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Sharing the Fire: Woodfiring Among North American Studio Potters

I am pleased to be among all of you today; to be part of this grand celebration honoring an iconic elder of our clay clan. A program of this scale is unparalleled because Don Reitz is without parallel. What you have all accomplished here is the work of many hands, hearts, and minds; a triumph of logistical challenges that would have sent lesser souls howling into the wilds of the Boundary Waters. To all who made this marvelous occasion possible, I thank you for inviting me.

My purpose here is to provide some historical context for a genre of ceramic expression that has had a unique appeal among studio potters and ceramic artists in the United States: woodfiring. I won't pretend to be comprehensive in my overview (that might send all of you howling at least into the Dells), but I will try to highlight at least a few of the people, kilns, and work that helped launch the woodfiring juggernaut that has gained such  momentum over the past thirty years or so.

 Let me begin by acknowledging a writer with whom many of you are familiar, Louise Cort, whose fine book, Shigaraki Potters' Valley, first published in 1979, was, for many of us, our introduction to a woodfiring tradition hundreds of years in the making. Louise, with customary diligence, has written quite a comprehensive essay on the history of woodfiring in America. It appeared in a 2001 catalogue entitled The Great Shigaraki Exhibition, from the Museum of Contemporary Ceramic Art at Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, Shigaraki, Japan. This essay has been excerpted in issues 9 , 1 0 , 1 1 and 12 of The Log Book, the international periodical devoted to woodfiring.

Louise acknowledges the woodfiring tradition in North America extending back to the Woodland Indians and Pueblo cultures, as well as the more recent legacy of folk potters in the southern Appalachian tradition who used groundhog kilns for firing their churns and jugs. In the northeast states as early as the 1700s, potters discovered suitable clays for making stoneware, some of it on Manhattan Island, and eventually produced huge quantities of high-quality stoneware during the 19th century.

The crocks and jugs many of us grew up with came from woodfired kilns such as one in Albany, NY that used 1500 cords of wood (at $2/cord) in 1855. They were made by gentlemen who were paid an average of a penny a gallon to throw a minimum of 100 gallons of ware per day. That's right, they lived on about $30 per month. Today a thriving collec tors' market has pushed prices for exceptional pieces of decorated stoneware to over $100,000. Just type in "decorated stoneware" on eBay to get a sense of that market.

Mind you, these pieces were not collected because they were woodfired. But the process is part of our heritage - even though there is a gap of several generations between the last of the traditional potters who made this sort of work, and Edwin and Mary Scheier, the first studio potters to whom Cort attributes building a large groundhog kiln in southwest Virginia in the late 1930s. After World War lI J a growing curiosity about Asian aesthetics led to visits in the U.S. by Shoji Hamada, Kaneshige Toyo, and Kitaoji Rosanjin. A littleknown American potter, J.B. Blunk, managed through his friendship with Isamu Noguchi, to study with Rosanjin in Japan, and, returning to California in the mid 1950s, built what is probably the first kiln for making naturalash glazed work. A few years later, Marie Woo and Toshiko Takaezu visited Japan separately and acquainted themselves with woodfiring processes and aesthetics, but it was Ruth Gowdy McKinley who built and consistently fired a wood-burning kiln in 1961, pursuing the process with commitment and success.

When Daniel Rhodes' and Fred Olsen's books on kilns appeared in the early T970S, along with the first issues of THE STUDIO POTTER, they seemed perfectly timed for the "oil shock" of r 97 2, when potters began seriously to examine the use of alternative fuels as a reaction to rising oil prices. Simultaneously Rhodes' book, Tamba Pottery: The Timeless Art of a Japanese Village, appeared with the first detailed descriptions of "kilnglazed" ceramics. In r976 Rhodes wrote an introduction to an exhibition catalogue, Storage Jars from Ancient Japanese Kilns, held at Blum Helman Gallery in New York. Rhodes was a cultural liaison. His brief essay helped beholders comprehend these jars that seemed made to test the savvy of ceramic engineers: "If you like the color of that patch there, let me show you how to get it all over." "How come the back ojihis pot isn't as nice as the front?" "Why don't you refine the clay and get those stones out of it?" "You don't have to fire for a week to get those effects!"

Here is what Rhodes wrote: "An unselfconscious collaboration with process often can reveal depths and mysteries which are not accessible to direct search. The power and beauty of many of these pieces can only be attributed to their emergence as events rather than as formulations." Rhodes was inviting us to accept the ambiguities of unfamiliar surfaces, to see beyond appearances and sense the effects of natural processes. Through Rhodes, these jars asked questions, among which were, "How elastic or rigid are your aesthetic preferences?" "Is 'beautiful roughness' necessarily an oxymoron?" "Can you sense the harmonious ratio of human and non-human forces authenticated in this work?" These were not "Japanese" questions; they were human inquiries challenging the proposition that one's native culture may define all there is to know about beauty.

Something in the air of the 1970s enlivened the curiosity of ceramists, and woodfiring was entrained in what we breathed. We were confronted by work that was sometimes blatantly confrontational to anything we'd grown up with. We had no vocabulary to talk about it, and ceramic historians like Garth Clark and Elaine Levin tried not to notice woodfired work. (Clark's American Ceramics 1876 to the Present, published in T988, sidesteps the entire folk and saltglaze traditions, and shows one woodfired piece out of 240 illustrations; Levin's The History of American Ceramics, 1607 to the Present [1989], equally blinkered, identifies two out of 352 pieces as woodfired).

Why should this matter? Because ceramic aesthetics in this country have traditionally been geared to what a friend refers to as "prissy-yaki" - work made by devotees of the white-knuckle muse given to obsessively decorating bare clay. Lacking a tradition or connoisseurship for woodfired ceramics, it's no wonder many beholders found it bewildering and, in Clark's case, easy to dismiss.

Writing about Peter Voulkos' woodfired work, he states, "...these pieces were generally retrogressive in their aesthetic, too dependent on the generosity of the kiln, and too imitative of Bizen, Seto, and other traditional Japanese kilns." We can only assume that in T988, in Clark's eyes, Don Reitz's career was also retrogressive, because he wasn't mentioned in the book, edged out by such luminaries as Matthew Daly (T860-1937) who, Clark informs us in a biographical attribution, left his job as a decorator at Rookwood Pottery to become the art director of the American Playing Card Company.

Such taste-based recalcitrance was countered by the support of Janet Mansfield and Gerry Williams, who edited magazines welcoming the new wave of exploration.

Both sponsored conferences to increase the exchange of ideas and methodologies among those with increasing degrees of commitment to the process. "The process" itself became multifaceted, with experimental kilns joining meticulous reconstructions of Japanese designs in the U.S. The big winner in all this was Japan Airlines, with potters from both nations passing each other in the skies. Paul Chaleff, Joy Brown, Peter Callas, Rob Barnard, Malcolm Wright, and many others took on apprenticeships or studied with various teachers, while Shiro Otani, Takashi Nakazato, Katsuyuki Sakezume, Shige Morioka and others built kilns and led workshops in the U.S., fostering a level of interest that has grown exponentially in recent years. We might think of woodfiring as a beneficial aesthetic virus. It is contagious, resistant to known innoculants, and tests the susceptibility of those who encounter it. In addition to creating the best work possible, it was simultaneously necessary to develop appreciative support for it through aesthetic education. That's where the colleges and craft schools came in; where people like Chuck Hindes, Mary Roehm, Richard Bresnahan, Dan Anderson, and John Neeley included woodfiring at their colleges and universities and taught workshops at Arrowmont, Penland, Anderson Ranch, and Peters Valley.

By the mid 1980’s, when Yukio Yamamoto formed his ongoing relationship at Northern Arizona University and built the kiln that changed so many people's lives, Don Reitz was in a state of readiness like Whitman's when he wrote, "I was simmering, simmering, simmering, and Emerson brought me to a boil." Doris career could have simmered along just fine, but Yukio brought it to a boil, enabling some of Doris most dynamic work to be completed through the most powerful and demanding process available to a clay artist. Yukio's presence was a circular human gift, returning what Don had given so many through his teaching and the daily integrity of his life as an artist.

Maybe what we have been so ready to learn through woodfiring is to keep searching for whatever meaning we can truly call our own; meaning we can't arrive at alone; meaning that transcends process and success, and that arrives in proportion to our curiosity and readiness, sometimes mysteriously and of its own accord, the way Kenyon Cox's little poem 'Work" suggests. (It hung on the art room wall in David Shanet’s high school.) Work thou for pleasure - paint or sing or carve, The thing thou lovest, though the body starve. Who works for glory misses oft the goal. Who works for money coins his very soul Work for the work's sake, then, and it may be That these things may be added unto thee.