31 August - 30 September 2023: The Flame, The Ash & The Wait: Notes From a Wood Kiln by Edmund Davies, Lily Pearmain & Skye Corewijn
Exhibition of new work by a group of potters who happen to be friends. Fired in Devon in wood kilns Edmund Davies, Lily Pearmain and Skye Corewijn present a selection of special pots.
One off pieces with traces of fire, ash and a lot of hard work and even more patience.
Private view Wednesday 23rd August 6pm to 8pm
How do you know each other?
Lily - We all started out in the same shared studio, all fumbling along and learning from each others mistakes. All three of us share some sensibilities in our attitudes towards clay that mean we instantly hit it off and understood each other. I think it's fair to say that we're all really big fans of each others work.
Ned - We shared studios for years, and dinners and holidays
Skye - We shared studios, became friends too and have continued to eat, drink and talk about pots together ever since.
You all fire regularly in electric kilns in London and Norwich, what draws you to wood firing and why do you do it?
Lily - Both woodfirng and electric firing have their strengths. For me, being able to experience both allows me to better appreciate each method. Having a wide range of experience strengthens and informs my work in a broad way. In more specific ways, I really enjoy the camaraderie of woodfiring. It's only really possible to woodfire with a team, especially these long firings in big kilns. You need lots of people to firstly make enough work to fill the kilns but also to spend 100 hours firing a kiln is just not possible by yourself.
Of course the resulting pots have a completely different vernacular. The electric kilns produce relative uniformity, are efficient, and more predictable. These are great qualities when you're making to commission or trying to make the same work over and over again. Wood firing is a relief to this uniformity, and allows a space for learning and development that I can't give myself alone in my studio.
Ned - It’s looking for the next interesting thing, I guess, I will always fire some work electric I’m sure, but working with other firing techniques allows a whole new pallet of effects to emerge
Skye - It’s a welcome change of pace, the aesthetic is very different and it feels good to make things that aren’t for anyone. In short it changes up my process and I learn stuff. The more I do it, the more I understand. I also love the community aspect of it.
What is the biggest difference between firing electric or wood?
Lily - As an observer, the main difference is visual. The wood kiln produces an environment which is oxygen hungry, full of ash and flame. The impact on the pots is dynamic and clearly shows the movement of the fire, and the extreme conditions that the pots have withstood. However, as a potter, the difference is much more experiencial. Wood kilns must really be outside of built up areas, are usually best fired with a team, often for days on end, and require a dedication and patience that can be extremely testing.
For both methods, the kiln is a point of no return. Firing the clay into ceramic renders it permanent, able to withstand the passing of thousands of years. To get the clay to become ceramic, certain temperatures must be reached under certain circumstances. The way in which this temperature is reached produces wildly different results. So when you're firing in an electric kiln, all these requirements can be programmed into a controller and you push a button, but with a wood kiln you have to be able to respond in the moment to the kiln, and to have the confidence to know what to do.
Ned - It’s more work! But also you’re much more aware of the unbelievable heat needed, pots are very domesticated humane little objects, but to see them happily sitting in this boiling hellfire surface of the sun environment is quite mind blowing
Skye - Everything really; electric you have your programme set and you press play. And generally speaking you know what to expect when you open the kiln. Wood firing is so much work; constantly adjusting, analysing, guessing. It starts super slow and over a few days the pace picks up until you’re dripping with sweat stoking a very big fire. And when you open up the kiln you have no idea what you’re going to find.
Do you make differently for these differing firing methods?
Lily - Yes! Usually my functional work is made a little heavier for woodfiring. I also consider how the pots will be loaded into the woodkiln. The pots will have wadding underneath to lift them off the kiln shelves, so they must be sturdy and stable. Wobbly pots on small bases pose a bit of a risk. I think there's also an acceptance that some of the work in the kiln will be battered by the process, perhaps beyond salvage. And that some spots in the kiln will perform beautifully well. There's no real way of knowing exactly where these 'good' and 'bad' spots will be prior to the firing (other than some educated guesswork) so you have to work on the assumption that every spot in the kiln will be good. You would kick yourself if you put a below par pot in the best spot in the kiln. You just wouldn't be doing the kiln justice. So every single pot that goes into the kiln must be up to scratch, worthy of the work that it takes to fire that kiln.
Ned - I embraced the pots each being unique, I work a lot in batches of matching pots, but when the fire will change them I didn’t see the need to
Skye - For sure; most of my work is commission lead - so I’m creating something for a reason and for someone. You know what you want the final result to be and there’s an aesthetic you need to uphold.
Work for a wood kiln is an excuse to make pieces that have no end goal or function. Purely work for curiosity's sake. Living and working in London it can be difficult to slow down and play, and this kind of pushes me to do so. I set aside time and make the shapes I’ve been curious to try and experiment with textures I think might pick up something cool in the kilns. Much looser making, no rules.
What was your favourite part of the process?
Lily - I enjoy the creativity of loading the kiln, the rhythmic flow that you can get into can feel really satisfying. I'm also a big fan of the point, around 60 hours into the firing of the groundhog kiln, where things really start hotting up. When you can start to feel the heat stinging your skin with every stoke, and a few of the pots in the hottest spots might be starting to get a bit shiney. That's the point where I can start to believe that what we're doing might be working, but there's still a lot left to play for. I like the bustle of it. I think that to the outsider, a lot of woodfiring can look a bit like having a nice sit around a fire and occasionally throwing a few sticks on it. But the truth is that you are working so hard to stay attuned to the kiln, listening to the crackles peak and die out, watching the flow of the flame behind the bag wall, feeling the waves of heat and the pattern of firing as your body dances around the needs of the kiln. More wood now, hold back now, gently, more soft wood, more air. It's an honour to feel this big beast, full of work and potential, respond to your efforts.
Ned - Drinking 3 coffees at 4am and listening to the morning chorus while gently stoking the fire was pretty idyllic
Skye - Late night shifts when everything is quiet, you watch fire, see sunrise and hear the birds wake up the world.
Do you think wood firing will gain the kind of popularity pottery has gained in the last 5 years or so?
Lily - I certainly hope so. I think there is a lot of education to do, to explain the phenomenal amount of skill and work required to make pots in this way. I would also like to see a better understanding of the material circumstances holding back younger people from access to woodfiring.
Ned - No, I think the difficulty in access to kilns, sourcing wood and general effort will always mean there are less wood firers than electric, though I’m sure the number of people firing in fuel burning kilns will increase
Skye - I think a new group of makers are becoming more and more aware of it and the interest is growing. But it’s a very different economic climate for us. Owning land in areas to build this kind of setup feels impossible, so the accessibility isn’t really there. It’s laborious, inefficient and not exactly environmentally savvy but it’s an incredible way of creating work and building relationships and community. I think slowly opportunities are starting to open up to more makers, and I hope that continues, but let’s see. It won’t grow in the same way, but hopefully more and more who are interested in ceramics will learn about wood firing, and if they want to, have the chance to stoke a fat little anagama and experience the beauty of it all.
What is the biggest misconception you've found people have surrounding wood fired work?
Lily - People often say "oh like raku?". I think that raku might be the most well known of the 'alternative' firing types, but they're very very different!
Ned - That it’s raku
Skye - People are familiar with Raku now because of The Great Pottery Throw Down so guess that’s why they liken it to that.
Who are the big dogs of wood firing in the UK or beyond that you'd love to learn from?
Lily - Randy Johnston, Micah Levy, Stuart Gair, Mike Dodd
Ned - I don’t know, I think the personality cults around some wood firers is probably a bit relevant to the next question, in terms of people I would like to fire with, I keep on meaning to go see Mark Titchener in his studio just over in Suffolk, I love his pots easiness, they feel unselfconscious
Skye - Nic Collins and Sabine Nemet; lucky I'm learning from them already!
It seems that in the past woodfiring has been quite male dominant, but today there is a growing community of women who are making their way to the firebox - why do you think this is?
Lily - I think that a lot of it is down to stubborn persistence. This is a space we can thrive, we deserve access to these resources, and we are capable. I have found over the course of a few years of wood firing now, that predominantly female crews yeild not only good results from the kilns, but also environments are so supportive and loving. There can be a very macho and intimidating culture around wood firing, and it just doesn't have to be that way. I think that younger women are discovering that now, with stubborn persistence, we can create spaces that work for us and where we are respected as equal players.
Ned - I’m probably not going to try and mansplain that, but there are some great woman woodfirers about, there’s two in this exhibition
Skye - It does have this stigma about being a bit of a boys club, ‘man make fire’ kind of vibe - but that’s changing for sure. A new generation of women, old and young, know it’s silly, they know what they want and they are pushing to be let in the door. And the doors will open!
Whose work do you love and admire that some of us might not know about, but should?
Lily - Randy Johnston, Micah Levy, Stuart Gair, Mike Dodd
Ned - Mark Titchner as I mentioned already, Rachel Kurdynowska is a potter in Norwich who’s great, her recent woodfired model of a wood kiln is the best thing ever, I love Rose de Bormans messy haunted animals too. I would mention others but I keep thinking of people klei already stocks.
Skye - Hyme Rabinowitz, a South African potter whose work I unwittingly grew up using, touching and admiring. Unfortunately he’s passed away and I never met him, but my dad knew him and helped him build a kiln. And Ola Lewczyk who is apprenticing Nic and Sabine at the moment - saw some of her work when we were there in May and it made me excited to see what she makes in the future.