Writings New and Old
10 years in.... January 10 2014
This was a blurb we wrote for an exhibition and sale we had at our gallery back in 2008, just after we fired the kiln for 75 hours. Enjoy!
10 years in…….In 1998 we started the uphill journey into the art of wood-fired ceramics with a kiln building/firing in Edmonton at the U of A. At that time we had just completed our two story garage that was our studio, poured the pad for the gas kiln and ordered the bricks. But we stepped off the beaten path and something resonated in us, we found a way to finish our work in the genre of wood-fire, we could never go back. For a few years we traveled like wood-fire nomads, sleeping in the back of our truck, in search for wood kilns and people who knew how to fire them, to this day they remain some of the best teachers. We built and fired many kilns and though we gained a great deal of experience, we needed more……we needed our own kiln. So we gave up our city life, sold the house, beautiful studio, tore down the gas kiln and moved to the country to start over. The big build is what you could call the next 5+ years, kilns, kiln sheds and the house/studio/gallery is what we worked(ing) on.
There are a few switchbacks on our path that offers us a rest and a view of where we have been. Looking back many sacrifices have been made along the way, more than was expected, some unforeseeable and a few we could not have imagined, but all made willingly for they were made to allow us to do what we do. Making our work and firing with wood asks a great deal from us, it has taken its toll physically, mentally, and emotionally. Every firing cycle challenges what we think is good/bad, beautiful/ugly and keeps pushing us forward and with every step we learn more about our work and in turn, about ourselves. For us, there is no greater journey.
Christian D Barr, Enzien Kufeld
Why Wood? January 10 2014
This is an article I wrote in 2004 I think? A time when Enzien and I fired with many groups of people and even though we fire mostly by ourselves this article still makes sense today, Enjoy!
The Beginning: I like the first shift. It’s a late fall night, cool, and quiet in a land of big skies. This is a time when one needs to be patient but it also allows a time for reflection. Many thoughts flow through my mind the least of which being; why wood? Not that I don’t already have a mountain of answers for this question and need to find one, I just think it a question that I need to revisit. Questions have become more important than the answers.
You can hear the camp fire crackle and pop inside the kiln, spitting bits of ash that will gently settle upon the shoulders and ledges of pots, this ash will melt into a natural glaze. Should we prolong this stage of the firing to build up the ash or should we crank it up? I look up to the sky, it’s a clear night, the moon is dancing behind the silhouettes of trees while the northern lights sway to the sound of silence, and I realize that this kiln belongs here. In my experience, not all wood-fire kilns belong to the place they are built, very few do. It’s hard to articulate but a kiln that fits into its surroundings seem to mirror, enhance, and bind one to the other as if they have always been together. It’s this connection that fascinates me, a bond just beyond my comprehension, not unlike the bond that binds us to this reality.
The crackle from the firebox has died down; I stoke it again and check the moisture coming from the blow hole. It will be dry in a couple of hours and I can pick up the pace a bit. I see a mouse sitting by the kiln, nibbling on a tidbit that got dropped by some one during the loading and I wonder if it has any clue to what I am doing. “Not much difference between you and I is there.” The mouse looks up at me, checks to make sure I am not a threat then goes back to its nibbling. The sun will be up in about four hours, there is still time to decide how fast we should go. Time does not seem to matter as much during the first shift.
Sitting in the Middle:Red-Orange flames shoot out of the blow hole, kiln roars, firebox crackles, and braids of black smoke twist and fall from the chimney, a rhythm has been established. There are more people around now, harder to keep focused with all the extra energy but it is a welcome change. A wood-fire usually means one becomes part of a community. A sharing of stories, ideas, questions, and philosophy usually takes place and all these things are not by any means limited to clay. Some groups are more dynamic than others and in one instance the group was able to tackle the topics of religion, politics, art, sex, life and death with answers and ideas that seemed so clear at the time. Wood-firing can be quite intoxicating.
The kiln is very much at the forefront of my mind but during this part of the firing I usually step back and watch “The dance of the stokers”. A chain saw snarls and chews its way through some wood, spitting shavings in its wake. A whirlwind of people are sorting, stacking and stoking, not unlike a strange pyromaniac group from the Cirque du Soleil, all in an effort to feed the fire. Each shift has their own rhythm, their own dance. They have come, done their shift and left the stage for a much needed rest until it is time to return for another round. This will occur for several more hours, until the final stoke. Every participant, potter or other, finds one last piece of wood and puts it into the firebox for one last ceremonial stoke. The grand finale.
The End: The cooling of the kiln, another time of reflection. The kiln is quiet and dark now, but I am still drawn to it. I think of the kiln, firing, its stokers and the sharing of ideas. Like the mouse at the beginning, I am left to nibble on the tidbits of information, knowledge and ideas left behind by the firing and participants. Some people have gone home, some have hung around too excited to leave; all await the opening of the kiln. For me it all comes too soon, but it always comes.
The energy is high again; every one does what they can to contain their child like anticipation, and to keep from ripping the door down like the wrapping on a Christmas present. The unloading is usually done by the one(s) who loaded it, and the knowledge that is gained can be invaluable in the next firing. Every piece that emerges from the kiln is, in my opinion, is a success as long as you have learned something from it. There are very few that really work or are a “hit”, most are adequate, and some are a “miss”. But firing this way is not really about getting everything that you want. Most participants come away with something, a few pots for some, knowledge and appreciation for others, but something for everyone for sure. What I get from the firing is bits of experience, bits of knowledge, ideas, and of course questions both new and old.
Every one has gone now. It is windy and colored leaves dance about the kiln where once people did. I feel a sense of wanting not unlike the kind one feels after reading a good book wishing it did not have to end. Once again I am left to my thoughts and I come back to the familiar question. Why wood? There are many reasons: sentiment, process, effect, community, ecologically, interaction, and versatility….the list at times seems endless. I am not a religious man, spiritual maybe, but I do view a wood-fire as a ritualistic event. The kiln is a ritual space, and a portal that gives me a fleeting glimpse at what might lie beyond the veil of this perceived reality. It allows me the ability to search for answers and find more questions, which I need in order to hopefully find a sense of understanding that ultimately gives me solace. When I first started to wood-fire it was something that I wanted to do. Now, just like my work, it has become something that I need to do.
Wouldn't it be terrible to have all the answers to one’s questions?
Christian D Barr
6th Excerpt from The Book of Shards January 09 2014
This is another one with our friend Jack Troy in it, Enjoy!
I am not used to this road. Not just this particular road but this type of road. I am used to a flat, straight, close your eyes and count to five kind of a road. Here in central Pennsylvania the road is more like an asphalt roller coaster but without the safety of being strapped in. I am sitting in the back seat, which only enhances the experience. I reach for some Canadian ginger ale to settle my stomach and I think of home.
Our pilot… err… I mean driver-guide-potter-friend, Jack Troy, is taking us to see an old abandoned pottery. These potteries were at one time all throughout PA. This one started some time in the late 1700’s and was abandoned around the 1870’s. We turn up a couple of switchbacks up the mountain, the road narrows again, light drizzle is falling and I am thankful that it is early morning and the rest of the U.S. air force has not made it to the tarmac yet. The road levels out and we come to an opening in the oak forest, we pull off the road and our guide proclaims that we have arrived. I peer through the rain streaked window and can make out a shooting range! “Figures.” I mutter to myself and take another shot of my ginger ale.
We pop out of the car and instead of going towards the shooting range our guides crosses the road and heads in to the bush with us in tow. As soon as I hit the bush I immediately start looking for traces of the pottery. However all I end up finding is plastic and glass peaking up from under the lush forest floor. There are no historical markers, no path one can make out and the only thing to guide us is our friend. I realize that very few people know or remember the pottery and even fewer people come here. The pottery is not far off the road and before we knew it, we were there. With out some one to show us we surly would have walked on by.
The wood fired salt kiln would look to most as a few bricks scattered in the bush, to potters, there is a hint of what was.
A basic shape, the chimney must have been there, oh, yes here is a fire box, and look at that. A single row of moss covered bricks still remains as an arch over one of the stoke holes. Several feet away there is a depression in the ground were they stored the clay. Jack tells us that the clay was mined across the road up on the mountain and was transported down on the “donkey railroad”. A few feet to the other side of the kiln, over grown but still visible is the shard heap. We quickly start to scavenge about looking for shards like little kids at Easter tiring to find the most, biggest and the best eggs. While I poke about I wonder if all potters are as eager to find shards, so connected to the past.
I find a couple of shards that I am happy with, one is the side of a crock with a handle, the other is the bottom of a pot where it must have hung over an edge leaving a record of salt and flame. We share our findings and muse over the demise of the pottery. A thriving and necessary industry, chipped away by jiggered ware, then glass and finally plastic. My mind wanders and I envision a kiln with flame and white smoke puffing up into the sky. Clay is being aged in the moist cool ground, wood is split and dried and a potter is making jugs and crocks. He is a different kind of potter than I, more pragmatic I think. I wonder if he knew what was coming.
As we make our way to the car my hands are getting used to the feel of the shards, but my eyes are still drawn to the plastic and glass that is now glaring up at me from the forest floor. I can’t help but wonder if they are the shards of our time.
Christian D Barr
5th Excerpt from The Book of Shards January 09 2014
Again this one is from the Alberta Potters' Association newsletter way back when. Enjoy!
the Book of Shards…
This excerpt was taken from a conversation that my wife and I had with Jack Troy.
We walked up to Jack’s kiln just outside of his home in Pennsylvania, and just before we started the obligatory kiln tour I noticed a pile of shards just of to the side, with plants and years of debris scattered amongst the shards. Making a mental note of its location, we continued on with the tour, all the while my thoughts kept drifting back to the shard pile. After Jack had shown us the kiln, stacks of oak and hickory wood and the neat kiln game that has kept many a stoker amused in the wee hours of a firing, I went for the shard pile and started to rummage, some what callously and without thought to my host I must admit, but these were no ordinary shards and the urge was too great.
Jack seemed somewhat amused as I picked up a few pieces, held them up to the light, or grabbed a particular handle and tried it out for fit. I then proceeded to talk to him about my thoughts and ideas of shards and almost instantly he had a story about the topic. A story that not only belongs in the book of shards, but is closely linked to the reason for the books creation. It follows as such…….
Jack had just completed a firing with a group of students, (from Juniata College or from a workshop held some were else, I am uncertain) and had gathered every one in a circle with their favorite piece from the firing in hand. Each person would pass their prized pot around and every one got the chance to look and handle the pot, then voice their opinions. I thought this to be a great way to teach critiques, and would be invaluable to the students. However it was a student that was to teach something to everyone that day.
The turn to share came to one student with a pot that the group had expressed great interest in. One by one they got to look at the pot, handle it and then remarked at what they liked about it. One by one until the pot came back to its maker. Then he stood up and asked the group what they liked most about the pot. Again, one by one made their thoughts known. Then at the end he went to the middle of the circle and smashed the pot to the ground! Shards flew through the air, twinkling as they fell to the ground, accompanied by a collective gasp. “why did you do that?” “What the…..” “That was such a nice pot….” The comments flew fast and at times furiously. Once everyone had calmed down the student once again rose and addressed the group.
“ This” pointing to the pile of shards in the centre of the circle. “is just clay. It is just shards now. You see the pot was not the most important thing that you saw or felt, it was the experience that the pot gave you that is the most important thing.”
This action of the unknown student echoes some of my own thoughts. It is the moment that I hold precious. And for a potter there are so many moments in the making, firing and even if one is lucky, in the selling. It is the experience that holds meaning in these objects made of clay that I hold so precious. Most pots are destined to be shards and nothing lasts forever, but moments…….moments are to be held on to as long as you can.
Christian D Barr
4th Excerpt from The Book of Shards January 09 2014
Here is another old one, Enjoy!
' The firing was a moderate success. There were ample ash deposits; flashing and just enough soda sprayed in at the right time to cause carbon trapping on the rims and edges of the pots. Still there was something amiss with a few of the items that lay upon the table.
I first thought it was how they were jammed together on the small table, not being able to "see" them in their own space. I moved some of the better ones away, giving them a place all to their own upon a shelf reserved for those that made it. As time passed only a few were left on the table. I stood there in front of them and examined each one, turning it over and over in my hands. While I did this I started to remember doing this many times before, a time when there were more than just a few that didn't make it to the shelf and the table was crowded with pots that just seemed not quite right. Back then it was difficult to see them as I do now and the process of deciding which to keep and which not to keep took a great deal of time.
Over time I developed a theory about this process, it is very much like the chicken and the egg. I have come to realize that before one can truly begin in the making one must understand the firing. Of course one needs to first make things in order to fire them, so how can one understand the firing first if you must make things first? Trail and Error, over and over again.
A once full table of questionable pots has now dwindled down to a few. Back at the table I placed a pot off to the side, I saw the shard within and let the hammer fall... Shards sparkled in the sunlight as they spun and flew through the air. A twinkling sound could be heard as they bounced off the table and fell to the concrete floor. "Break out the shards" I thought. Even though I had done this countless time before this ritual remains as important to the process as it was the first time.
As I finished cleaning up after the "sharding" I realized that I had not kept any of my first shards and felt saddened. I looked down at the pile and picked out a couple of pieces that caught my eye. "These make better shards then pots" and began to rummage through the pile. I picked up several shards and I took great delight in them. "These are really good. Maybe I will enter them into a show..."
Shard on eh.
Christian D Barr
Tempest Firing 2005 January 09 2014
This was an article I wrote after the second firing of our big kiln. Enjoy!
Firing at the Kiln Park
I know it was not what some might have wanted, pushed others to the edge and beyond, the results varied especially to those whose eyes held a certain expectation, but after a few months of reflection the second firing of the kiln that I have come to know as the Tempest kiln (also referred to as the Cat-Coffin kiln) was, all things considered, a truly great firing. Probably the best one I have had the pleasure of participating in.
This kiln that started out in an exercise in grant writing turned into as its name implies, an often-violent storm for me. As hard as we pushed to get the kiln built, to fill it, get help to fire it and have it fire well, the kiln seemed to push back. This firing was different, for all its complexity (due to the fact that I tried to cram a few to many ideas into the kiln, not unlike a kid seeing how many cookies one could fit into his mouth) the kiln fired relatively well. It dealt us a few curves, like producing a long flame that heated the back first, not giving us (especially for those of the sleep deprived variety) clear signals for when to stoke and generally encouraging us to flex our physical, intuitive and intellectual muscles a bit, but for me, the promise that I saw before I now see again and now I know that this is a good kiln.
I have a nasty habit of projecting and start to think about the next firing whilst the current firing is right before me and even though I did this a bit during the firing I found that it did not happen as much. Not because the lack of opportunity, but more because I was too engaged with the kiln and the people. After a few months and a bit of projecting later I have a better idea of how and what I would like to see in the next firing. A slight change in stacking, a bit more air in the coal bed perhaps, seal up the last chamber a bit more, I would even like to see more side stoking especially the last port before it goes into the second chamber. The thing that I feel no need to change in the firing (even though I know it will) is the people. The firing dynamic this time around was by far the best one that I have been involved in. The diverse knowledge and experience, the exchange of ideas, and the intensity all were reflected in the work that emerged from the kiln.
The pots and the kiln are important but are just a record of a process. The people that make and fire the work are the most important part of that process and are, in the end the reason we do it. We could not fire this entire kiln on our own, nor would we want to. I would like to thank all of you for being here when we needed you most.
A few months afterwards my mind still wanders back to the firing, especially now that we have cleaned up and set free (via a Christmas sale) some of the work that came out of the kiln. I have noticed that I still get quite excited about that firing and I guess what I needed to see in this firing I saw, not because I wanted to see it but because it was actually there. The only thing left now is possibilities.
Till next time,
Christian D Barr
First Firing of our big kiln January 09 2014
This was an article I wrote for our First Firing show at the Alberta Craft Council way back in 2004. We planned the show even before we finished the kiln! Can't believe it has been 10 years already. Enjoy!
Two years ago we received a partial grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts to build an experimental wood fired kiln. This show is based on the very first firing of that kiln.
Being a very highly experimental kiln our expectations were set somewhat on the low side, for you see, a pessimist is never disappointed. Still after over two years trying to wrap one’s head around this kiln, find the funds and get it built along with all the other things it takes to be full time potters, we remained cautiously optimistic.
The firing went according to plan…..for the most part. The kiln stalled at around 900 degrees Celsius. I grumbled around the kiln for some time trying to figure it out amongst the other folks that came to help us fire it. At around 2 in the morning on the third day, after all the hearty stokers’ trotted off to bed Enzien and I were left to mull over our misbehaving child.
“Figures.” She said.
“What?” I replied
“Why should it be any easier to fire than it was to build.” She said with a smirk.
“Grumble grumble.” I responded
“ It’s cursed.” She said.
“No it’s not!..grumble, grumble, mutter, mutter.” I was peeking in the front stoke doors now looking at some of the pots that would suffer the most if we had to do what we were about to.
Over the next half-hour we tried to figure why this thing was stuck and then dipped into our bag of tricks and pulled out one of our measures of last resort. We knew the decision would mean that the wares in the front of the kiln would suffer the most and they did. This is were working with a kiln, in particular a new kiln as unique as this one, can teach you something new as long as you are willing to set aside you expectations. Pots got bumped the kiln got hot, hotter that we have ever been before, and intentions were placed upon the shelf for the next firing. There were a couple more moments that required some slight of hand and racking of brains, and after 81 hours, an exhausted and trusty crew closed it up.
People have asked me why such a different kiln. Why not build something that is tried and true. I usually respond to them with technical jargon like multiple draft capabilities, increased number of ‘zones’, firing types, localized stoking, reduction cooling, etc.…What actually I should be saying is that when does one start and stop interacting with the artwork? Does it start with the artist touching clay and end once it is put into a kiln? Or does it start and end where one wants it. A wood kiln extends the interaction between the artist and the work. This kiln gives us that and so much more.
This kiln exists on the rim of what should and should not be done. It only seems fitting that this show should reflect that.
Christian D Barr
The Sun captured by Cellulose January 09 2014
Here is something I wrote way back in 2002ish? Anyway Enjoy!
The sound of the sun captured by cellulose is popping and cracking behind the stoke door and though in the kiln it is nice and warm its minus 25 degrees Celsius outside. Firing only in the summer months is not an option for full time potters living in Canada and it is times like these when I reflect on how we have come to fire our work with wood.
It was in 1998 when Enzien and I partook in a kiln building/firing workshop with Fred Olsen in at that time our home town, Edmonton, Alberta. We had no previous wood fire experience, in fact the only exposure to wood fired pots was through pictures. After 7 days of building loading and firing the huge experimental kiln (which is featured in Fred’s latest edition of The Kiln Book) we knew, whether we liked it or not, major life changes were in order. Little did we realize the scope of the changes ahead of us in how we worked, lived and the enormity of the sacrifices we were about to take. “Thanks Fred…..you just ruined our lives….” Of course you can not create something with out first destroying something and we had found a way to finish our work, everything else just did not seem as important as it once did.
During that fortuitous workshop we meet many good people with many friendships forged and of those, Jeff Stewart an artist in residence at the Banff Center for the Arts, was the one that fanned flames of our spirit the most. We naïvely wanted to build a wood kiln right away and a kid at Christmas paled in comparison to our eagerness to fire with wood again. Jeff, though excited by our eagerness tempered it with a few pointed questions.
“Maybe you might want to fire a few different types of kilns before you build one….just to see which one suits you and your work.”
“o.k….” we said. Our eagerness only slightly diminished. After a few moments of staring intently into space and a little refocusing we were back on track. “What kilns should we fire? Where can we go? Who do we talk to? Do you have a kiln at Banff? Can we fire it?….Can we?.”
So for the next couple of years we became a kind of wood fire nomad. Traveling from kiln to kiln sleeping in the back of our truck, taking in a workshop here and there and soaking up any information that the kilns, the pots and the people around them had to offer. In 2000 a friend of ours wanted to build a wood kiln on her farm just an hour and a half West from Edmonton and two and half hours from the rocky mountains. We had some experience and she would fund the building and so we set off to build our first wood kiln. We completed the kiln in the fall and fired it a few times but by the time spring came around we knew that we needed a kiln(s) of our own. We had ideas of our own and after firing different kilns we decided we needed more than one so we set off on a journey to find a place were we could build them and a place that we felt we belonged to, not an easy task to be sure.
We traveled the length a breadth of Alberta and even tip toed through Saskatchewan searching for a suitable spot that not only fell with in our budget but also felt right. You see people are amazingly adaptable creatures and can and do live just about anywhere but living and belonging to a place are two entirely different things and we needed a place where we could do both. After 8 months of searching we were about to pack up and head East to Saskatchewan ( Canada’s hidden treasure) when a small acreage became available right next door to the place were we built our first kiln. Rolling land, treed, close to a quiet lake and the sleepy town of Wildwood, far enough from a major city and only a couple of hours away from the majesty of the Rockies. Perfect! By the end of 2001 we counted and then parted with our beans and the search was over. We e-mailed our friends about the purchase and the best response back was from our friend Jack Troy, being the word smith that he is replied:
“I think you're on the verge of a satisfying habitat, where you'll merge your life and the work that rises out of the venture will be more nearly your own in the sense that there'll be an even stronger identity with it than with things you've done previously.”
In the summer of 2002 we started to build the shed for the first kiln (a Peg Udall variant). Just after we started we got notice that we were about to receive a $15,000 grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts for a proposed experimental kiln (which would require an article all unto its own to describe) that we applied for but expected not to receive. We wrote the grant application as though it were an exercise and with no expectations of getting it. Now two kilns were the order of the day….weeks…..months…..year……make that two and a half years later we now have two wood kilns complete with sheds.
During this time we were still able to travel and fire different kilns one being the Anagama at Juniata College were Jack Troy teaches. After spending 6 weeks with Jack, firing the kiln and examining the results we both knew, with out saying a word to one another that we need to have one of these kilns. So in searching out bricks for the two kilns we were able to obtain enough for a wood salt kiln and an Anagama. So when time and money permits two more kilns will be added to our chorus of kilns.
We are currently working on the gallery in amongst the occasional snow flurry trying to get it ready for the spring. The shell started out as a very modest 570 sq. ft older mobile home that will be converted into a two-story gallery surrounded by a covered deck as added display. Our priorities have always been kilns first, gallery second and living space as third. We would rather have a place that acts as a sounding board to our work than to have a comfy place where we can get away from it.
Since 1998 we have traveled down a most rewarding path were work and life merge into one. It is however a path riddled with uncertainty, hard work, sacrifice, more hard work, the ever present monetary woes,…did I mention the hard work?….well you get the idea. The last few years have been especially difficult with more building and hauling of materials then actually making work and firing it. Thinking of it as an investment in our future helps but there are times when we yearn for a good winter firing when snow is falling or when the moon and the northern lights dance behind the silhouette of the trees.
Christian D Barr
3rd Excerpt from the Book of Shards January 09 2014
Here is another one, again it goes way back. Was published in APA newsletter and then republished in Ceramics Review. Enjoy
Excerpt from the ‘Book of Shards’
I reached into the warm water and fumbled around for it. The bowl was instantly recognizable as I grasped it and could feel the texture of its surface. I spin the bowl in the palm of one hand while my other hand swishes a wash cloth on the inside, then I run my fingers all over the bowl making sure that it is indeed clean. Warm water flows over the bowl washing away the bubbles reviling a warm pallet of color. Grasping the foot, I bring the bowl up to eye level and twirl it around examining the various aspects of it. I wish for more light for the sink faces the wall and not a window, something to make sure of when we build our house. Satisfied that the bowl is clean and that I have had my fill of what it has offered me I plunk in down in to the drying tray, a light clinking sound comes up from the bowl as it rests upon another. I again plunge my hands into the soapy water eagerly seeking out the next hidden treasure.
Needless to say washing dishes takes me a considerable amount of time to do, yet I have no desire to own a dishwasher. Indeed the only time I had one was when we went to sell the house in the city, we installed it but never even turned it on to see if it actually worked, I believe the manual was still taped to the inside when we left. Dishwashers are supposed to be time savers, and yet I don’t see washing dishes a time waster, actually I view washing dishes as meditative. The warm soothing water, the repetitive motion, and the visual and tactile sensations make it perfect place to experience a pot.
Now days more pots seem to be left upon mantles or plinths than they do on the kitchen shelves or drying racks. Even old pots in museums are handled with white gloves over a padded table, something the maker might never thought of. I think I am both consciously and subconsciously not at ease with these venues and I feel that I do not get every thing that the pot has to offer because of this. Of course a pot that gathers dust is less likely to become a shard while a pot that spends a great deal of time in the drying rack is. However I feel handling a pot in its intended environment revels to us much more into its and our existence.
I feel we can learn so much from a heap of dishes overflowing the drying tray than a single pot stuck behind a glass wall. So when a pot becomes shards when it is used in every day life, don’t be saddened, it was meant to be.
Christian D Barr
2nd Excerpt from the book of shards January 09 2014
Again this is an old article written for the Alberta Potters' Association Contact newsletter,
Excerpts from the book of shards
Those of you who actually read these excerpts have probably noticed that I have an affinity for shards, how they came to be, how they influence us, the present, reveal to us in others the things they found good or bad…..well the list goes on and on. In fact you might say you could look at shards in just as many ways as…..well as there are shards. Of course shards are not the only thing I am drawn to, I do like whole pots as well and if they posses cracks, splits, warps, lime pops, and even some bloating or blistering…..all the better I say! These ‘flaws’ really challenge us as makers of ceramic objets. They define us as in what we find acceptable and unacceptable, show us how we look and more importantly how we see things, and to a certain extent, who we are and what we are doing.
Now before some of you get a little squirrely on me please let me give you some reference for my particular fascination with the so-called ‘ugly mistakes’ of our ceramic world. I would certainly not like a tea bowl that has an S crack in the bottom and have hot tea leak out onto my lap and believe that functional works should be just that. Furthermore, by no means do I think everyone can or should appreciate the things that I find intriguing. You see my wife and I only fire our work with wood, no electricity, no gas, just wood and in doing so there is naturally more ‘wastage’ because of the harshness of process and with the extremes we like to go to. With wood you become more of an active participant throughout the entire creation of a piece and if you are to get any good at it you have to closely examine everything that goes in and out of a wood kiln, good or bad. Learning to fire with wood has been an ongoing series trials and errors and with every cycle you naturally learn to let go of expectation and ego a little bit more each time. When you start to let go of these things, every time you look at what comes out of a kiln your ideas of what is beauty and what is ugly are inevitably challenged and occasionally they change.
The other day while sipping tea with my good wife we started to talk about the last firing, a humdinger by any standard, and some of the pots that emerged reflected that intensity. Each pot revealed something about the firing, where it was in the kiln, the temperature, the ash/flash and they allow us to see certain things within the kiln. Of course when we looked at them as a whole we could get a sense of the entire firing. I then realized that shards are the same, if you find a piece of the whole you tend to examine it more closely than you would normally. A handle, a lip or foot maybe a spout or surface, all are looked at with more scrutiny. How were they made, fired? What was the makers intent? How did they approach certain aspects in its creation? Etcetera, etcetera.
I then started to see a connection between shards, pots from a firing and even the ‘ugly mistakes’ on pots I mentioned earlier. They all allow me to see things within the whole, not because of what is there but because of what is not there. Things become clearer, and are more intimately examined because one is not distracted by the whole and when not distracted I can appreciate them for what they are and not what they are in relation to. In the end, this is what truly drives me in my explorations into wood fired ceramics.
Christian D Barr
First Excerpt from the Book of Shards January 09 2014
This is a an old writing from when Enzien and I managed the Alberta Potters Association and were Editors of the Contact Newsletter. Enjoy!
Excerpts from The Book of Shards
The cup was placed in the drain tray, placed with care, safe and secure…….or so I thought. As I went back to the rest of the dishes I heard the pots shift in the tray, I turned just in time to see one of our favorite cups as it struck the floor. Eyes widened, heart skipped, then sank into my gut as I realized what just happened.
“%$#&….#@%&!!!!!!” Was all that could be said at that moment. My wife, hearing the noise, asked which piece was it that had broken, a common enough occurrence in the daily use of pots. I told her which one had been dispatched to pottery heaven or the shard graveyard, whichever you prefer, she tried to console me. “No point in getting too upset about it.” I picked up what was left of the cup and placed the shards inside it but I could not bring myself to throw it out yet. I placed it on the shelf, finished the dishes and continued about my daily routine, admonishing myself for being careless all the while the image of the breaking cup danced in my head for the rest of the day and the day after that and the day after that. In fact the falling cup bugged me for more than a week! I had broken pots before but none had bugged me as much as this one and after a week it was time to figure out just why this was so annoying.
The pot was made in our old studio in the city when a friend and fellow potter came to stay with us during the cool down after a wood firing. He is a compulsive thrower and can’t pass a potter’s wheel without making something. He made some of his standard wares; mugs, cups, a pitcher and then there was the cup.
It had a narrow base, thin walls that slightly flared outwards and upwards to a delicate lip, then with a metal rib, from the bottom to the top, flicked a vertical grove into the cup which made the lip undulate. This cup was not like the others, the grove was not as defined, not as bold or proud as the others, it wavered and yet at the same time seemed sure, there was life in this little grove, in this little pot. We all agreed it was a ‘good one’ and our friend said to us, “fire it however you want.” Knowing we would wood fire it he left it for us along with all the others he had thrown. Time passed and eventually we glazed it in a shino glaze and fired it in our wood kiln and a favorite little pot was born. We used this cup for wine and the odd spot of fine port from time to time. Eventually the crazing on the inside of the pot turned red, adding to its beauty.
I thought about the cup and the enjoyment I had in using it but this alone could not be the sole source of my loss. I have broken other pots of similar beauty and although occasionally disappointing, I have never been so effected by a broken pot. I put this puzzle away for a couple more days until I passed the broken pot upon the shelf and thought of its maker. Then it came to me. Our friend that made the pot got into a serious accident on his way home after we unloaded the wood kiln, this accident changed his life, how could it not? I then realized that the pot was more a symbol to me than just a nice wine cup, a symbol of who our friend was before the accident and this in turn is why I could not part with it. The symbolism of the cup was its primary and now only function.
I have kept the little broken pot, tucked away in a drawer, to be looked at from time to time until I can figure out what to do with it. When I look at it I am reminded of friendship, of good times and of what a simple little pot can teach us. Not all pots function as they should and some shards function better than the pots from whence they came.
Christian D Barr