I was introduced to high temperature woodfiring during an apprenticeship in Tamba, Japan in 1982. The simplicity and power of the Tamba woodfired climbing kilns awed me. From that point on I have focused on firing with wood. After I left Tamba, I traveled extensively within Japan investigating possibilities of further study. I found an amazing variety within Japanese woodfired ceramics. I was eventually drawn to Mashiko where I learned how to throw on the kickwheel and participated in kiln building projects.
After two years in Mashiko I returned to the United States in 1987, to establish a pottery on family land in eastern Pennsylvania and built a four chamber climbing kiln. I have been working here by myself since 1990, but occasionally get some assistance from my family and the many friends that arrive to help me fire the kiln, three times a year. The newly rebuilt kiln and I have now survived thirty two firings.
My pots are mostly kickwheel thrown and fully glazed. I make my glazes mostly from materials coming from the surrounding area- creek clay, wood ash, corn stalk ash and rice hull ash. I also use feldspar, kaolin and two oxides from the ceramic supply house. My pots are made with a mixture of an industrially mined clay body with a local clay from the top of Hawk Mountain, just up the road from my pottery. For large jars and large bowls, I use just the industrially mined clay body. For some other pots, especially for tea ceremony, I use just the Hawk Mtn. clay. I don’t consider myself a “purist” (i.e. restricting myself solely to local materials) but I find it interesting and workable to use primarily locally obtained materials.
Making pots is like cooking. You have to start with good ingredients to get a flavorful, satisfying result. By using local clays and various ashes I am trying to make pots which have a pleasing flavor. Using a wood flame to fire these pots enhances the character of these materials. Although there are not many obvious ash deposits on my pots, the variety of colors and textures in them are largely due to the wood flame interacting with the clay and glaze materials, just as food cooked over an open fire carries a taste of the flame and smoke.
Working with natural materials and with the unpredictability of firing in a 400 cubic foot wood kiln, I am always surprised when I open the kiln. Although the potter has a lot of control over the processes leading up to the firing, the kiln ultimately decides how each piece will be transformed. My glazes have a very narrow range of successful firing. For some glazes, the window of success is only about 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Other glazes are more forgiving. By mixing mostly ashes of differing silica content with some feldspar and local clay, I’ve come up with some pretty difficult glazes. The potential for either under firing or glaze running is quite high, but I prefer to loose some pots (occasionally 50%), rather than accept stable glazes with less interesting results.
Although woodfiring potters are viewed by some as anachronistic masochists, I believe woodfiring becomes increasingly relevant in this age of incredible technological advances. The growing popularity of woodfiring shows the seductive allure of this labor intensive approach. In contrast to anagama firing, many of my pots don’t appear to have been woodfired at all, but upon close inspection, they are each altered somehow by their encounter with the fire. The unidirectional flame, the slight flashing due to ash deposits, and the always fluctuating kiln atmosphere, makes different things happen, compared with other types of firing. It won’t turn a bad pot into a good pot, but there’s a chance that it will turn a good pot into a great pot. By using a wood flame and natural clays and ashes, I believe there is a possibility of attaining a deeper and more subtle beauty.