Atmospheric Firings: the tradition of acceptance

 by Susannah Israel


Diane Levinson. Weapons of Mass Construction

Nine wood-firing artists presented strong, diverse work at the Triton Museum, masterfully constructed, elegantly conceived and collaboratively fired.  The opening reception was well-attended, with viewers filling the large gallery for the duration of the event. All around the room, groups of people gathered by the artwork to engage in discussion and enthusiastic observation.  The artists were in attendance to answer questions and meet the public, adding to the sense of celebration.

I had the opportunity to talk with Hiroshi Ogawa, my notebook in hand, expecting he would have information to offer about his work.  Instead he wanted to give me details about the work of the other artists.  His knowledge and enthusiasm were the perfect advocacy for better understanding the diversity of these works.  Ogawa modestly made no mention of his own work or his role in the community, but I later learned that seven of the artists fire in his kiln in Oregon. All speak of his generosity and knowledge as part of their experience and the spirit of the work.

The collaborative nature of wood-firing is intensive.  Providing the best possible results for everyone’s pieces translates to physically working twelve-hour shifts, through day and night, throwing wood into a small port in a flaming brick kiln wall. This is serious commitment.  Diane Levinson, who proposed the exhibition, talked with me about the process of curating and installing the work, informed by the same careful respect and attention that characterizes the wood-firing process. Just as the pieces are placed in the kiln to maximize the possibilities of the firing, the work was placed in the museum with an eye to creating the most beautiful and successful totality.  For example, an important sense of the work’s identity was lost when the pieces were commingled in the gallery space, leading to the collective decision to create an area for each artist instead.  The installation took all day, under the direction of Levinson and Terry Inokuma.

The unabashed pursuit of beauty is an aesthetic that requires an attention inherent in traditional clay practice, especially in Japan.  Japan’s cultural traditions include an elegant, meditative approach to viewing the form and surface of wood-fired work, reminiscent of the subtle distinctions within the Inuit vocabulary for snow.  Awareness of such distinctions, of natural patterns and the behaviors of the elements, makes up an important part of wood-firing.

Hiroshi Ogawa refers to “the path of flames” that gives each piece its individual beauty. Deposits of ash and the direct contact with the fire create atmospheric effects on clay and glaze.  The work is arduous and the firings last for three to nine days.  So why choose atmospheric firing? Even the term eludes immediate comprehension. Certainly no flame can burn in a vacuum, since when deprived of oxygen, fire is soon snuffed out.  Aren’t all firings atmospheric?

In the 21st century, atmospheric firing is a specialization and a choice.  Early in ceramic history, wood-burning kilns were developed to make durable, waterproof work. Oil, coal, and gas kilns subsequently evolved.  With the advent of the electrically powered kiln, it became possible to fire ceramics with no atmospheric effects. Electric firings were touted as clean-burning, reliable and predictable.  Aspects appealing to industry and production became available for art purposes as well.  Convenient and controlled, good for schools, electric kilns were followed by computerized kiln controllers, making the monitoring of kilns a matter of choice, preference and equipment budget.  But the magical mystery tour of atmospheric firing needs live fuel as a vehicle, otherwise air-fuel mixtures cannot be adjusted, and there can be no movement of the flames.  Within the atmospheric firing, thermochemical changes occur at a tremendous rate, even at submolecular levels.  This, according to Ogawa, is the essence: “ a project of the soul, rather than a project of the intellect.”

The ceramic pieces in this show can be grouped into distinct categories. Samuel Hoffman, Jennifer Klein, Hiroshi Ogawa, Masuo Ojima and Tim Steele presented work based on traditional and utilitarian vessel forms.  Samuel Hoffman draws marks into the wet clay surface to attract and enhance the deposition of wood ash.  Hoffman’s plates are a canvas for abstract, geometric compositions.  He uses wadding, normally a discarded material, as an integral part of the designs.  Wadding is a mixture of refractory ceramic material that withstands high temperatures without sticking to the piece or the shelf.  It forms a characteristic small white spot on the base or side of the works.  Hoffman has expanded the use of wadding into a resist technique, enhancing his formal compositions and bringing a crisply outlined circle into play on his plates.

Terry Inokuma’s trays are a departure from the traditional utilitarian esthetic, with a sociopolitical commentary as well. Inokuma first fires her trays in the wood kiln, then applies stains and clear glaze, refiring at low temperatures for bright color and crisply detailed drawings. The trays depict known scenes from Japanese Hanafuda playing cards, but with the insertion of nuclear towers and biohazard signs slyly juxtaposed to match the cheerful look of the cards.

Jennifer Klein makes cleanly thrown functional pots.  Her “Teapot,” especially, has a feeling of lively volume, its ceramic skin textured with patterns that beautifully emphasize the variations of the glaze.  The sturdy, quiet strength of Hiroshi Ogawa’s pieces have an unpretentious simplicity.  Ogawa places many of his pots horizontally in the kiln, to promote the dripping of glaze and wood ash around the circumference.  Masuo Ojima is an accomplished potter, who is also drawn to explore the reconfigurations of geometric composition, with variations like the saw tooth edges of a strangely familiar machine.  Tim Steele makes functional hand-built pots without the use of the potter’s wheel. His pieces are subtly faceted bottles, some with angular shoulders and squared necks, and long-necked organic forms like flowers.

Sculptors Andy Ruble, Diane Levinson and Marc Lancet employ formal, structural elements in their work.  Ruble explored the Anasazi ruins as a child on family trips.  Returning to the site many times on his own, he examined and pondered the visual effects of open structure.  He is inspired by function that shows “how the process was planned, how the people thought about making things, how they designed it to work.” Ruble’s pieces feel familiar, though we’ve never seen them before; they create a vocabulary of cantilevered, precisely related modules, centered on an open axis of space.

Diane Levinson’s Weapons of Mass Construction are a wry commentary on the American war economy.  An Albert Einstein quote, chosen by the artist for the catalog, warns us that ultimately war will bring humanity back to the Stone Age, and Levinson’s giant abstractions of the mortar-and-pestle form seem designed for heavy service.  Levinson’s formal compositions of cube, circle and rings are enhanced by the addition of rusted metal elements like chains.

Mark Lancet’s figurative work reveals areas of structure inside, as if sections have broken away.  The structure thus revealed is geometric and architectonic, not the human anatomy we might expect.  This evidence of built construction gives us access to the work, referring to the process of making it.  The wood-fired pieces, with blurred, obscured features, have a sense of ritual; they could be recently unearthed public monuments of a time past or a place far away.

The exhibition is accompanied by a lovely catalog, underwritten by Ko Nishimura.  Notably, each of the artists makes reference, in their own ways, to the essential spirit of surrender.  “Risk and chance are allies in the creative process” for Samuel Hoffman. “Adjusting to uncontrollable elements” gives Terry Inokuma “the choice to reach a little further.”  Jennifer Klein’s “eyes were opened to a new esthetic allowing (her) work to grow in unforeseen ways.”  Marc Lancet declares the arduous process the right approach to  “a beauty worth working for.”  Diane Levinson speaks to her eight years dedicated to learning to “paint with fire.”  Ogawa reaches for “shibui, the power of quiet illumination.”  Masuo Ojima’s secret is to “let the power of Ego disappear.”  Ruble’s pieces are an expression of marvel and wonder at the world around him. Tim Steele shapes his forms in anticipation of the kiln environment while consciously relinquishing the predictable.

In his introduction to the catalog, Preston Metcalf, Chief Curator of the Triton Museum, writes: …”no one knows exactly what will happen in the river of fire”  inside the kiln. This poetic phrase is also accurate.  Ceramic science in the 21st century has given us new clay bodies, formulated for precise temperatures, specific textures and behaviors, color and strength.  None of these factors alone are a match for the mighty furor of the wood kiln at the peak of the firing cycle.  It is important to note that the discipline in the practice of wood-firing is modestly assumed.  Many ceramicists have had their pieces slump and crack, and their glaze results run, crawl, dunt or change color under far less rigorous conditions.  The expertise of these nine artists is an unspoken yet critical factor in the success and strength of the exhibition.  To be surrendered to the wood kiln process, the pieces must be constructed so well that they can withstand days of transformation at over 2400 degrees.   Atmospheric Firings presents us with the annotation of that transformation: beauty in the unexpected, evidence of this dance with fire.

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