Fire, Wood and Clay: What’s in an Aesthetic?


There can be no denying it: there’s something about wood-firing that produces special pots. But what is it about the wood-fired aesthetic (if there even is one) that captivates? Where does our appreciation for it begin? And, perhaps most important of all: is it still relevant today? Is the wood-fired aesthetic right for our age? We explore its ancient survival into the 21st century.

nic collins bottle in wakerley 1005559 scaled Fire, Wood and Clay: What's in an Aesthetic?

Nic Collins, small bowl, slab & thrown, shino & natural ash glaze

This area of England where I grew up, and where the Goldmark Gallery is located, lies within the bounds of what was once the Royal Forest of Rockingham. A vast area of ancient wood and heathland, its legal edge was determined by Norman lords after the invasion of William the Conqueror, for whom it had become a favourite hunting ground. The word forest then simply meant an area of special jurisdiction, where use of the land was strictly limited and the law more punitively applied. Growing local populations and the need for greater agricultural production, combined with the neglect and indifference of later monarchs, saw the eventual dissolution of what was once a vast, connected woodland estate, rich with diverse life, into isolated wooded pockets, like islands in a vast sea.

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Nic Collins, Very Tall Jug, shino & natural ash glaze

100 years ago, when the Forestry Commission was given control of the area, many of these were on the brink of eco-collapse: predators deprived of prey, insects and butterflies of environments in which to thrive. Contemporary intervention and the reintroduction of species has since invigorated these spaces, which are often closed off for scientific monitoring. Many were our stalking grounds as children: woods carpeted with bluebells, ramsons, acorn caps and shadowy ferns. Still and quiet from the outside, you only had to sit for a minute in a small clearing to become aware of the constant movement and noise that surrounded you: the upper canopy swaying in the wind, as if the wood were exhaling, and the miniature symphony of smaller creatures calling and navigating through the undergrowth.

nic collins bottle in wakerley 1005555 scaled Fire, Wood and Clay: What's in an Aesthetic?

Nic Collins, Small Bottle, shino & natural ash glaze

Earlier this year we received a message at the gallery from an older but committed amateur potter that put me in mind of some of these wooded spaces. This was someone who had dedicated the last three years to what was, in their words, ‘realistically my last creative enterprise’. They admired the wood-fired pottery they saw on our website. But as they explained, they had been disillusioned by the inaccessibility of wood firing to the average enthusiast, and lamented its environmental shortcomings. The message continued:

‘The aesthetic I find here leads me to think that if I can’t own a farm in the middle of nowhere and a woodland to feed my wood kiln then my work will always be lacking and not real pottery with heart. But I don’t accept that, because I have heart and I love this clay and this, more than anything I’ve been lucky to work with over the years, has the potential to express existence – or at least this human’s experience of it and surrender to it.’

‘The wood firing aesthetic is amazing and grew from an age of arboreal abundance, but what is the aesthetic of our age? What has integrity, beauty, humanity, humility, and happenstance that I can make today?’

ken matsuzaki 7645 Fire, Wood and Clay: What's in an Aesthetic?

Ken Matsuzaki, jar, shino & natural ash glaze

It’s hard not to agree with this sentiment. The worldwide peak – and the decline, in the past two or three hundred years – of woodfired pottery production runs more or less parallel with the slow demise of our own relationship with native woodlands. For many thousands of years potters had no way to fuel their kilns other than with wood, and what we might now call the ‘wood-fired’ aesthetic was a product of circumstance long before it became an artistic choice. Today, wood-firing potters are far from the dominant drivers of deforestation, the wood they use mostly unwanted in the first place: the scraps left behind by larger, hungrier competing industries. Still, it should come as no surprise that those places where wood-firing has found a second life – across America especially, for instance – are lands where there remain great tracts of forest yet to be truly exploited.

randy johnston teabowl 1008814 scaled Fire, Wood and Clay: What's in an Aesthetic?

Randy Johnston, Teabowl, native clay, natural ash

It’s easy to forget that wood firing was also once an industry: one that may have involved integrity, humanity and humility in the modest everyday wares it produced, and perhaps beauty too. But for the long majority of its lifetime, it had little to do with accident, risk, creative probing and the pursuit of happenstance to the extent that characterises modern wood-firing, where appreciation as turned to obsession. The ancient tunnel kiln was a machine of mass production, of cheap and efficient glazing. What now seems primitive, wasteful and capricious was once state of the art technology. That way of working – requiring huge teams to manage huge kilns – is now almost entirely lost. Like our great forests, wood-firing now persists in isolated pockets, reflecting a rich but disparate and fragile ecology of great variety, though there are signs of the team-led approach reviving, particularly as the environmental and financial expense of firing such kilns becomes ever more concerning. The breadth of work being produced internationally today reaffirms that wood-firing has never been a monolith; the spectrum runs from those happy to cremate pots in the firebox to others keen to reduce the interference of ash as much as possible. But a certain aesthetic has survived, and it’s this that comes to mind when we hear the words ‘wood-fired pottery’: sticky, beady pots, dribbling ash and glass, rough surfaces with flashes of hot colour in what is otherwise a symphony of browns. These pots still represent a tiny fraction of ceramic appreciation. In this country at least, where few people are raised on them, they are an acquired taste (and probably always will be).

ken matsuzaki 7613 scaled Fire, Wood and Clay: What's in an Aesthetic?

Ken Matsuzaki, vase, shino & natural ash glaze

Forty years ago, a panel of wood firing potters primarily based in America convened in Peters Valley with a view to exploring, challenging, and developing what this appreciation for wood firing might mean (a transcript of sorts from the conference is preserved in the archives of Studio Potter, written by the panel chair Malcolm Wright and its mediator Louise Cort). Points of interest – and contention – included the language that surrounds the practice, both technical and aesthetic, particularly the themes of chance, accident and mystery. If contemporary, Western taste for wood-fired pottery is indeed acquired, then we can be fairly certain it came from the mysterious East, and that the natural elements of chance and the question of the unknown – who knows what the ‘kiln gods’ might offer? – originates, and has been compounded by, our fashion of exoticising and mystifying the Japanese tea ceremony aesthetic and its attending philosophies of imperfection and impermanence. In the Western consciousness, it is predominantly Japan that the wood firing style is associated with, despite the broader history of wood firing in Asia including China, first and foremost, Korea, and much of Southeast Asia: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, where deforestation, among other things, has left once-wooded areas desolate and traditional wood-firing a practice that is now more or less obsolete.

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Shikamaru Takeshita, Large Pot, natural ash glaze

The notion of chance, inflected with Oriental overtones, dominates all talk, all nuance, of wood firing. It has led to the unhelpful idea that the ash and the fire are doing most of the potter’s the work – that by simply stacking one’s kiln and firing for sufficient lengths of time, and to a certain temperature, the chaos of the enclosed setting will perform a miracle of decoration. But a wood firing is so much more complicated, virtually an ecosystem of its own. Ash and embers are only every a single element among infinite variables. We have to think about atmosphere, too: is the kiln being choked of oxygen? What constitutes the clay itself? What materials, behaviours, are to be drawn out of it?

Left to its own devices, a wood-firing is indeed chaotic. In the hands of some potters, that irrationality and precariousness is intentionally hijacked. Nic Collins describes his own loose approach to wood firing as ‘out-of-control control – if that makes any sense.’ Perhaps then its practitioners are like the modern-day managers of woodland estates, trying to coax a kind of active environment that is ultimately beyond human control, to an extent self-perpetuating, reactive and responsive. In this sense, the life of the flame is really no different to the life of young saplings, shoots, buds, weeds and moss, free-roving and flowing, contained but never truly conformable.

svend bayer firing his wood fired kiln Fire, Wood and Clay: What's in an Aesthetic?

Svend Bayer firing his wood fired kiln

A kiln is not just a tool but a complex system, an environment itself, and also a colleague (some might say a disobliging one). This complexity demands a skilled hand to guide it with any measure of control. And so, for all its associations with chaos and ruin, wood firing is a precise art and the skilled wood firer in search of a precise product: as happy as any would be to be blessed with some freak interaction of fire, clay and ash yielding an unseen colour or surface, most potters know that to get the most out of the process, you have to understand what it is you are looking for. Only then can you have any hope of establishing the kind of atmosphere that can produce variety, rather than obscurity.

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Koichiro Isezaki, Pulse, natural ash glaze

Precision breeds taste – ‘not this, but that’ – and taste, its own vocabulary. Think of the rich visual language in Japan used to describe the landscape of the wood-fired pot that might put us in mind of anything from sesame seeds to citrus skin. There are terms for flame markings, for the many surface effects of fly ash, words describing the presence of materials within the clay itself (like feldspar) or applied to its surface (the occlusion of rice straw and other forms of wadding). This is a vocabulary we lack in the West, and there is perhaps an interesting parallel here with the great loss of vocabulary, particularly among my generation and younger, describing the diversity of our native countryside – what the writer Robert Macfarlane described as ‘The Lost Words’, slipping from daily speech, many of which might catalogue the species protected in the Rockingham Forest coppices: nuthatch and warbler, primrose and orchid, blackthorn, hazel and ash. Except that the language of wood-firing is one we have never had. Even if they are aware of the geographically defined varieties of wood firing in Japan, based on local clays and traditional methods, few Western potters feel any kind of loyalty to such old, narrow strictures of the past. Each has had to imagine and then discover, through one trial after another, their own ceramic landscape, establish their own standards, hone their own pursuits.

What are the words we use to describe these pots? We often talk about the richness, warmth and depth of colour in a wood-fired pot. Exposure to natural ash ensures that the visual and tactile palette of wood firing is directly reflective of the process: the pots really look like they have been subjected to extreme heat and active flame. To many we ascribe a kind of archaeological preciousness, or scarcity, as if the unloading of a kiln were like unearthing treasure: we talk of the glassy ‘jewels’ that form from accumulations of molten ash. Some are subtle, some are not. Some are soft to the touch, others are harsh, gritty and snag. We talk a lot about quiet pots – but can we really say a that a thick orange shino glaze, blasted with thick encrustations of fly ash and embedded with fumed seashells, speaks with a shy, retiring voice?

svend bayer external pots 8044 scaled Fire, Wood and Clay: What's in an Aesthetic?

Svend Bayer, Jug, natural ash glaze

There is a problem here, with the ‘pots as stories of the firing’ philosophy. Almost imperceptibly, we can slide between talking about the process and the result. Should I care – to the extent that most potters, and indeed many collectors do – what conditions produced a pot? Does that story, whether it is legible or not, make it an object that has any greater or deeper aesthetic value? This is a smaller version of a much bigger question that lies at the heart of all art discourse: of form versus content, material and narrative, object and intent. Do the conditions in which something is produced, and the ambitions of the maker in creating it, hold any special significance?

The contrarian in me says no: these pots should be valued, judged, on their own terms. But the romantic in me says you can’t begin to understand those terms meaningfully without the story – and of course, as with any other physical object we can look at, touch and hold on a daily basis, the story is embellished by every further interaction, like any other relationship.

nic collins very large dish Fire, Wood and Clay: What's in an Aesthetic?

Nic Collins, Very Large Dish, fired in firebox area, natural ash glaze

As a collector, my pots do not exist in a vacuum. Nor, as dealers, when we sell a pot, would we expect its new owner to sit down and stare at the work for an hour and a half and then put it away for good (perhaps I write here from a Western bias; do we display our objects more frequently, and cluttered, than say Japanese collectors?). Stories are important to customers; more than that, they are important to us as human beings. Many of us who buy wood-fired pots find them meaningful and worthy of contemplation, precisely because there is a sense of the potter’s story behind them. The way they are made – the intense process to which they are subjected – is inextricably part of that meaning: we talk of them as ‘survivors’ of conditions that often claim victims.

Another stock phrase I am guilty of using in relation to wood-fired pots is the idea that ‘every time you look at them, you find something new to see.’ But this is surely true of any pot, even a terrible one. The blandest, least offensive pale glaze can yield an inexhaustible world of detail on close inspection through a macro lens or microscope – in that respect, pottery is no different from concrete, moss, mould and even cancerous cells, all of which can intrigue, excite and move us with the right perspective. Beauty is in many ways a question of distance and patience.

Perhaps that says something about the inherent beauty of the world around us; or, rather, about our human capacity for appreciation, our need to look and find art in all things. Many other creatures beside us are known for their adaptability, even their creativity – but we alone seem capable of not just feeling and expressing beauty, but redefining and pursuing it.

svend bayer jar from goldmark gallery photographed by jay goldmark scaled Fire, Wood and Clay: What's in an Aesthetic?

Svend Bayer, Jar, fired upside down, kaki glaze, natural ash glaz

The peculiarity of the wood firing aesthetic speaks to this capacity within us, our art hunger. But more than that, I think, its own capacity to excite and move us lies in its relationship with change and time. You don’t need to know anything about wood-firing – about pottery at all – to know that a pot that has been fired in an anagama kiln has undergone a process of profound change. Unlike a perfectly glazed work of porcelain, there is no sense of an ideal or permanent form about it, nor any implication that here is a refined and ‘finished’ object. Flux, not finality, is the root of the wood firing aesthetic. Its surface is made directional: ash and flame in combination provide it with movement, with distinctive faces: veils and kisses of colour and texture. In this, even the greyest, cloudiest, most smothered of wood-fired pots has a clarity of witness about it: its aesthetic is a testament to change.

This, I think, is the important point about that well-worn phrase, that the wood-fired pot offers something ‘new’ every time you look at it. Live with anything for a period of time and you will find it reveals itself anew, not just because you have spotted an aspect you hadn’t noticed before, but because you have changed too: you see, value, seek and are moved by different things than you were before. Wood firing is not alone in providing a mirror for our changing perspectives; but it’s hard to think of another form of pottery for which radical, visual, textural, emotional change – in all its manifestations – is so centrally important.