Fires of Innocence, Fires of Experience

Kindling our interest in woodfiring may begin incrementally, like striking a match, looking through a spyhole at heat-light as intense as a strobe that won't blink, and feeling the warmth in a cup that keeps being new, no matter how many times we pick it up. Over the years our interest leads us to meet others who share our curiosity and enthusiasm about a genre with world-wide drawing power. People we haven't even met may ultimately help us do the best work we haven't considered making. We are lucky to have access to one another.

If you're in your twenties, you're realizing that firing with wood is one of a great many ways to make permanent that which we have shaped from plastic clay; that woodfiring is not one process any more than pasta is only macaroni. There are the kilns — architecture to house heat and be used like tools: catenaries, beehives, noborigamas, pitkilns, sprung arches, paper kilns, Bourry boxes, anagamas, Dutch ovens, train kilns, and a bewildering panoply of experimental castable and brick odes to combustion, each of which can change your work in provocative, utterly different ways.

Who are your mentors? Which work do you most admire, and who made it? What have you learned from others, and what have you taught yourself so far? Luckily, ways of learning overlap, helping you seek clear choices, sometimes by bouncing off intimidating or seductive options.

By your thirties you may have built and torn down several kilns, and helped others do the same. You've lost track of those who kept wanting to simplify things until they opted out of the clan. Teachers have come and gone, workshops have turned you around, perhaps in disorienting but helpful ways. Envisioning new ways of charming the firedragon to bless your wares, rather than being victimized by its uncooperative demon-twin, you sought out bricks, and shelves, while locating space for a kiln of your own, which luck may have provided. You've shared firings with others, participating as a visitor at their kilns, honing the interpersonal skills that challenge and reward cooperative ventures, and eventually, with luck, inviting them to your own kiln. At times, the work you make-even the best of it; the very reason you get together-seems a dividend or bonus to an event you couldn't possibly achieve alone.The process, like any other aspect of life, richly rewards attentiveness.

In our fifties, with dozens, perhaps hundreds of firings behind us, we forsake the old age of youth for the youth of old age, thankful and lucky for persistent passions. Decade by decade, our circle of peers has grown; visions of what we hope to achieve with clay and fire have widened in proportion to those whose trust we share. Like our shard-heaps, kiln-logs reveal phases the work has passed through; every firing enticing the next in some way, through both positive and negative results. Just when we're cocky enough to believe we've learned to avoid most of the wrong ways to fire, new glitches appear, twitting with any rigid sense of control bordering on arrogance; assuring the debt confidence owes humility. Our very best work reveals that quantitative ammunition is no guarantee for hitting qualitative bull's eyes.

Woodfi ring in the sixties—our own sixties—brings with it the sense of a big fish stripping line off one's reel at quite a clip. Though the darker backup line isn't quite visible, we know we've set the hook and are playing something wonderful, with no thought to feasting or entering any record-book. Every fruitless cast, every one that got away, every successful catch-and-release was indispensable to this awareness. Clays, kilns, stamina, vision, time, and fire: these are the enduring certainties. The material morphs with the immaterial, on the best days authenticating what is known as "fisherman's luck." If we are lucky, we can earn our living from what we fire, while another variety of luck frees us from earning our living from what we fire. If we're very lucky, we can ignore dualities and get on with what is most important - juggling both the challenges and fulfillments attending the practice - juggling them well enough that we can't tell one from the other.

May our curiosities flourish and marry our discoveries. And bring on the luck.