Mark Hewitt Pottery > Mark's articles > Waubonsee Keynote

Waubonsee Community College

Sugar Grove, Illinois

Wood Fire Conference

October 6 -8, 2017

Keynote Address

“Wood Firing: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”


Mark Hewitt

The ceramic scholar, Philip Rawson, compared contemporary wood firing to a 19th century cult in which artists, who were appalled by social and cultural ostentation, wandered around pulling grotesque faces in mockery of the pretension around them.

Are contemporary wood-firing potters those same people, with earnest expressions on our faces, insistent upon making things virtuous, heavy, and ugly? Are we the outlaw potters, the heretics, the renegades, holed up in remote redoubts, thumbing our noses at the world, scorning those who fail to recognize our wood-fired creations as art?

There is indeed a bunker mentality within our community that sneers at other forms of ceramics as being somehow dishonest, frivolous, and inauthentic – that’s the mindset that elevates the Kizaemon O Ido tea bowl over Jeff Koons’s “Bubbles.”

I for one, think they are equally authentic and valuable, as they reflect different aspects of our culture, and just as we embrace social differences, so can we embrace aesthetic differences as well.

The danger arises when taste and bias become prejudice.  That’s when the cult mentality can set in, giving us the false, but comforting, impression that our wagon is better than theirs.  Instead, we need to examine ourselves as potters, and the aesthetic, symbolic, and practical aspects of wood firing, and the pots that result.

First, let’s look at the Ugly (or the potter’s ego).

Risk is what drives us in our unspoken but shared pursuit of making the perfect wood-fired pot.

In some ways, we wood firers are aesthetically, politically, and socially deviant.  And perhaps this makes us slightly cultish, too, because we alone, given our refined sensibilities, see the beauty in the subtle natural colors of our pots- or in other words, in brown. We alone see beauty in the complexity of wood-fired surfaces – in other words, rough. And if the rest of the world fails to adore what we so slavishly admire, we consider them misguided.

Many of us practice elaborate rituals, like obsessively designing and constructing kilns with secret chambers, flow interrupters, dampers, and big chimneys. Then, we have the repetitive and backbreaking ritual of sawing, splitting, and stacking wood, not to mention arcane kiln packing rituals with clamshells, big wads, and eccentric placement of pots.

Finally, we practice hopeful incantations to appease the kiln gods, and cast spells as we light the match. And who else but a wood-fired potter would spend days and nights flagellating themselves by stoking a 2300-degree fire? And for what? All for the purgatory of waiting for the moment of truth when we open the kiln and see how our pots have fared.

Maybe we are an isolated self-referential group, out of step with the glittering high-tech mainstream, with its cleanly designed lines, fast production, and glamour. We certainly seem to prefer artisanal neo-luddite-ism, which comes with an obligatory hair shirt.

I also sometimes think that, because the method is so demanding, other types of ceramics and art, are too easy. Our dogged idealism can easily make us feel like the chosen ones; our pots and sculptures can make us feel self-righteous because of the intensity and difficulty of the process.  It’s easy to think there’s something honorable about a drip of wood ash suspended perfectly on the belly of a pot, or that a clamshell mark and our earthy natural palette are honest, that our pots are sanctified and that we are holier, and more blessed than everyone else.

Especially if you also dig your own clay!

And isn’t brown just the most beautiful color? I’ve had any number of customers say, after wandering around my showroom, “Do you have any pots that have color?” I want to reply, “What?! You don’t like brown pots? Brown happens when all colors are mixed together, so it’s not as if they have no color, they actually have too much color. “

But what do they know?  They’re only the buyers who will put food on my table.

I’d rather sit and stare at my empty plate with its ethereal wad marks, perfectly fired wood-ash drips, and glowing color from the clay I dug myself.

That was the ugly part—letting my ego get in the way. Now it’s going to get really bad….

Western wood firing is predominantly a white male practice. Yes, there are wonderful women wood firers, and a few people of color within our ranks, but they are greatly outnumbered. Why?

In a way, the problem is not one of exclusivity, but of impenetrability, for everyone interested in joining the profession. It costs so much to get trained, to buy land, and to buy materials, not to mention running a business. Worst of all, it’s very hard to make a living as a wood-firing potter.

We must work together to make the playing field more level, so that all have access to our field, through recruitment of students and apprentices, through alternative financing practices, and through lifelong collaboration and mentorship.

I also think it’s unfortunate that more potters don’t work in teams. Wood firing, historically has been a team effort: village potteries, family potteries, even academic potteries, all usually have some division of labor, with some people doing more of the heavy lifting, supporting one or two experienced makers. These team structures have a hierarchical apprenticeship system that provides training to younger potters. There’s often a specialized decorator, and usually someone else marketing and selling. And, finally, a gang of itinerant pyromaniacs who come to help during firings. Working together requires coordination, but it’s more efficient than working on your own.

The bottom line?  Making art is hard, making pottery is hard, and none of it makes conventional economic sense. But the struggle is so compelling to some of us knuckleheads that we just can’t say no. What we produce can be so beautiful that we go ahead and make it anyway, despite having to contend with a culture that, in general, doesn’t share our aesthetic and too often may be content to drink coffee from a Styrofoam or paper cup.

Just one more point we need to consider as we consider the “bad news”: how much carbon are we putting into the atmosphere each time we fire? Should there be mandatory scrubbers on all the chimneys of wood kilns? Is wood firing worse for the environment than other forms of firing?

Do wood kilns pollute more or less than wood firing conferences or any other pottery related conferences and practices?

Excessive consumption drives climate change, but we’re clearly not the worst offenders, so we need not reconsider our livelihood. But we live on a fragile planet with an increasingly choked atmosphere, where organisms are beginning to burn up and where people are gasping for clean, cool air, so it’s worth our efforts to create thoughtful approaches and solutions to the environmental considerations connected with wood firing.

Finally, the ugly and the bad behind us, let’s look at the good!

Of course, it is possible to fire wood kilns with great finesse and to unload them with almost all the pots coming out looking fabulous and able to be sold.

Some say our aesthetic relies on chance, but that’s not completely true. While chance certainly plays a role in determining the surface quality of our work, it’s much more that. Our pots are dusted by chance and painted by atmospheric turbulence. Those of us who’ve spent careers firing wood kilns can predict, with considerable accuracy, what is likely to happen to the pots we put in our kilns.  In addition to relying on experience, we also use digital pyrometers and oxy-probes, so that our firings are not a crapshoot, and beauty is deliberate, not accidental.

Making pots to me, it is an act of devotion; each pot is a prayer, and each firing is an appeal for salvation. My kiln is holy place, an altar, and each time I load it, I’m building a shrine, preparing for a celebration that has complicated rituals. I offer entreaties in the hope they will placate the spirits of the kiln. Will my prayers be answered? Is fire a god, or is it the devil? Will the unloading be a benediction or a torment?

Either way, I’m totally engaged in the process. I’m an athlete, fine tuning my skills and abilities every day, moving gracefully and purposefully in the workshop, leading my team of apprentices, immersed in the solitary, long-distance run of production, choreographing the loading of the kiln, preparing for the exhilarating big match of the firing.

But what does all this activity signify?

I think wood firing symbolizes wildness, and that in our practice, there is primal poetry, a raw elemental directness, and a sanctifying of natural materials and processes. Making wood-fired pots allows us to channel ancient human impulses.

We take the earth. We light a fire. We make beauty.

Our pots are landscapes; they are about particular places, particular clay deposits, particular trees and forests. They are geographically and historically specific land art. North Carolina pots are different from Shigaraki, which are different from La Borne. Each tradition is individual and old, they are wellsprings, and each still bubbles with life.

There is something deeply gratifying about using local clays and local granites for many of my glazes, and local wood to fire my kilns. They are the materials of my place, and they paint, without trying, a picture of my surroundings.

Each region and firing method produces different colors, not just various shades of brown. Wood firing produces all the colors of the rainbow: black, gray, pink…. green, orange, red, purple, blue, yellow, and more.

Taking a closer look at our beloved and highly underrated brown, it is the color of blending, of negotiation, of compromise. Brown is the color of democracy.

The supposed roughness of wood-fired pots belies their stimulation as tactile objects, whether salt glaze stipple, anagama-fired stubble, or low-fired suppleness; our pots encode an improvisational Braille. Our fingers trace pleasure and meaning from their surfaces, while our hands, arms, and bodies learn their gravity.

Wood-fired pots are not decorative, pleasant, and safe.  They are secretive and possess a refined agency that allows them to inhabit our consciousness as symbols of our relationship to the earth, as reminders of our history, and as talismans of hope.

I remember meeting Cardew at the Craft Study Center in Bath, England, after I had secured my apprenticeship, but just before my final exams. His clothing smelled of wood smoke. His house, an old pub, had a massive but inefficient open fireplace that didn’t heat the house and blew smoke into the room, blackening the ceiling and infusing his clothes with the most wonderful smell. It was the scent of conversation and carried with it the aroma of defiance.

Our pots embody protest, for they express a desire to make the world right.

We are erroneously criticized for looking backward, nostalgically, towards an idealized, pre-industrial past. Well, I contend that nostalgia is an act of protest, for, implicit in its wistfulness, is a recognition that things aren’t right in the present, and while it may seem romantic and regressive, nostalgia is also a dream of the future.  It asks the question: how can we take the best of the past, and our dissatisfaction with the present, and make the future better?

Can we remake the Arts and Crafts movement, with its disgust in the brutality of early industrialism (which still lingers today), and make it clean, make it socially responsible, and make it equitable? Can we take the best economic, social, and environmental practices and adapt them to the modern world?

Let us join forces with activists of all stripes to forge a viable future for all, where excessive energy use and rapacious consumption do not imperil us. We need to strive for a world where success is not equated with excess.

Are we renegades, heretics, and outlaws? Well, yes, I hope so, but in a good way. Our present culture is so out of control I sometimes think wood firing is a kind of “sanity maintenance practice.” It’s not us who are nuts, it’s everyone else! And no, I’m not paranoid, just appalled and apprehensive.

But we’re not a cult, we’re community, and we are living in one of the golden eras of wood firing. We are making some of the best wood fired pots that have ever been made; we are experimenting, taking risks, and expanding the parameters of our expression. Our work is linked to a wonderfully rich history of wood firing, and yet we don’t follow it slavishly but have extended the range of wood-fired possibilities in breathtakingly creative ways.

So, despite my gloomy assessment about how hard it is to be a wood-fired potter, it is nonetheless an incredibly vibrant time for wood firing – although it might be the last hurrah.

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.

For those of us lucky enough to piece it all together, we’ve found an appreciative audience. There’s a market for what we do, people love our pots, they respect our endeavors, and they pay hard-earned money to own the manifestations of our dreams. They treasure what we make.

I love wood firing and wood-fired pots. I know other ways of making pots aren’t easy either, but what we do is really cool and complex, and wild and crazy, and noble and heroic. And I’ll do it as long as I can.

We will continue to honor the potters of the past and celebrate the potters of the present, and make pots that improvise upon and transform the canon, and bring as much beauty and pleasure into the world as we know how.

To young potters, I say: study what we’ve done and practice endlessly. Pots are units of intelligence after all, so get smart and learn how to be proficient. Look at and learn from the great potters of antiquity, go and help the great potters working today, and learn our skills, learn our practices. Steal our ideas so sweetly and stealthily that we don’t even know you’ve done it. Make us you glad you did. After all, that’s what I’ve done, I’ve stolen everything I know and made it my own.  Show us what you’ve got, don’t settle for mediocrity.  Let your little light shine.

Work until you drop, and then work some more. Study until you’re bleary eyed, and then study some more. Go to the source and surround yourself with people of like mind and spirit and remember that your “success” is often determined by what you do after work.

But while all of us must be thoughtful and careful in our lives, with our pots there need be no caution—instead we must throw ourselves into the inferno of creativity.  Let’s create dangerously, taking inspired leaps and risks to honor those who came before us.

We cannot falter; we have work to do.

We are the keepers of the flame.