at kilns.

The new edition, like its more immediate predecessors, has a vertical aspect and coated paper. It is filled with Olsen’s famous charts of information and kiln drawings and color photos of various kilns around the world. Also fun, are the short pieces on his mentors, and glimpses of Olsen himself, as a young man in Japan, an older man in Japan, with other potters, under the beating sun working on a project.

Surely, there is no one, living or dead, who has understood pottery kilns so thoroughly. Usually we come to understand our own kiln but to be a maser of the intricacies and science of gas, and oil, and wood, and electricity is truly astonishing. Olsen is an expert on combustion, bricks, and refractories. He looks back, deep into kiln history and forward, always ready to experiment.

For all his visibility, we do not often see Olsen’s own work. There are not enough images of them here either, in the fourth edition of The Kiln Book, but thankfully there are a few of his bottles and whisky cups.