Research Communications

All Fired Up 

Ceramic artists experiment with local clays and new wood-firing techniques

September 10, 2010

For ceramic artists who use wood-fired kilns, their work is about more than creating with clay. The process for using this traditional firing technique requires physical labor, patience, and a zeal for the sometimes unexpected results of the kiln. But that’s also what draws artists to the ancient craft.

“No one splits ten cords of wood if they don’t love the process and aren’t dedicated to the results,” says Ohio University graduate student Bryce Brisco while surveying a tall stack of logs that will become fuel for the school’s five outdoor wood-fired kilns.

Ceramics firing process

Ceramics firing process
The firing process, which takes 36 to 40 hours, requires vigilant attention from the artists.
Photo Credit: Brad Chaffin

The chance to experiment with this unique facility drew four visiting artists to campus in July. In a symposium organized by Brisco and fellow graduate student James Tingey, each artist worked with Ohio University undergraduate and graduate students to explore the impact of the different kilns on their finished works of art.

Each of the five brick kilns can create distinct results, Brisco explains. Depending on how the kilns were built, the angle and intensity of the flames heating the clay pieces can vary. Some kilns generate heavier ash deposits, which makes for darker colors, while the light ash in other kilns can produce warmer, toastier effects. The artists also can add salt to the process, which creates a glossy finish. Otherwise the pieces may bear a dry, ashy surface.

During the wood firing symposium, the artists also planned to experiment with a technique called reduction cooling, in which the pieces remain longer in an oxygen-starved environment to create saturated cranberry and gunmetal gray colors, Brisco says. Other kilns would be fired longer to enhance ash deposits.

The visiting artists also were eager to test out the iron-rich, locally mined clay, which had been sourced from Logan, Ohio, and Strouds Run in Athens. Lindsay Oesterritter, a visiting artist from Bowling Green, Kentucky, notes that some ceramic artists are passionate about using regional clays and also local wood, which bears minerals specific to the geographic location where it was harvested.

“This clay is unique to the area—it’s a signature of the place,” she says.

The firing process, which takes 36-40 hours, requires vigilant attention from the community of artists—from loading the wood and pieces, managing the flames around the clock, and unloading the finished works.

Visiting artist Missy McCormick usually uses a more conventional firing technique in her studio outside of Cincinnati (many ceramic artists use indoor gas- or electric-fired kilns), but relished the chance to return to this community-focused wood-firing process.

“This work can be isolating, so it’s great to be able to come out and interact with peers who wood fire,” says McCormick, who spent the week with fellow visiting artists Oesterritter, Josh Copus, and Matt Hylek. The foursome are exhibiting their work at the Trisolini Gallery through October 9.

Though the firing process can call for an intensive few days of work, Brisco says he’s attracted to using traditional techniques that are thousands of years old.

“I’m interested in keeping that tradition alive,” he says, “and in blending historical references with contemporary ideas.”

By Andrea Gibson

This story will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.