A good pot is like a good story book. It’s recording four days of its journey, from clay to pot: all that turbulence, flame, the way it’s packed and fired. But you have to be able to read that story. And I’m beginning to break that code. – Nic Collins, gallery potter
If, like Nic Collins suggests, pots are to be read, his make for a ripping good yarn. Piled higgledy-piggledy in his anagama kiln, brushing shoulders, kissing, jostling for space, the packed chambers appear more like a burial tomb than a production site. Scorched for over thirty hours in atmospheres surpassing 1300°C and caked in whirling wood ash, it is a miracle any survive to tell their tale in their orange blushes, green and purple beads, and their immolated scallop shell skeletons.
Of the many forms in Collins’ repertoire, however, it is his tall bottles whose stories are among the most terrifying. Their ordeal begins on the wheel, where they are thrown in their entirety, metre-high walls of narrow, wet clay somehow kept vertical in defiance of the laws of gravity. From base to neck and bottle-lip, each is coaxed evermore precariously until fully formed. Any miscalculation in centring the clay, and the task becomes near-impossible. That this is all realised on a traditional kick-wheel, momentum provided solely by Collins’ feet, makes the act all the more astonishing.
From wheel to kiln, the stakes are raised. In order to achieve the wildly varying effects a full-throttle wood-firing can offer, Collins often places his tall bottles beneath stoking holes on the side of the kiln. As the chambers build up temperature, wood is added through these port-holes, incinerating around the closest pots and heavily dousing them in natural ash. Frequently, these conditions prove too much: smaller pots are knocked over by falling logs and baked on their sides, or cracked by errant pieces of kindling that bounce between the kiln’s fragile cargo.
Once fired and cooled, the kiln is unpacked and its contents surveyed. Due to Collins’ extreme approach to packing, much of the work is often found fused together, leaving him the unenviable task of choosing which vessel to save and which to put to the hammer. With their long shape and position lengthways at the base of the kiln, the tall bottles are among those at greatest risk and are regularly sacrificed in an effort to salvage adjacent jars and vases. Those that make it out alive are all the more special for it: relics of a petrifying process of earth, air, and a whole lot of fire.
The more one looks at the surface of these bottles, from blistering patches of scarlet to glistening shino glazes, the more of their extraordinary story they share – and the more thankful one is of not having to birth the next.
Watch Max Waterhouse’s review of Nic Collins’ tall bottles >