Originally submitted to the Clay Arts Utah Newsletter by Juanita Marshall
Wood Fire Workshop Worth The Heat
In July last year I had opportunity to attend a fourteen day course on wood firing techniques at NAU in Flagstaff Arizona. The course was taught by Professor Jason Hess, the head of the ceramics department. The whole experience was a wonderful chance to immerse myself in all aspects of the wood fire process. For two weeks our main responsibility was to make art and to involve ourselves in every aspect of the process starting with making clay, glazes, and slips; preparing wood piles for firings, preparing kilns and shelves for new loads, as well as being an integral part of the firings and eventual kiln openings and final cleanup. In between sessions, Jason demonstrated different throwing and ceramic techniques so we were never at a loss for ideas or something new to attempt.
Over the two weeks, we fired the wood train kiln twice, the wood-soda twice, the second side of the wood caternary arch kiln once, and were able to place a few pieces in a gas-soda and gas reduction firing (to accommodate the overflow pieces). Lola, a student there, also included me in a very small low fire gas salt firing, and set me up to do a low- fire pit firing as well.
Having mainly worked with gas kilns before, I enjoyed seeing the impact that twenty-four hours of stoking plus variables of wood ash, soda, organic materials, specialty woods, and glaze/slip combinations made on the different pots. Something that you might originally feel looks like a cooking experiment gone awry, may take on new interest as you clean it up a bit and discover the history of the flame and smoke and accumulations of ash that make the piece unique.
The class was a good mix of young art students, passionate potters, and artists. I would have to guess our ages ranged from seventeen to sixty, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of the group. On a day when the kilns were cooling, Jason took us to visit Don Reitz’ home and studio. It was a great outing and Mr. Reitz graciously took a few hours of his time to show us his kilns, works in progress, tell a bit about how he operates, and share with us information about the extensive pot collection he has in his home. I think I enjoyed the fact that he found worth in works of well known artists as well as enthusiasm for some small pieces crafted by students.
A word to the wise: Although sauna-like conditions do exist from time to time in the workshop, I would not recommend this course if you are looking for a “spa experience.” If, however, you are adventurous and curious and are willing to put in some hard work to experience some surprising results, you will love this class. I came away from the workshop with a respect and admiration for the NAU ceramics program, and with appreciation for the satisfaction that is to be gained by committing bisque ware pieces to the history of the flames.
Submitted to the Newsletter by Juanita Marshall