Article by Mary Ann Steggles

F
or as long as individuals have been shaping clay into vessels and objects, wood has been used as a fuel for transforming the malleable earth into a durable vessel or sculpture. The earliest objects were fired in shallow pits or bonfires where the temperature only reached about 820 degrees Celsius. The Chinese were the first to perfect kilns that could achieve 1200 or 1300 degrees. Many experts believe that these innovations likely began during the Shang dynasty (the sixteenth to the eleventh centuries BCE).


Simple bottle-shaped kilns evolved into the first climbing or stepped chamber kilns commonly called ‘the dragon kiln’. The long chamber of a dragon kiln typically required the pots to be stacked from back to front and, depending on their height, the stacker had to crawl to position the wares in the chamber. Once loaded, the opening that had been used to load the pottery was sealed and wood was placed in the firebox at the mouth of the kiln. The heat from the stoking moved through the kiln from this firebox to the flue (there is no chimney in this type of kiln).

Within two thousand years, these kiln designs spread to Korea and Japan where they were transformed into other types. In Japan, the single-chamber climbing kiln is known as the anagama (‘cave kiln’). The Japanese altered this design to create the multi-chambered noborigama kiln which is also built on a slope. The wood can also be fed using side ports.

Europe and North America would later have their own variations. Good examples in the
United States are the groundhog kilns of North Carolina, so-named because they look like the
burrow of a groundhog: they have long, wide, arched chambers just tall enough for a person to
crawl into to load the pottery. They are generally at or below ground level. Instead of positioning
the firebox at the mouth of the kiln as in the case of the dragon kiln, the firebox of the groundhog
kiln extends the length of the chamber with the stoking taking place via holes along the sides. The
potters who used these early kilns in the United States were responsible for many of the domestic
wares, such as crocks and churns, until the twentieth century. Wares of a more decorative nature
began to be made in the early twentieth century.
Canadians have built and used many different types of kilns. Studio potters practising in the
late twentieth century took advantage of technological advances in kiln building materials. These
included lighter weight bricks with a better insulating value than hard bricks. In addition, castable
materials have allowed potters to create variations of many
of the arched kilns. Other insulating materials include rigid
ceramic fibre boards and softer ceramic fibres. These
helped to lessen the amount of fuel, making it more economical
for potters working alone to have their own kilns.
In addition, community groups have organized and built
large kilns such as the kiln owned by the Tozan Cultural
Society of Nanaimo, British Columbia, a variation on the
Japanese climbing kiln.
No matter the country, style or time period, these kilns
require a significant physical commitment of the potter or
the assistants to gather, cut, split wood and stoke the fire for
days or sometimes even weeks. During the firing the fly ash
from the fire circulates throughout the kiln, often landing
on the vessels, providing them with the uniqueness in colour
that can only be achieved in kilns fired with wood.
The Ceramics department at the School of Art, University
of Manitoba, has been one of the catalysts for the continued
interest in wood firing in the province. Professor
Charles Scott built the School’s first wood kiln during the
1993-1994 academic term when the current ceramics building
was being constructed. Other faculty such as Robert
‘Irish’ Flynn began to use the kiln along with a myriad of
sessional instructors, technicians and visiting artists. There
is a sustained awareness and interest in the impact wood firing
can have on vessels as can be seen in the work of three
contemporary practitioners: Professors Steve Grimmer and
Grace Nickel, and beyond the institutional setting, Alan
Lacovetsky whose studio sits on an acreage of birch and poplar
at St Andrew’s, northeast of Winnipeg.
After formal studies at the School of Art with Robert
Archambeau in 1976 and 1977, Lacovetsky completed a BFA
at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) and
finally in 2008 an MFA at the University of North Dakota.
Lacovetsky readily admits that some of his most intense
learning experiences took place during the twelve years he
lived in Australia studying with master potter Peter Rushforth
before returning to Canada in 1996, intent on building
his first wood kiln, which he did that same year. He distinctly
remembers a folk jug his father had when he was a
child and how he could see the thumb marks left by its maker
at the base of the handle. He says, “It was like holding the
hand of that humble artist.”
Lacovetsky’s acreage not only provides the fuel for the
100-cubic-foot wood kiln shared with fellow potter Dave
Krindle, but also the inspiration for much of his functional
ware. He fires with wood because he loves the process. “It is
hard work and forces you to have a direct personal involvement.
It is not simply turning a dial to heat the pots and melt
the glazes.” Lacovetsky likes the smell of the burning wood,
adding that it takes about two months to complete an entire
cycle, from cutting the wood, making the pots, glazing,
stacking, firing and unstacking. “The variety of rich surfaces
from the wood ash and the fire patterns are well worth
the seventy-two hour firings!” During a stint in China in
2010-2011, in a wood kiln at the Fuping Pottery Complex, he
created a covered jar that pays homage to the old and decaying
walls as well as the rooflines of the Chinese village.
Born in Iowa, Steve Grimmer joined the School of Art
at the University of Manitoba in 2005. He received his BS in
Mathematics from the University of Iowa in 1989. While
there he needed to take a humanities elective. Many who
lived in his dorm thought that the ceramics class was a ‘blow
off’ and an easy ‘A’. He recalls, “It was neither.” Like so many
others who have ventured into the arts, Grimmer became
hooked on clay. “I knew I wanted to make pots for the rest of
my life,” he adds today with a smile. He went on to formal
studies in ceramics eventually earning a BFA in ceramics
and an MFA in the field.
His clear understanding of the mathematical principles
of sacred geometry, encountered as a student, can be seen
in his current investigations. He is fascinated with the sacred
architecture and the surface patterning of the Islamic
world, admitting often that his “mathematical side delights
in the complex repetitions and permutations of form, pattern,
structure, and volume.” Grimmer appreciates the way
that wood kilns with their dancing fly ash record the process
of the firing, giving each piece a unique identity. He fires almost
exclusively with local balsam poplar. While poplar has
less heat value as a fuel, it sends “heaps of fluffy, white ash”
throughout the kiln. When it melts it produces a softer, whiter
glaze than the tamarack Grimmer had previously been
using. He also finds that the poplar fly ash blends in gently
producing a glaze that enhances the tessellation patterns
created by the hand-carved wooden stamps he uses to create
repetitive designs by pressing them into the soft clay.
(Tessellations are polygons created by de-forming triangles,
rectangles, or hexagons.) Despite attempting to have a level
of control, Grimmer admits that it is always the kiln that has
the last say; he gives his work up to its serendipity. His Blue
Dome Cruet with its cross-star pattern sitting on a trivet speaks
to his love of good food and cooking and a firm belief that
beautiful objects enhance our lives.
Grace Nickel received her BFA in ceramics from the
University of Manitoba where she also taught as a sessional
instructor before completing her graduate studies in ceramics
at NSCAD in 2008, and returning to University of Manitoba
as a full time faculty member in ceramics in 2009.
She is currently exploring the use of the wood kiln with
terra sigillata vessels. Terra sigillata is a technique used by
the Greeks and Romans that involved covering vessels with
red or black liquid clay (slip) burnishing the surface, giving
it a glossy sheen while also sealing the surface. The objects
were then fired to between 800 and 1050 degrees Celsius.
Instead of the earthenware body and slip, Nickel uses porcelain.
She applies the porcelain slip and burnishes the surface,
firing her pieces to more than 1200 degrees Celsius.
While Nickel does not seek to achieve the kind of effect other
wood potters might desire such as heavy fly ash deposits
or strong variations of flashing (when the flame goes over
the surface of the clay often scorching the surface), a close
examination of the result reveals a quiet lustre that could
not have been achieved in any other type of kiln. Nickel
calls it “luscious.” Her favorite vessels take on a warm, surface
that she compares to melting caramel candy. This can
be seen in her pair of ‘bamboo’ porcelain cups.

We live in an age where speed seems to be a primary
concern. We rush to get to work, to do our shopping, to take
our children to school. We want faster answers and faster
broadband speeds. Many believe, almost with blind faith,
that they can control everything. In the midst of this there
are some who choose to live in the ‘slow lane’ as my friend,
Steve Harrison, an Australian wood firer calls it. They work
hard but allow chance to enter their lives and their kilns.
They choose to fire with wood not simply because they love
its smell but also because of the profound aesthetic that it
brings to what they do. And while it might be easier to turn
a knob on an electric kiln or turn up the gas or propane,
many artists fire with wood exclusively. Others like to place
their work in wood kilns for the specific impact that the ash
can have on their vessels or sculpture. In being one with the
process they open the way to nature and its element fire to
kiss their humble objects made of earth in a millennial
dance of matter transformed.

Mary Ann Steggles ran Maple Grove Pottery in Southern
Manitoba for over twenty years and is currently Professor of
Art History at the University of Manitoba.

Image: Grace Nickel
Bamboo Cups, 2006
Porcelain with terra sigilata, slip-cast and altered, wood-fired
6.5 X 4.5 cm each
Photograph: Ernest Mayer