Peter Lange and I were invited to be firing demonstrators at this years ICF in Wales. We tossed around ideas about what kind of kiln to build and the organisers were impressed with our phone book kiln, so that formed the main attraction. I had an idea that an origami kiln could look quite spectacular but it foundered on the technical side, so Peter suggested we have a go at the log raku kiln. Charade then had an idea about using potatoes as a kiln building material, which oddly enough actually worked when we did tests. So we were now set - 3 kilns, 3 days and 1000 spectators.
Although we had done tests and mockups in NZ we also realised that we needed a few days up our sleeves prior to the Friday opening to figure out how to construct these kilns. Arriving on a Monday after a marathon non-stop journey from Auckland to Aberystwyth we settled in to the Arts Centre ceramics department, requisitioning gear provided by the ever helpful Roger Guy-Young.
First job was to make the sacrificial pots that would fill these kilns. Then we were onto the log raku kiln — a decent stump of a pine tree had been sourced, about 1.2 m long and 1 m round. The chainsaw was a virgin Stihl with a short bar of just 30 cm - I felt like I was whittling the wood away. After carving a flat surface for the log to rest on I carved a channel for the pots and then a chimney up through the log, a tricky proposition as the chainsaw blade was 4” short.
Luckily we had a helper turn up on Tuesday, Peter’s nephew Byron took a day off to come down from Birmingham to catch up with Peter, 3 days later he had helped us to build all three kilns but unfortunately had to go back before we fired any of them. Facebook proved it’s worth here as a way of providing instant updates as we went along.
The potato kiln was next and £80 later we had cleaned out the local supermarket of Desiree potatoes — selected simply because they were bigger and cheaper than anything else. We thought about 300 spuds should do the trick and the final tally was close to that. I brought with me a patented potato chopper that turned a lumpy spud into a tapered arch spud — perfect for building kilns with. Byron was chief cutter and did a marvellous job. One odd problem thrown up by doing this in the UK was a lack of No. 8 wire, not only a lack, but an ignorance of its existence. Luckily we sourced some from a farm of all places (after trying to explain to a hardware shop what we wanted and ending up with something we couldn’t use). We tried to prefabricate all the kilns as much as possible to make the job of final assembly at the kiln site as quick as possible — the Welsh summer was exactly the same temperature and dampness as our winter.
The phone book kiln took a bit of thinking about — mainly the key ingredient of the arch, which in the end took about a day to construct. Books needed to be sliced, drilled and threaded onto bent rods then clamped by two angle iron beams to form a tight arch. Other key areas were the fire-port and exit flues, both needed bits of stabilising kiln shelf.
Friday arrived and by the afternoon swarms of punters were making their way up the hill from the train station to register for the conference. We were busy assembling the potato kiln on the firing platform under a shelter built from scaffolding that did nothing to stop the horizontal freezing rain from blowing in. Carrots were used to fill all the holes between the potatoes and spies were made from leeks. A nominal chimney made from bricks was more an aesthetic choice than serving a function. We loaded 6 mugs as a nod to functionalism and confidence.
The opening speeches and introductions took up the early evening in a packed auditorium, then we were up. Luckily the rain had stopped, but the sun seemed to be very slow in setting. At about 9pm we thought we’d better do something other than scoff our chip dinner in front of a gathering crowd, so we lit the small gas burner. Watching the kiln slowly heat up and start to smell of roasting potatoes was novel. We’d used a fire reflective coating, ITC100, to help protect the potatoes and give us a longer burn time — it seemed to be working. The gathering gloom was a perfect opportunity to switch burners to something a bit gruntier, the crowd wanted spectacle and flames and we weren’t going to disappoint.
The kiln slowly opened up gaps as the spuds shrank in the heat, the pyrometer registered 920 degrees, the pots started to glistened, then the walls fell out! As soon as the burner was turned off a voice from the crowd wanted to know if they could have a spud, they were hungry. Undeterred by the charred skin the centre was quite delicious apparently — just a little salt was needed. Before long half the kiln was eaten by the crowd, none were interested in the pots.
Saturday and the main event for us, the phone book kiln. Assembling it with the help of Matt (one of the many student helpers) was fairly straight forward and we loaded about 30 pieces on 3 shelves — optimistic yes, but we were building this as a ‘proper’ kiln aiming for an earthenware temperature. Again a long wait for the sun to fade and at 9.30pm we started up, within 10 minutes the pyrometer read 600 degrees and black smoke pored from the steel chimney. We turned it off just to see if it would fire itself, the rumble from the hot chimney was impressive, as was the 2 foot of flame. We trickled a small flame in to keep the temperature climbing and it transformed the pile of books into a kiln. Around two and half hours in and we were stalling, 1080 degrees was reached and the kiln oscillated 20 degrees every 10 minutes. So chugging along happily with the kiln showing no sign of deterioration the Health and Safety crew suddenly deemed us risky and we were turned off. Of course turning off the burner doesn’t stop a kiln on fire, that took lots of water poured down inside the walls. Eventually the roof was lifted off intact, only a quarter burnt and the walls dismantled book by book and quenched, only a third of each book had burnt so the kiln’s integrity was excellent, a blower towards the end was probably needed to overcome the self choking of the kiln. Disappointed about being shut down without the spectacle we were hoping to provide we were covered in soot and charred paper and the bar had just closed.
Sunday dawned and the soggy pile of books took several student helpers and lots of rubbish sacks to clean up. The log needed to be hoisted up onto the platform and after last nights Health and Safety brush we wanted to do this by the book. After half an hour of enumerable suggestions 6 guys just picked it up and plonked it in place, finally a sensible approach. This log raku kiln was one that we were most familiar with and also was a day time firing. The pots were glazed and in a sedate fashion emerged from the fiery hole to be smoked and quenched. As usual with new kilns and glazes some pieces surprised us by being OK.
Overall an amazing experience, great to meet new potters and fellow demonstrators. The hardworking crew were brilliant at helping find all manner of odd requests and the atmosphere at the festival was excellent. If you find yourself in Wales in June 2015 it’s definitely worth your while to check out the ICF.
I went to China in October 2010 to see for myself what all the fuss was about and because a pottery friend I had met in Japan invited me to a ceramic forum there. I love to travel and had never been to China before, I was going with colleague and friend Peter Lange and Creative NZ had generously decided to support my travel grant so there was every incentive to spend a month exploring a slice of Chinese ceramics.
We departed on October 11th at midnight, a party made up of Peter Lange (chief translator and knowledgeable about all things Sino related), Trien Steverlynck (owner of a very useful Chinese telephone and keen explorer) and myself. First port of call was Shanghai, a city whose’ architects try and out do each other with their impressive, if slightly surreal creations. It was lucky that one of Peter’s contacts could meet us off the plane and navigate us to our hotel and along the way we picked up another potter from Australia, Vipoo Srivilasa (who it turns out we had met in Gulgong a few years earlier). A day of banquets, galleries, wine, shopping and partying followed, we ended up in a bizarre downtown New York inspired warehouse bar and a party laid on for our benefit.
Next day and we were off to Yixing, home of the funky brown teapots. Again another contact of Peters’ allowed us into the workshops to see some of the processes employed in making these exquisite pots. All that’s needed is a small table, a spinner, handful of tools and that amazing clay and before you know it a whole city has grown up making thousands of teapots every week to be sold in a thousand shops in Yixing.
Back in Shanghai we finally get to see the bund light up at night (you can almost hear the extra power stations being fired up just for all those extra lights) and sip cocktails in the 87th floor of the Hyatt whilst being entertained by a magician’s card tricks.
Then it’s a short flight to Jingdezhen, the home of imperial porcelain. We are again met at the airport and whisked through city streets to the outskirts and a place called Sanbao. Run by charismatic potter Jackson Lee and sister Wendy, Sanbao is a haven from the pollution and rush that characterises much of China. It is set up a beautiful wooded valley with a stream that runs though the complex. All the buildings are modest in scale, built of traditional materials and styles and even after staying there 10 days we still weren’t sure we’d found every room in the place.
Sanbao hosts a range of guests throughout the year as a residential workshop. The payment covers your room (I was sharing with Peter) food (absolutely the best food in Jingdezhen was served in the restaurant we ate at every day) and studio. It took a little time to settle in and explore but soon we were all busy in the studio becoming frustrated with this porcelain clay that we’d travelled so far to use. It made all our New Zealand clays seem so perfect in comparison, the Chinese porcelain cracked as soon as you looked at it, was floppy when wet, then intransigent when hard, flaked when turned and handles would misbehave overnight. The stoneware clay was a much easier proposition.
During our stay we were all whisked off to downtown Jingdezhen curtesy of the local government as honoured guests for the International Ceramics Fair held every year to promote the art of Chinese porcelain to the world. This bunfight involved a fair amount of incomprehension on the part of the honoured guests, but excellent hospitality and firework displays that rattled your teeth. The huge exhibition hall full of blue and white decorated porcelain and bone china ad nauseam had me wanting to import the famed running of the bulls in Pamplona to cull some of the excess.
Back in the tranquillity of Sanbao Peter came up with the slightly suspect idea of building a small gas fired brick salt kiln but use MSG (mono sodium glutamate, a flavour enhancer used extensively in Chinese cooking) instead of salt – all this on the hope that what’s printed on the label in China has some bearing on its contents. We cobbled this haphazard construction together in a couple of hours, to the amazement of the other potters, and loaded it with an odd collection of pots. Then we sourced the gas in huge tanks – unfortunately these big tanks only let out LPG as a liquid not the gas, which slowed us down until eventually finding the right tank. We had cones for 1280 degrees but after 8 hours were convinced that they were faulty and decided to start biffing in 2.4kg of MSG (which looks like a small rice grain) in a world first attempt at using a new material to salt a kiln. The vapour wasn’t much, just an occasional white vapour (that didn’t give you an instant MSG migraine) and the draw tiles showed a great deal of promise. The next day and we were into that kiln; the top shelf was OK, lightly salted and some nice pieces, further down the lack of temperature did mean dryer surfaces and unmelted glazes.
Then our time was over at Sanbao, so Peter and I flew to Beijing and then caught a quick train to Zibo and the start of the International Ceramic Art Forum. Which was held in the Li Ziyuan Art Center on the outskirts of a city well known for its petro-chemical industries. We were in a concrete jungle and at times the air was turbid enough to suck with a straw. The 20 or so other International guest were a varied lot that over the next 3 weeks we would get to know quite well. They hailed from Peru, Argentina, Chile, India, Greece, Turkey, Australia, Russia, America, Korea and China.
The point to this forum was for us to make work and exchange ideas through our work practice. We were confronted with 3 different clays and no idea how they would perform. But that didn’t hold us back and we got stuck into making stuff we knew using a range of equipment scattered through a warmly heated shed. It was soon obvious that only one clay behaved well, all the others were of suspect colour and even worse shrinkage, rending cracks in the most unlikely places. The only interruptions were the delicious meals served in the hotel next door and occasional Baijiu sessions. This evil liquor and the boorish manner of drinking it were a slight on otherwise an amazing time.
After 4 days of making in the studio we were into firing mode, so pots were bisqued and then loaded into a well-designed 60-cuft downdraft wood kiln. A roster was drawn up and after 41 hours of careful stoking we had reached top temperature of 1260, which was the recommended top temperature that the clays could handle.
We were taken on a field trip whilst the kiln cooled and got to see a bit of the countryside and the local ceramic museum. In that museum was the reason that Zibo has any kind of ceramic reputation; it transpires that potters here are extremely good and chipping glaze off pots. They utilise the tiniest of diamond chisels and patiently chip away a design that is then inked or stained with colour. It can look just like a brush stroke, or even a 3D photograph, all etched onto white porcelain or celadon ware.
The firing was unloaded the next day at 7pm and the tide of brown pots flooding out of the kiln (which was still over 150 degrees and the unloaders required fans to keep them cool) was unnerving. The glazes seemed to make the pots worse in some cases, and the chocolate colour that permeated every object whether a pot or a sculpture caused the eye to leap onto any point of difference. I had managed to scrounge a little white slip from a smashed pot and that had helped out some of my pieces, but Peter’s work was a symphony of brown clay accented by a brown glaze. At least the exhibition that the best of the work was destined for in Qingdao would have a colour theme if nothing else.
At this point another feature of the event took place – the presentation of the papers. Every participant had submitted an article and these had been published into a book, now we were to summarise these and add more images. This involved a lot of translation and the stoic fortitude of the audience to sit through 12 slide shows a day in 2 languages without a single snore was remarkable.
Peter had been trying to organise a few bricks and some glue for a brick sculpture – no mean feat when working through a translator and miraculously on the day before we were to leave they turned up. So Peter and I set about gluing a brick zipper to the wall of the garage. It certainly drew the favourable attention of Li Ziyuan and was the first piece in his new sculpture garden.
The selected work was packed, we packed and after a 6-hour bus trip ended up in Qingdao as honoured guests of the Qingdao Technical College. Our hotel was close to the Art Gallery in the old German quarter and we got to explore this seaside city at out leisure. Our commitments were mainly to setting up and then the opening of the exhibition, leaving lots of time for foot massage and shopping for brushes.
These events are curious beasts; the friendships and connections made are the most important outcome. Influences on your own work, or possible new directions are to be applauded if they happen. The hospitality of our hosts was exemplary with a translator on hand to sort out all our incomprehension at what was happening and when. The Zibo event together with a previous 2008 precursor has spawned an international association called International Ceramic Artists Association. What happens now is up to the enthusiasm and relevance of this group of potters.