Early on Saturday morning, I drove up to Herefordshire to see the firing of a salt kiln at Wobage Farm Workshops. I meant to take photos of the day, but as always with these kinds of things, I was too absorbed in the experience to remember. I did manage to take a photo of some sheep in the late afternoon as I was wandering round the site.
It’s not a photo of the lovely Pheonix kiln but it does give a little taste of the place. The firing was for work by the people who attended the evening classes. There were about 18 people around over the course of the day, and we fired the kiln in 1.5 hour shifts, with two of us at the kiln at a time. The whole day was a community event, people brought food and drink to share, and although the shifts were for 2 people to be at the kiln, there were often at least 5 people around, chatting and drinking tea. It was a surprise for me how relaxed and happy everyone was about firing the wood kiln. My previous impressions have been that wood firing is labour intensive, stressful, and unreliable, so it was nice to be shown that this isn’t true.
The kiln itself is a Phoenix design wood kiln, and below I have stolen a photo from a past students blog who also helped fire this kiln.
We fired steadily with smaller bits of wood to reach 1000c at about midday, before going into reduction, using larger, flat planks of wood. Then the salted wood was used, and after that, salted wood with salt packs placed on the end. I have never been a part of a salt or soda firing before, so this was a big learning curve for me. Before Saturday, I felt like wood kilns were a looming problem of my future. I love the results and ideas behind wood firing, but had been told that it is difficult and costly. The Phoenix kiln at Wobage costs less than £10 of wood per firing, which is very low. And although it is labour intensive (compared to gas or electric kilns), that’s all part of the process. Over the day I had so many interesting conversations, so much interesting food, and felt so welcome. I really enjoyed the whole experience. I did put a bowl in the top of the kiln with some of Jeremy’s slips and a shino glaze, so I am excited to see how that comes out. Maybe I will be a salt-glaze convert.
Today I have been throwing larger pots again. Things I throw tend to come out more dumpy and squat than I mean to, especially with 6lb+ of clay. I have been looking at various tall, lean pots, and trying to figure out just where the wall curves – where the opening out of the bottom, becomes the tapering in at top. Often there is just one of these points, but on more complex pots, there maybe several, and the point on the pot at which these happen, have an enormous effect on the feel of the pot. Below I have crudely drawn over pots by Clive Bowen, Mike Dodd, and Phil Rogers, to try and make it clear to myself, visually, where the curves happen.
This jug by Clive Bowen, has one convex curve, or belly, in the very centre, and two concave curves either side. The first concave cure (at the top) is slightly narrower than the bottom one, and is the narrowest point of the pot. The very base, where it flares out, is the same width as the rim and the belly creating a balance. The flared base is a look I really like, as it makes the pot look grounded and sturdy.
The pot above by Mike Dodd, is more simple, and only has one main convex curve to its body. The widest point of this pot is about 2/3 of the way up. However, the horizontal lines carved into the body, are of equal width, evening the pots shape out, and creating balance. The rim is slightly narrower than the base.
The above piece by Phil Rogers is interesting. The main belly of the pot is in its upper half, but the lowest carved line an the highest are of the same width, leaving the very bottom to be slightly narrower than its shoulder. This makes the pot seem more elegant, and lean. The rim is the narrowest point, and is almost neck-like, creating an almost human form.
To produce a range of work which fits together in a group, I have been drawing out designs for a range of amounts of clay. I have been working on larger pieces, 6lbs or more, and then trying the same forms in smaller sizes. I really enjoy refining forms that I make, realising when something doesn’t look quite right- a curve maybe in slightly the wrong place or the rim may just need turning out slightly.
I have also been making some porcelain stamps, and working with a cheese cutter to facet some pots. These surface textures will help to catch my ash glazes and help to draw attention to their flow across the pot. Making large jars and vases has opened my practise up to more decorative techniques, which I am enjoying researching and experimenting with. I am using some stamp ideas shown to me by John Jelfs.
Along with these forms, I am still making small beakers and bowls, which are less decorative and more utilitarian. They will still be ash glazed, but with a more simple and less textured surface. I have been faceting a few beakers, similar to the designs used by Lisa Hammond and Florian Gadsby. Beakers are quite child-like in their nature, their handless forms ask to be held around the pot, and so the forms have to be carefully considered. A wide beaker would need two hands to hold, a rough surface would make it uncomfortable, something too glossy would be slippery, etc.
To help me develop my exhibition module, I visited John and Jude Jelfs pottery in Bourton-on-the-Water. The Shop/gallery is in front of and attached to their studio, which allows the viewer to see the making process and the finished pieces. As a potter, I was particularly interested in John Jelfs work, and how it was displayed.
Displaying work in a pottery is often a combination of gallery aesthetic, and shop layout. The pieces need to look clean and tidy, and need to have space around them in which to be seen properly. However, things also need to look like they are going to be bought, and used. Presenting one soup bowl on a white plinth may look really nice, but people won’t think about buying a set of them for their kitchens. However, for my exhibition, I do not need people to want to buy them, I just need it to be realised that these pieces are made for domestic use.
The Jelfs shop was full of pots. A central island in the middle of the room held vases, mugs, salt pigs, spoon rests, and jugs. Then around the walls were various shelves of glass and wood.
The different spaces for the different sizes of pot makes the viewing much easier. For example, the smaller jars and mugs are on shorter shelves, are closer together, and are often lower down; whereas the larger pots and jugs are on taller shelves, in larger spaces, and are higher up. Somehow this helps to balance the weight of what you are looking at. The white background helps the pots colours and form stands out, and keeps the light in the room. The glass shelving allows the lovely shadows of the pots above to fall on the pieces bellow, allowing light through to the lower shelves, and also linking pieces together, overlapping the boxes with their shadows. I think would put fewer pieces in, as I think this is a little crowded.
When I was towards the end of firing the little gas kiln on Friday, one of it’s burners went out, and would not relight. Because of time restrictions with gas usage within the building, this meant that the kiln had to be turned off completely, and left to be fired once the burner was fixed. I opened the kiln this morning to have a look at the half fired pieces, I think it reached 1210c.
The surfaces are ugly, but interesting. It’s actually a great opportunity to see the glazes, and how they move and react in a firing. Like a landscape, the materials have shifted around, and carved their own path on the pot’s surface. In some places, the ash glazes have fluxed early, and started to run, but in others, they are still dry and rough. The glaze shown on the pot above is the white, elm ash nuka. It would be interesting to have a series of beakers with the same glaze, each fired to 10c higher, just to see the progression of glaze movement and melting within the kiln.
Once the burner is fixed, I will re-fire the whole kiln.
I now have a set of 5 glazes which I will use on my work. Three are elm ash glazes, and two are from river Soar clay. They are glazes which I have developed, and that I trust. Other than perhaps developing a few other glazes, these 5 are the ones which I will be working with up until the exhibition. It feels good to have this set palette to work with, and means I can focus on form.
I have chosen the 5 glazes above to work with because of their functional qualities. They are all glossy, smooth, and fairly evenly distributed. This means that they will be easy to eat from, drink from, and wash. The colours range from the opaque white nuka, to the dark browns and greens of the clay glazes. Each holds a different perspective on the natural materials they contain, and each has it’s own character. The palette of colours work together well, they are all muted, earthy colours, with some clean, snowy whites to contrast this.
The Constellation module of my last academic year has been mostly self-directed. This has meant that what I have been doing has become very personal and somewhat self-reflective. I have enjoyed it very much, although it has been a lot of hard work. I felt it has been much more beneficial to my practice than previous years, and the opportunity to explore doing a technical report was not one I felt that I could not miss. In previous years I have explored more philosophical aspects of my work, but never found that I quite felt at home here, and that the constellation work often drew me away from my practice. My dissertation however, did the exact opposite. I loved having two projects going at once, and the process of the clays is something I really enjoyed, as it gave me more experience in a process which I am likely to use in the future. I now know how to test for lime in clay, how to measure it’s porosity, and how to measure it’s rate of shrinkage. These are all skills that I can use in the future, when sourcing my own clays.
I ended last year with a plan of writing a technical report on the clays of the UK, with the idea of Buckley potteries in mind. The historical and social context of this pottery drew me in, and inspired me to research it more. However, throughout the summer, it became clear to me that I was more interested in the social and historical context of the use of clay and potteries than in the technical properties of the clay, and so my ideas morphed from a technical report to a standard dissertation, so that I could explore the context more.
Once back at university, looking at the clays I had been testing in preparation for my technical report, it reminded me that the technical side of testing and using the clays was very important to me, and that I needed to include both a practical investigation and the historical context in my paper to really satisfy the research I wanted to do. Carrying out technical tests and analysis on natural clays really put me in my element. I found this sort of work quite intimidating and daunting, but once I had started reading up on it, I felt much more comfortable It sent me on journeys to various potters, including several trains, buses and a 10-mile hilly cycle to Whichford pottery in Shipston-on-Stour. The work pushed me to investigate into their history, and I became more and more fascinated by it. My own investigation into British clays is something that goes much further back than the beginning of this dissertation. I have experimented used dug clay from the river for making cob and pots for several years, and it is this dissertation that I feel has really brought some of my thoughts and feelings together.
Since doing my dissertation, I have learnt so much about the history of British clays and British potteries. I have accumulated a collection of books which I’m sure I will refer to again and again in my future practice and research. I feel that what started as a slight curiosity has become a big interest of mine, and is most definitely influencing my studio work.
My constellation work relates strongly with my subject work. My studio work is about the use of natural materials, and the documenting and experimentation with materials that have personal context, such as geographical placement. Going through the process of writing a dissertation has enhanced my studio practice, and my thoughts towards my work. I feel as though Constellation and Subject are working in harmony, and they are complimenting each other well. I am excited to continue my investigations in my own time, after my degree. I would like to carry out further exploration into dug clays use in slips and glazes, and produce triaxial and cross blends with other materials such as various wood ashes, and rocks.
I found the organisation of my materials and tests quite hard, and writing in a way that needs to give clear and concise test results is something I am not used to. I had to fire a lot of kilns at different temperatures, and this became stressful quite quickly. If I were to do it again, I would perhaps do more of my practical testing throughout the summer or at the end of Level 5. This would allow my subject work to be less affected by my dissertation. However, as my subject work is strongly linked to my dissertation tests, I was simply learning from these anyway, and this fed into my practise. My dissertation helped me to contextualise my work more, and my new knowledge of the history of clays is helping my work to progress.
It was difficult to know what sort of format to write a technical report in, and how to phrase the results so that they sounded professional. However this was solved by reading other technical reports and many books on clay testing. I now feel that I could write a technical report again, perhaps for a different set of clays, or for something completely different like ash glazes. The process of testing a material and noting results is now something I feel more experienced in, and could enjoy doing more of.
Overall, I enjoyed my dissertation very much. I was very determined to write a dissertation which I would enjoy, and would enable me to study what I wanted to study, which is exactly what I did. I am very grateful that there was the option to write a technical report, as this suited me perfectly, and has been of great help to my studio practice.