Firing pots

Robert Genn

April 3, 2007

Dear Artist,

In the potter's art magic time comes when the kiln finally cools and the potter opens it up to see what she has inside. The intercession of the "kiln god" is one of the great principles of art and life. In the preparatory stages, before firing, a bland milky-blue slip may be painted on. After the firing, this may just be transfigured into a luminescent purple-brown with golden highlights. Or it could be something even more beautiful. The innocent potter is charmed and surprised.

With experience and education, an artist or artisan carries an understanding of how things might work out. She may set up, plan and prepare. But in the end it can be another hand that blesses the art.

The principle of chaos can be built into all of the arts. With chaos comes value-added joy for everyone concerned. Paintings, for example, can be made to leap hurdles of happenstance. Watercolourists encourage happy events when colours bleed one into the other, when staining and graining pigments interplay on the paper, or when the artist plays with gravity, time, heat, wind or crinkly cellophane on large washes.

It's the job of every creator to find and work her own chaotic magic. In opaque media the artist discovers the potential of glazing--generally a transparent, darker colour over underlying passages--or the mystery of scumbling, a casual, dry-brush pass or drag, generally lighter or complementary. Changing habitual order brings other surprises. Magic happens when orderly processes are disordered. Try rolling, brushing, or blotting semi-transparent mother-colours over works in progress. Like kiln action, this provides new complexity, toning up or down, and resulting surprises.

The introduction of weird or unfamiliar tools is another way to shake things up. Sometimes this occurs in privation. In one of my former lives, I was drawing on location with a favorite marker. Visiting in a far country, I somehow lost my pen and had to scrounge something--anything. The kid of the house was a model-airplane builder from whom I coaxed a few sticks of balsa wood. What wondrous sumi pens they made. I cut the ends in various ways--double-enders, chisellers, and hairy splays. People are still trying to figure out how those drawings were born.


PS: "Chaos breeds life, when order breeds habit." (Henry Brooks Adams)

Esoterica: Nowhere in the art of ceramics is the kiln god a more effective deity than in Raku. Temperatures vary dramatically, and straw, dirt, and ashes have been thrown in to run interference. The very unreliability of the process is what makes it productive. Art thrives when surprise prevails. Peeling back a Raku kiln is like opening birthday presents. Curious potters gather at the smoky, mysterious shrine. These folks are so nervous, some of them have taken to drink. A shout goes up--there are tears of disappointment, yes, but also tears of joy. All art needs to be such a birthday.