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22 January 2013

Firing in the Garden

I have been initiated

Rising from the flames – my pot!
My first-ever raku glaze emerges from a bin
of burning wood shavings.

Today I was introduced to the alchemy of glazing and firing and other arcane mysteries of The Potter.

I'm sure this is a vast and complex field of study and I  don't know very much about it, so I'll just show you my photographs and the knowledgeable potters among you can snort at my ignorance when I give something an inappropriate caption, make some particularly glaring error in terminology or say something totally stupid.

Feel free to comment and correct as required!

Pots and Pizza 

This firing was the culmination of a pottery course which I had not attended. Kind participants gave me the choice of a few unclaimed pieces so I could join in with some experimental glazing. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen but, assuming that leaving some areas unglazed might create an interesting effect,  picked a simple cylindrical pot. This provided a nice, smooth surface on which to paint some humorous animals with wax before dipping it into a metallic glaze and leaving it overnight to dry.

glazed and waiting for firing

Next day I turned up at Roger and Alison's house to watch proceedings.

The men had been up early building a kiln from insulated fire bricks and by the time I arrived everything was well under way with the first few pots fired and being cleaned.  

Pots are heated to a temperature high enough to melt the glaze, then they are removed from the kiln and the final colour depends on what happens next. Some are left to cool in the air. Some are plunged into water.  

Most, however, are buried red-hot in wood shavings which burn, enriching the colour of the glaze and smoking unglazed pottery to black. A good, hot burn uses up oxygen, reducing a copper-based glaze to its metallic components and producing a rich, dark, coppery sheen.  

As pots came hot from the kiln their creators made snap decisions, generally opting for reduction rather than air or water cooling. Pot after pot was thrust into a metal bin, quickly covered with shavings or gum leaves before a heavy lid was slapped on top to exclude air.

After an indeterminate time – that is, I didn't think to ask how it was determined – the lid was removed and the pots taken out, covered in ash and dust and sometimes wreathed in flames as the shavings flared up when exposed to the open air.

Left to cool, they were finally claimed by their owners who scrubbed off smoke and ash and smoothed off any sharp bits of glaze, exclaiming in surprised delight as the true colour was revealed.  

unfired glaze - the gum leaves have no relevance at all -
wood shavings were used to create the colours on this one

Variations in temperature are reflected in variations in colour, often on the same pot. In this case, they varied from pale blue to deep red-brown and dark green. Using fresh gumleaves instead of shavings gives another effect altogether.  

No doubt skilled potters who do this sort of thing for a living have it all worked out and can control everything from kiln temperature to reduction so that they know exactly how the finished product will turn out, but for us every firing was an adventure.

It was all very exciting – sometimes a pot exploded when placed in the kiln. One or two disintegrated when removed from the ashes. Almost all of them turned out a completely unexpected and astonishing colour, which continued to change as they cooled.

that wasn't supposed to happen

waiting for the last firing
A glass or two of good wine in the sunshine helped calm our nerves as the afternoon wore on, and finally it was time for the most keenly anticipated firing of the day – the pizza oven.

Results were greeted with as much, if not more, delight as freshly-fired pots.

  And my glaze worked beautifully, figures picked out in black on a variegated blue and red-brown surface.

From Tuesday you will be able to see some of these pieces, including my splendid effort, in an exhibition here at the Cultural Centre beside my current exhibition of paintings.

King Island Potters
Through the 2011 and 2012 school terms 24 local residents enjoyed working with clay under the expert guidance of experienced potter, Stewart Hoyt. Supported by the King Island District High School and King Island Cultural Centre and thanks to Joc Bowden and Eva and Martin Finzel who found glazes still on the island used by the Pottery Group from the 70's the results are full of colour, energy and beauty.
King Island Cultural Centre  22 January - 22 February 2013

With special thanks to Alison Milsom, Roger Banfield and Stewart Hoyt

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