Firing pots


Dear Artist,

In the potter’s art there’s a magic time when the kiln finally cools and the potter opens 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.


The process of raku involves heating glazed pots to 1800 degrees F

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.


The placement of the extremely hot pot in a container of combustible sawdust, produces thick black smoke that is wicked into the porous clay body accentuating the crackle pattern. The placement of the extremely hot pot in a container of combustible sawdust, produces thick black smoke that is wicked into the porous clay body accentuating the crackle pattern.

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.


Pot by Robert Compton pottery
This rapid cooling fractures the glaze, creating a distinctive network of lines called “Crazing”

Best regards,


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.


Dance of the raku
by Pam Craig, Memphis, TN, USA


raku fired pottery

I performed a raku dance last night. First was a dance of joy that the kiln-god had smiled upon me and gave me a beautiful present — one of grace and elegance. But alas, the later dance was one of disappointment and despair. The second firing was not so wonderful and I can now blame it on the brevity of my first dance. I came to the conclusion it was not pleasing or long enough to show my appreciation for turning out a beautiful pot the first time. In this case my first raku pot was made with ignorance and experimentation. The second raku pot was decidedly more thought out, planned and prepared. How funny that the first ended up beautiful and the second only so-so.


Joy not meant to last
by Dave Kellam Brown, Dallas, TX, USA


“Red Flute”
original painting
by Dave Kellam Brown

One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned as an artist was the result of a raku firing. As commonly occurs with raku, multiple pieces exploded and shattered. I had created one whose shape I enjoyed particularly — it came out of the fire more beautiful than I had hoped and appeared to have survived until the kiln was completely torn down, then it sat there, all alone, and quietly shattered. It was as if the “other hand” said “this joy was not meant to last.”

The shards were still beautiful but only I knew the beauty of the whole and because it was a memory, it was perhaps more perfect than the reality might have been, except that I could not share it. Since then that image has stayed with me to help in many ways, from the trivial risk of trying new approaches in creating art, to the death of a dear friend or the crumbling of a relationship.

For me, the core of this experience was to never let anything, including a particular piece of art, ever become “precious” because that “preciousness” distracts from and kills the spontaneity that helps us find our way in creating art and living every day.


Mystique of the bonfire
by Bonnie Staffel, Charlevoix , MI, USA


thrown stoneware
by Bonnie Staffel

The primitive bonfire method of firing with chemicals to create the magic can take your breath away. The pots are nestled in a bed of sawdust, then slivers of wood are added between the pots, as well as copper sulfate, maybe some salt crystals, dog food, any vegetation, then keep on building with larger and larger pieces of wood until you have a huge pile covering the pots in the ground. Light that fire and tend it and in the morning when it has cooled down to ashes, the pots emerge sometimes changing color before your eyes.



Expect the unexpected
by Carl Erickson, Stillwater, MN, USA


“Teapot with ribbon handle”
fired porcelain
by Carl Erickson

The opening of a kiln is so much more than a magic moment. It’s the end of one creative journey and the beginning of the next. As I unload the pots, each one is inspected quickly and mental notes are made. What glazes overlapped here? Where was this pot in the kiln? Was the reduction even throughout the kiln? Why did this crack? Look at how much this pot settled. This shape, this glaze — yum! There is so much excitement, joy, disappointment, satisfaction, frustration, curses and vows, the fulfillment of months of work and the seeds for the next load planted. But it’s not the pots that come out just the way I hoped for that give me the biggest push. These pots have gelled creatively. I’ve made them, I love them and I will repeat them. But the next ones I make will be less and less about discovery and creativity. It’s the pots that aren’t what I was expecting, the ones that inspire the most joy and frustration, that move me towards the next kiln load. My sacrifice to the “kiln god” will be to try new ideas, take detours, improvise some more, try new glazes. I need to take some risks, make some mistakes. These are the offerings that the “kiln god” returns as the blessing of future creativity.


Painting is like firing pots
by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada


acrylic painting
by Wes Giesbrecht

While I make my living at a completely different art form, I started fooling around with acrylic paint this last summer. Every painting I do is like firing pots. Regardless of what my original idea might be, the results are always at least a bit of a surprise, often of the negative sort but occasionally the more happy kind. I’m having a ball, learning what the paint will do and trying to figure out what I can do with it.





Extreme stimuli
by Elizabeth Concannon, St. Louis, MO, USA


“In and out”
watercolour and collage
by Elizabeth Concannon

An artist friend is intimidated by white paper or canvas. He must somehow dirty it before the creative process begins with more familiar art materials. He may walk in the mud and then stain his canvas or run the car over his watercolor paper. And personally, I often begin a new work with miscellaneous pieces of an old failed or otherwise unrealized painting. We all have stimuli, it seems to me, which only we use for a specific purpose. They are seldom covered in art instruction classes or books but they are essential to creativity. And isn’t that great?!!





Dreams come true
by Scharolette Chappell, Auburn Hills, MI, USA


“Winter’s Signature”
original painting
by Scharolette Chappell

I have found that chaos is where beauty is given birth. It is the source. After a whole season of placing 52″ x 74″ paper on the surface of the earth, weighting it down with stones, marking each corner with a stake in the ground, pouring paint at different moments in time, rain, sunshine, wind, winter came, pouring the paint through the snow had to be the climax, the most fun of all, for the snow absorbed the paint as only snow can. The painting in the snow was a work of art in itself.

I documented all this with photos, in which they are part of the art as well. Spring arrived and snow gently let the paint down creating an image of subdued love, the paint returned to its natural form powder like, then the rains of spring washed it all away creating streams of yellow and black running side by side disappearing into the earth as a river overflowing her edge. I thought, “I couldn’t have dreamed of such a moment,” Spring whispered, “Dreams do come true, even more than you can imagine!”


Learning from the wild child
by Darney Willis, Siloam Springs, AR, USA

As a visual art teacher, I find many times that I have to “take my adult students back to being five years old” to enable, or better yet, to equip them to once again enter into the world of creative expression. Apparently up until people are about seven or eight they are freely seeking to express and communicate or even understand the world around them. I have heard that cognition kicks in around seven or eight, so for the time before this the child is expressing very intuitively. As adults we sense their directness and integrity of purpose. I’ve noticed a child will draw an object, redraw the object, draw it again on another piece of paper relentlessly until they get just what they want. As refreshing as these drawings and paintings are to experience, the one thing they lack is depth of life experience. So they are kind of like eating cotton candy — good at the moment but not very fulfilling long term. The great lesson to learn from the wild child is to take mature life experiences and express them with childlike freedom.


Who is an artist here?
by Denny Means, Mason, OH, USA


“Dancing Spirits”
raku fired pot
by Denny Means

I could not agree more that we need to recognize the art of children as valuable in its own right. Over the last four months, I have been speaking to groups of first grade students as part of an Artists in Schools program developed with our local arts council. The kids’ enthusiasm for art and confidence in their ability as artists is simply a joy to see. In my first talk, I asked, “Who is an artist here?” All fifty kids instantly shot up their hands! No doubt, no questioning, and no hesitation. These seven-year-olds knew they were artists. I feel humbled in the face of such enthusiasm and confidence. I tell them they can continue making art throughout their lives, yet I see they do not yet imagine a time when they won’t be enjoying art and making art.

If we could only keep that outlook as we proceed through the systems of education and child-rearing. The kids’ confidence is a refreshing change from the adult workshops I’ve taught. I see many adults tormented by self-doubt, questioning and overly critical of their own work. Too ready to quash our precious enthusiasm with criticism. I think one of the most important traits for adult students is the ability to suspend criticism of their early efforts. How many artists have stifled their artistic development with the negative self-talk learned from well meaning adults? “That doesn’t look like a horse” kind of self-talk stifles our growth and exploration. Free yourself to “draw what you know,” and explore your unique artistic gifts in every media that interests you!

(RG note) Thanks, Denny. I asked if this could go in today’s clickback because I was recently speaking to about a hundred mature painters and I asked the question, “Who are the artists here?” I don’t know why, I just felt like it. A very few tentative hands went up. One might conclude that adults are some sort of damaged children.


Speech and the absence of it
by Marnie Elliott, Orillia, ON, Canada


top: Painted horses from Chauvet Cave (Ardeche), probably Aurignacian – below: Horses by Nadia, at 3 years 5 months

Regarding your last two letters, Notes from a Cave and Wild Child, Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist who works in the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness, has put forth a most interesting idea. The cave art from Chauvet and Lascaux is compared with the wonderful spontaneous drawings of a 3 year old autistic child named Nadia. He gives a number of comparison pictures and his theory is, briefly, that the humans of that time had a very limited vocabulary, one of social necessity only and that they had no words for animals so were able to draw them freely. When they tried to represent people, their ability was reduced because they had words for them. So too with Nadia. Because she couldn’t speak and had no names for animals she was able to freely draw them. When she finally began to master language (around 8 or 9), her drawing lost most of its amazing spontaneity and its frequency diminished as well.

(RG note) Thanks, Marnie. Nicholas Humphrey’s studies and discussion of the “Nadia-Cave Art” connection are illuminating. For anyone interested in art and autism — and other conditions that produce forms of mutism — this essay in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal is vital.


Art with kids and grandkids
by Charles K. Jones, Baden, PA, USA


painting by grandson (6 yrs.old)

Speaking as a parent and grandparent, I have often examined children’s works of art. At times, trying not to hurt their feelings when I wasn’t quite sure exactly what they had drawn, but tactfully saying something like, “and this is…” allowing them to fill in the blank. Being an artist myself for 30-plus years, they seemed anxious to show me what they had made, to be like Dad or Pappy. Or is it in our make-up, our genes, to try to recreate our surroundings and memories? Also, it has always inspired me to paint and draw with each child in the attempt to keep my work fresh through their eyes. I believe the answer to why their drawings are primitive-looking is the same as why we are not born playing the piano, or other instruments, we just don’t have the motor skills to be proficient at it. However, if we have the desire we will succeed regardless of whether it fits the mold of a Rembrandt or a Monet, which brings us back full circle to the question…”What is art?”


A moveable feast
by Sue Bayley, Maui, HI, USA


“Mountains reach the sea”
acrylic painting
by Sue Bayley

I now have no home, just 2 suitcases — 1 of clothes and things, 1 of art supplies including a folding easel. I have spent about 4 years traveling and working in the Caribbean so have been very interested in your travels through the islands and the fascinating cultures that abound. I just lived on Maui for 9 months and was painting the wild seas after the storms at the same time you were painting in Kona. Now, I leave Maui for Europe and will be living on a lavender farm just outside Nice, teaching Pilates exercise in exchange for a studio where I can live and paint. I love my lifestyle of traveling to new places to experience new cultures and find new inspiration for paintings, though there are challenges!! Certainly finding art supplies in the Caribbean was a problem. Yes, you could order off the Web but then you had to go down to the Customs office and negotiate with the customs inspector to get a low rate of duty, and I have to confess to achieving a lower rate as my skirt got shorter…!! The greatest challenge is the marketing of my art with no home galleries with whom to build relationships. I have managed to sell much of my work, many just off the beach to both tourists and locals but I do now have a gallery in Hawaii wanting to take my work after I had a painting accepted into the juried Art Maui show this year. But now I leave Maui for Europe, though with lots of ideas for Hawaiian paintings still to come. I wondered if you had some thoughts on the best way to market my art. Should I now look for a gallery in the South of France, once I build a body of work there, or just send it to Hawaii? I work in acrylic on canvas or board and so I would have to find the best way to ship the paintings. Once I have some French paintings, I think it would be a good idea to develop a web site to get exposure on the Internet. Your thoughts would be very welcome.

(RG note) Thanks, Sue. The competitive art market in Hawaii still holds on and is probably more vital for your needs than you will find in the south of France. Also, the xenophobic French tend to honour their own as opposed to the cosmopolitan mentality of the Islands. On the other hand, outstanding art when properly promoted, sells anywhere. While you are on a worldwide quest to develop your art, your best commercial move is to develop a website where you may blog your peregrinations and build a following wherever you go. You might just find that collectors start to collect you, rather than the locus of your work. This is the ideal. No one ever said you have to cater to a place. As you progress, a premium link on the Painter’s Keys site would certainly be an aid to worldwide notice.


Contacting effective art teachers
by Mark Wangberg, Wallingford, PA, USA

I am a poet, artist, book artist — and I teach art at a public high school in PA just outside of Philly. I teach Book Arts to ALL my classes and do paste papers and marbled paper with about 100 students each year. I see myself as a “coach” in the art room — to demo, give feedback, and motivate my students to their own greatness and self-expression and discovery. I am currently on sabbatical for the Spring semester researching art programs at art colleges, universities, and liberal arts colleges. I am starting mostly local to Philly and moving out from there. Would anyone in our community have suggestions for colleges I should visit or investigate? I am particularly interested in hearing about effective and challenging art professors.







Radishes in a Water Glass

oil painting  
by Cindy Revell, Sherwood Park, AB, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Christa Drinnin who wrote, “My husband is a certified potter working with some of the top ones in this country. He is just now loading the kiln, and the magic of the results never end, even with all the best calculations and measurements. The ultimate is truly raku. What a beautiful world of the arts.”

And also Suzanna Hunter who wrote, “I am a clay lady who has been enjoying these letters. Wasn’t going to read it till morning but — you got me — and today you made my day. Just the thought of the surprise — the kiln opening. Painters, you don’t know — handing your things to the elements and waiting, it changes things. The world is a glorious place.”

And also Ron Wilson of Victoria, BC, Canada who wrote, “Potters are the painters’ friends. In the Art 10 Gallery in Nanaimo, B.C., Canada it was the steady sales of pottery that paid the rent thereby allowing us painterly types to keep going and showing even through the lean months.”

And also Janet Keen of Rotorua, New Zealand who wrote, “I adore happy accidents and embrace them when they happen in my own work. But so many of my students are obsessed with making everything perfect instead of going with the flow. I am going to read your statement out to them.”

And also Martha Guilette who wrote, “Firing pots re-emphasizes the question that every creative mind needs to ask when they feel stuck—’WHAT IF?’ Thank you. I had been blocked and stuck until this letter.”

And also William Atkinson of Wills Point, TX, USA who wrote, “Accidental effects may happen in ceramics, watercolor, or even oils and acrylics, but it is not true of colored pencils. Maybe that’s why I like them. Everything is always under control.”

And also Lisa Plemmons who wrote, “I just read a marvelous book called, Everyday Sacred by Sue Bender. In it she talks about many pots — starting with the begging bowl which is a theme that continues throughout. I was unexpectedly fascinated with this easy to read book.”




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