The ancient art of wood firing is fraught with frustration and uncertainty. There is an inherent vulnerability to participating in a process that relies on the natural elements to gain its strength and power. However, once completed, this natural, harmonious process can produce stunning surface treatments that you can’t achieve in a conventional kiln. The complex interaction between flame, ash, and the minerals in the clay create exciting and unpredictable results. The location you choose inside the furnace produces distinct variations in colour and texture, from rich iridescent orange to the softest apricot blush. It is nearly impossible to predict results, leaving you in a heightened state of nervous anticipation until you break through the door to view the final result. It is this dance between man and nature that has captivated potters for centuries. Today in a modern age of fast-paced living, wood-fired ceramics are enjoying a renaissance.
In late September, I was fortunate enough join a small group of wood firing enthusiasts at the beautiful Quixotica Art Space in Cooroy, Queensland, under the guidance of my teacher Isaac Patmore. Isaac’s passion for his craft and his love for the wood fire kiln are infectious and inspiring. That passion combined with his warmth and humour made the workshop an experience I’ll carry with me always.
I recently chatted with Isaac about his long-term relationship with wood-fired pottery, and why continually experimenting with his ceramics practice is so integral to his growth as an artist.
Can you share a little bit about your ceramic story and how you came to be so passionate about woodfired pottery?
My introduction to ceramics began in High School; the QLD TAFE system delivered a module in the Certificate in Ceramics course. It was an after-school class one night a week, taught by artist David Ozwald in the early 1990’s. Looking back, I didn’t realise how good a potter he was, but I was mesmerised watching him make pots on the wheel. I am sure that this experience formed the path I travel now. I have been a ceramic arts worker for fourteen years. In that time, the wood firing aspect of my work has occurred in parallel to my conventional pottery practice. For me, wood firing is about the journey of discovery, which is why I’m so attracted to it. It’s a long-term relationship that tests your patience in such a fast-paced world. However, sometimes it’s just refreshing to slow down and enjoy your work.
In your ceramics practice, you alternate between the modern electric kiln and the traditional woodfired kilns with both methods of firing garnering distinctive results. Do you prefer one technique over the other or do you enjoy the variety that harnessing both processes of firing can bring to your work?
I do enjoy exploring a variety of different firing methods. But, during my studies I was consumed with wood-firing, I thought it was the only way to achieve the results I desired. When I started working as an artist in different studios, I found that their practices began to influence me and I started to replicate how those studios worked. I got excited about producing work in the electric kiln and started emulating the effects I was getting from the wood-fired kiln. Instead of relying on the wood kiln to mark the pottery, I began ‘setting up the work’ in the electric kiln as an experiment, with different layers reacting to each other. Now I get the same anticipation waiting for the work to come out of any kiln. Fourteen years later I believe that I should be capable of approaching any material and technique without binding myself to a single process.
Wood firing is a process that involves a close relationship with the unknown. After many years firing in various wood kilns, have you managed to maintain an element of consistency throughout your woodfired work? Or is it always a surprise when you see your work appear from the kiln?
Wood firing does have an element of the unknown. However, after many years of hard work and experience, you can have a pretty good idea of what to expect from a range of potential results. Every piece is individual, but if you have built a relationship with the material that you use, you can begin creating expectations for the final result. Things get interesting when you start disregarding past experiences and working on new approaches. Then you are moving into the unknown and making discoveries. When you dissect those new findings and try to recreate them, you develop a process and an understanding of materials and the nature of kiln behaviour.
You recently conducted a woodfiring workshop at the Quixotica Art Space, a beautiful property in Cooroy owned and operated by Australian wood fire artist Rowley Drysdale. Can you share the story of how you came to build your beautiful kiln in this particular place?
Building my kiln at Quixotica has been a great experience, and I can’t thank Rowley enough. He allows me to collaborate in the Quixotica Art Space and it is such a positive experience. Wood-firing is a collaborative experience, and Quixotica is well established to cater for the small group of people involved in the process. Building a kiln at Quixotica was a natural progression, I have helped with building and firing the three different kilns out there over a period of ten years. I have a keen interest in kiln design and construction, so I proposed the idea of a new kiln last year. I was enthusiastic about the chance to conduct the project on my own with some help from my friends (you can’t do everything without help). The first firing of the new kiln was a month out from the Smoke on the Water Australian Woodfire Ceramics Conference in late June. The second firing was part of a pre-conference workshop, and the third was the Clay School workshop. In three of the firings, my little kiln has brought so many people together, created newfound friendships, and, of course, a lot of new work.
Hand building your own kiln from bricks and earth must be all-consuming and incredibly rewarding. Was constructing your own woodfire kiln something that came about from necessity or was it something you were always drawn to do?
I was always drawn to building kilns. During my studies in ceramics at Southern Cross University, the school had a wood kiln. One of the other students was constructing their very own wood-fired kiln. As such, learning to design and build kilns was incorporated into how I became a ceramicist. I was addicted to ceramics early on, and I have grown into a bit of a ceramic nerd. I have attended ceramics conferences around the world, and there have been many kiln building projects that I have been fortunate enough join. I relish the chance to get my hands dirty, and then there is the opportunity to fire the new kilns as well. I think it makes for a good conference activity because you get to connect with all the people working together to make it happen.
The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “while we teach, we learn.” Has your time spent as an educator influenced your art practice? Can you elaborate?
Seneca seems to know what he’s on about because it’s true. I am currently teaching at Clay School in Brisbane. It’s great fun, and the students are very self-directed. As a result, I get to deal with all these crazy questions and ideas. To manage all these inquiries, you have to think on your toes and have a fluid teaching framework. As a reward, I get to see new approaches and discoveries as the students explore. Before Clay School, I worked with children and people with disabilities. This work required a much more structured approach to teaching, and the joys came to me through the participant’s interpretations during each lesson. I think the teaching I did with autistic arts workers was some of the most informative work I have ever done. It makes you think outside the box, and it challenged my perceptions of how other people perceive the world which is a valuable teaching skill.
Do you find that there is a ritual associated with the wood firing process that adds to the experience?
The ritual of an interpretive dance in front of the warm glow of the wood kiln certainly adds to the experience. Sometimes, I have found this a little awkward as I’m usually the only one willing (in a group setting who wants to be the odd one out?). But I do find some kind of ritual really adds to the experience. Every firing I have participated in has been unique, depending on the location and people involved. I like to stop and do something special to mark the beginning of the firing as a significant event and honour the situation. Rituals I’ve been a part of include: Writing the firing participants name down on a piece of paper and starting the kiln by burning the paper. Throwing salt on the kiln, making deities and placing them on the front of the kiln. Placing flowers on the kiln, drinking sake then throwing the sake onto the kiln. Drinking whiskey and throwing the whiskey at the kiln. Burning money in the kiln, and offering a pigs head to the kiln…. all fun and all for the honour of the flame.
What’s coming up next that’s inspiring you?
I’m currently revamping my website, which is a nice experience. It gives me time to collect photos and reflect on the past. I’m making plans to fire my wood kiln at Quixotica again in early 2018. I really want to focus on creating some new forms for the next firing to challenge myself. I’m also in the planning stages of becoming an artist-in-residence in South Korea in mid-2018. That residency will culminate with an exhibition of the works I create during my time there.
All photos (except photo of Isaac building his kiln) taken by me on my Iphone during my time spent at Quixotica during the group woodfirng workshop in September/October 2017.
Quixotica Art Space is owned by woodfire artist Rowley Drysdale and is located on a beautiful property in Carooy, Queensland. Built with friends over the last 17 years, Rowley has created a sanctuary for artists to come together and simply create.
Below are a selection of photos taken in and around the studio and property of Quixotica.