Wednesday 26 November 2008

Wood firing

I am firing my wood kiln as I write. This is my last firing before my exhibition at Gallery St Ives, which starts on Saturday. Here is half a kiln load of pots out to dry on Monday.

I rebuilt this kiln 9 years ago and have fired it once a month since. That makes this the 108th firing in this kiln. The old kiln in my Nanai studio was fired 50 times before we knocked it down and moved it here. The bricks were second hand to begin with so...the door bricks are crusty. Beyond crusty; fragmented, lumpy and misshapen.

Instead of looking like a nice mosaic the door was looking like a crazy paving colander. Firing before last I sealed up the door with fire clay, for the first time in fifteen years, just to hold it together.

As a result I got a much heavier reduction and, as there was nowhere for the flame to escape through the door, I had to open up the damper completely to compensate. My firing has changed, not dramatically, but enough to warrant a new firing record for future reference.

In the door I have left a spy hole top and bottom with cones visible through them. There is also a quarter brick size "blow hole" at the very top of the arch to help guage reduction later in the firing. The pyrometer is positioned in the door at the top left. This means it reacts more to the left firebox which must be taken into account if using the pyro to time your stoking.

It is important to not push the pyro too far in as the outer casing can be damaged by the direct flame. As long as the tip is protruding into the kiln it should read accurately. Remember, the pyro is only a guide, it measures air temperature not heat work.

The firewood I am using is broken up palettes and boxes from Japan tobacco. A recycle company here cuts them to 40cm lengths and ties them into bundles of 21 planks. Each bundle weighs about 6kg.

I like to have two firings worth stacked on hand. I would expect to use about 60 to seventy bundles per firing. Each bundle costs 130yen.

Up until 600 degrees I keep the fire at the front of the fire box under the grate, as far away from the pots as possible. There is a sudden expansion of the silica in the clay at 573 degrees, called the alpha/beta quartz conversion. Once this point is passed the possibility of the pots cracking is minimal. As I don't bisque fire, I take the first 600 degrees very slowly, usually 7 hours, to avoid cracking the raw pots. Just under 100 degrees per hour.

During this period I stoke both fire mouths simultaneously with five pieces of wood each. The wood is cross hatched so as to allow oxygen to reach every surface. After 400 degrees I start to push the embers back with each new stoke, building up a heat mass in the fire box. Each time you stoke the temperature will drop, sometimes up to 10 or 20 degrees, then start to climb again. The temperature will peak again, then start to drop, at which point you need to stoke again. At the beginning of the firing there is fifteen to twenty minutes between stokes, but by 500+ you need to stoke every five minutes or so. This will vary for every different firing, type and shape of wood.

I need to concentrate on the firing now so I shall continue this later. Wish me luck!

Friday 14 November 2008

Salt and Pepper

Some of you may remember my trip to the Niigata sea side earlier this year. While I was there I filled a twenty litre tank with sea water for Canaan to make salt. I have fond memories of lugging it home across the moonlit rice paddies from the village hall. Well, now that it is getting colder and we are lighting the wood stove everyday, it seems a good chance to make good use of the heat.

While the rest of our lives go on, while pots are being made and deadlines being met. While children are being sent off to school or meals are being made, a fry pan full of filtered sea water slowly evaporates on the stove.

By the end of the day all the water is gone and we have a fry pan full of salt crystals. From one litre of sea water we get about 30 grams of salt, so eventually we should have about 600 grams of sea salt. I already use it in the cooking, and it has a mellower flavour than rock salt.

Mika took this snap shot of me photographing the salt and pepper, and it seems that I have more in common with it than I thought.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Friends in Mashiko

Michael Warner and Kate Carruthers came to visit us on their way to Australia from their pottery "Starfish Ceramics" on Mull in Scotland. During their stay we visited the Hamada Museum in Mashiko. The original Hamada pottery is now a reference museum, and the current Hamada pottery has been moved next door. Sitting at the kick wheel brought back fond memories of my time at Shimaokas.

Of course Hamada sensei himself usually worked cross legged at the hand wheel. A stick would be notched into the hollows at the edge of the wheel and the wheel "wound up", then momentum would keep it spinning long enough to centre, form the basic shape and then "wound up" again to finish the pot. Very soft clay and slow revolutions makes the process very expressive. Without the hum of the electric wheel, with a veiw of the garden through the shoji screens, it could not help but imbue his pots with a great sense of peace.

In the garden stand a pair of statues of sheep. Mika wondered if he put them there to remind him of his time in england. The leaves are turning to orange as the autumn gets colder.

Beside the workshop firewood is stacked between bamboo to warm the space through winter. Fire was always a danger with thatched rooves, so the Kanji for water is marked in the end of the thatch, along with a turtle to ward off fire.

Many of the buildings are thatched in the traditional way. They are all buildings which Hamada moved to the compound from other parts of Japan to preserve them. This guest house was moved to the site on horse and dray on dirt roads. Some of the beams are so massive they had to be moved by two drays in tandem.

We let ourselves get too busy and flustered to take notice of the beauty that surrounds us. It is that simple beauty that inspire Hamadas work and which we must try to discover in our own lives, not only for our own sakes, but for generations to come.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

The Art of Tea

I was talking with a third generation Japanese potter and the curator of a major western public art gallery a few years ago, about Tea Bowls. "Why, " asked the potter, "Do western potters insist on making tea bowls when they have no understanding of their use?"

The curator and I mulled over the question and came to the conclusion that there were two reasons, firstly a recognition of the tea bowl as a pinnacle of functional art and therefore worthy of emulation, and secondly a kind of syllogism. The thinking goes like this: Great potters make tea bowls so if one makes tea bowls one must be a great potter. Unfortunately it doesn't quite work like that. One of the most important conditions of making functional ceramics is being familiar with the function.

AND SO.....

After years of deliberation Steve Tootell and I finally did something about it. This years World Art Educators Workshop , the Art of Tea, focused on understanding the basics of tea ware and Japanese "kaiseki ryouri" functional ware through a hands on experience of their function.

Twenty participants from around the globe gathered in Tokyo at the pottery studio of the International School of the Sacred Heart on Friday morning (Oct. 24th) for a demonstration first and then hands on production of functional ware designed for a specific Japanese meal. This included slab plates, mold making, throwing, trimming and altering forms.

On Friday afternoon we all headed to Kamakura to the ancestral home and traditional tea house of Noriko Saito sensei. Saito Sensei is a Master of the Omote Senkei school of tea, and the tea room "Sai An" was the focus for revitalising the tea ceremony during the post war period. Here the participants were able to experience the tea ceremony first hand with step by step instruction. Each member took turns making the tea from the hosts perspective and also receiving the tea as a guest. Saito sensei explained the philosophy of tea and tea ware, emphasizing that a tea bowl is only one part of the greater artwork which is the tea ceremony itself, and should form an harmonious focal point without being obtrusive. Even the weather becomes part of the experience, the sound of the rain being a foil to the quiet of the tatami room, the soft natural light from the garden, the scent of the wet leaves and soil wafting in on the light breeze blending with the fragrance of the tea and the flavour of the sweets. The art of simplicity; the art of function.

With this experience fresh in our hearts, the taste of the tea still on our lips, we hurried back to the studio for a demonstration of the making of tea bowls by Masakazu Kusakabe Sensei. He analysed and demonstrated a wide variety of traditional and contemporary forms and techniques, then the participants made their own tea bowls based now upon a new understanding of their function in context.

Saturday morning we focused on the making of other tea ware, as the tea ceremony entails more than just a bowl. The "Kensui" for taking the used water, the "mizusashi" for the fresh water, the tea caddies and the lid rest, a wide variety of vessels are needed.

At lunch time we went to Nihombashi, the centre of Japan, to experience fine Japanese cuisine. Master Chef Touru Hashimoto at Kappo Toyoda restaurant explained and demonstrated the selection, preparation and serving of "Ocha Kaiseki", and we enjoyed a full course kaiseki lunch. Kappo Toyoda was established in 1863, when Nihombashi was a market place full of fresh fish from Tokyo bay. Hashimoto san is the fifth generation owner chef, and was head chef for the Japanese embassy in Germany. He explained that "Kaiseki", like the tea ceremony, was an extension and a refinement of traditional Japanese home hospitality, striving to bring peace, comfort and happiness to the weary traveller. The meal which was served utilised the vessels which had been demonstrated the previous day, once again putting the vessel into its functional context.

After lunch we moved on to Ebiya Bijutsu Ten, the antique gallery in Nihombashi where I hold my annual exhibition. Established in Kyoto in 1673, Ebiya came to Nihombashi as a purveyor to the imperial household with the Meiji emperor. Masahiro Miyake, the ninth generation owner, showed us a range of historic tea bowls, from kourai chawan, commissioned from Korean potteries by the Tokugawa shogunate, through a variety of Japanese bowls explaining their history and provenance, to two fine examples of black and red raku tea bowls. We were able to hold these bowls, feel their weight and proportions. With an understanding of their function these historic bowls brought the reality of fine tea bowls into sharp focus. Also in the gallery were a variety of other historic tea ware, include the "chashaku" tea spoons in bamboo and ivory.

Once again we returned to the studio to glaze raku tea bowls that I had prepared earlier, and sake cups by Kusakabe san.

On Sunday morning we raku fired the bowls and cups, preparing tea for each other in the freshly fired bowls. I brought out the youhen tea bowl which Shimaoka sensei had given me as a graduation present and prepared a cup of tea for Kusakabe san, and the participants each examined the bowl in context. Every one went home with a wealth of experience and information, and a better understanding of tea bowls, functional ware, and the art of tea.

Saturday 1 November 2008

Halloween feast!

Anyone for a glass of blood? Well perhaps some vegetable juice will have to do.

Halloween has come again and the kids all masked up for the occassion.

Of course we had to have a ghoulish feast, with green rice, blood and guts (tomato and capsicum curry), eyeballs in puss (quaill egg curry), and fingers in gravy (curried sausages).

The most time consuming job was trimming fingernails, but I must admit it was finger licking good!