Staying Power 

Seven years ago I heard someone comment that wood-fire was the raku of the 90’s.  Well we are now deep into next decade, Iowa has hosted two international wood-firing conferences and woodfired ceramics continues to holds a solid place in the clay world.  Still, the comment sits somewhere in my consciousness.  Perhaps because wood-firing remains popular I am aware of the danger of it becoming faddish.  In order for woodfired work to remain in the forefront its popularity needs to be considered and actions taken to prevent a dismissible stereotype.

            There is a disparaging quality to the comment, it implies that soon wood-firing will be gone like smoke from so many burned up leaves, or relegated to the craft fairs where serious artists will not deign to go.  I admit that I have my prejudices against raku. The word evokes images of uninteresting forms with activated coppery surfaces.  Some of this prejudice stems from being a functional potter who dislikes porous vessels; some comes from repeatedly explaining at art fairs the difference between wood-fired porcelain and raku.  The root of my prejudice against raku is the sheer mass of crappy pottery fired with the raku process.  

            Wood-firing obviously differs from raku.  Wood-firing is a process that easily lends itself to utility; it is vastly more labor intensive, less accessible and much more dependant on community efforts.  Because firing with wood is more work and less accessible it is more immune to becoming clichéd.  Functional wood-fired work serves a continually interactive role in the home establishing a clear place in daily lives.  But the question remains how do we keep wood-fired work a vibrant part of the ceramic world? 

            Currently wood-firing is enjoying a renaissance.  Sales are good.  More and more schools are adding wood kilns to their departments.  In addition to conferences we have a journal specifically dedicated to wood-firing (The Log Book).  We as a group have done well educating the public on the myriad reasons we use wood and why the pots look like they do.  We have captured the imagination of many with the narrative quality of the pots, the big flames and event-like firings.  In a time of disconnection with the making of objects we offer students and patrons an intimate experience of creation.

            We have the momentum, but how do we keep wood-fired work a continuing aesthetic force?  The onus is on us to innovate, explore, educate, integrate, develop and edit.

Innovate:  We continually need to take risks, set up experiments and log the results.  We need to develop the field to keep it interesting.  The greatest cause of extinction of any species throughout evolutionary history is specialization.  The more we innovate the broader our field becomes.  Already wood-fired work has a huge range, from Gwynn Hanson Piggott’ssubtlety to Shiho Kanzaki’s deep beaded surfaces.  The more we stretch ourselves the more we combat the “round and brown” stereotype.

            Explore: Exploring the work of others at conferences and in periodicals can help us in our quest to innovate.  Exploration gives our own work context.  It also helps us educate people about the larger world of wood-firing.  Looking outside ceramics at other media broadens the context of our work.

            Educate: Let people know about your process and passions. Inform people about the infinite variety of surfaces, effects and techniques that exist in the wood-firing community.  Step outside the circle of wood-firers or even ceramic community and exhibit your work in broader art venues.  Write articles for art and craft magazines, local newspapers, or widely read periodicals such as Harpers.  Use a website to educate people about all aspects of wood-firing and link your site with artists in other media.  A pit fall of conferences is the tendency to become insular, even cultish.  By opening our work to larger critique we keep it current and vibrant.

            Integrate: At one point in graduate school we were firing both anagamas in the same week and we turned around the noborigama twice in that time.   In response to this frenzy of wood-firing Professor Chuck Hindes put a three month moratorium on wood-firing.  His fear was that wood-firing was becoming the easy answer, that pieces that were not about a wood-fired surface were being fired that way because it was the thing to do.   We should make work that is integral to whatever wood-fired effects we are chasing.  We need to be in dialogue with our kilns and firing techniques, evolving the work with the process, tying our work inextricably to the woodfire.

            Develop: “Dumplings before flowers,” the Japanese proverb states.  Substance is more filling than the ethereal.  For our work to transcend fashion and fad we need to load it with meaning and substance.  The first time viewer sees only the ash and flash, it is our job to extend our work beyond the gimmick and gotcha surfaces and attend to every aspect of a piece.  Fortunately wood-firing lends itself to substantive work; it is a tradition rich in philosophy and reference.

            Edit:  Finally we need to edit.   We need to send bad work to the shard pile.  As professionals it is important that we don’t fire crappy work.  We are always at risk of being defined by the lowest common denominator.  The bar needs to be raised not lowered.  In an educational setting it is important that beginning work get fired.  This begins the dialogue between process and artist.  But it vitally important to teach students that there is a responsibility to firing work that will be around for centuries to come, and to remind ourselves of the permanence of what we make.

            It is a great time to be a wood-fire artist, to be able to tap into the vast sources of information of current and historical work, to feel part of a world wide community of people who share the same passion.  It is fantastic to be a part of a process that is so potent and diverse.  I am willing to keep stoking the fires of that passion and I also have faith that a good pot, wood-fired or not, will prevail.