I am a ceramicist and I live by the sea. I fire my pots in seaweed collected on the nearby foreshore.
Back in January I asked the Arts Council if they would provide funding for me to develop my kiln so that I can make bigger pots while still using the same firing technique of firing with seaweed.
To my complete surprise they said ‘Yes’.
This blog will follow the progress of the project, from designing and building the new ‘innards’ of the kiln – which might more properly be called a Muffle or a Saggar – to creating and exhibiting new ceramic works.
Along the way there will be opportunities for people to get involved if they want to; there will be foraging walks with a coastal expert, there will be demonstrations and making sessions onboard a floating light vessel, and finally there will be the exhibition.
My next post will tell the story of my first and unexpected encounter with a coastal kiln.
On a sunny Sunday in late September I was joined by Mark Loos from Medway Swale Estuary Partnership and a group of 12 walkers on a walk with sketchbooks and clay.
We had plotted a walk along the shoreline at Riverside Country Park, Gillingham, a linear stretch of accessible coastline following the southern shore of the Medway estuary. The walk also took in a small peninsular which leads to the strangely named Horrid Hill. Horrid Hill is the site of an old clay works, where clay was gathered at Low tide from boats by Muddies for use in the cement factory. The shore at Horrid Hill is still a mass of clinker, where the furnaces have left their slag.
The shore line is rich foraging territory; from the tall & distant industrial buildings of the power station on the northern shore, to the small finds of worked flint and broken pottery shards at our feet.
This area of the estuarine coast has been much changed in recent years, becoming silted up and encroached upon by marsh grass. It is now the permanent resting place for metal hulled barges, and the odd wooden ribbed wreck.
Armed with cameras, sketchbooks and clay tablets we set off on a meandering route, stopping for conversations, observations, and stories.
The walkers were each given 3 small tablets of clay with which to gather impressions of things that they found interesting along the way. Worn wood, rusted rivets and samphire were some of the things captured in the clay.
I was taken with the riveted surface of an old barge, and have returned to take a large imprint of it for use at a later date.
The clay tablets will be fired to 1000 degrees C, and will then be used in a workshop that will accompany the final exhibition of this project, Mud & Clinker.
It has taken a while to work out how to respond to this new large muffle. I wanted to create large pieces, that no longer felt in the domestic realm. I also wanted a canvas for the incredible effects that this long winded process can sometimes create.
I feel that I have had to push my own practice to encompass these ideas, and am beginning to develop a new series of work as a result.
I have been building pots that are 3 and a half feet tall, but I have had to build them in 2 halves in order that they can fit in the new muffle.
This has led me to have to find new forms, and to start a new conversation with myself about how these pieces live together.
I fired the new muffle several times in quick succession, making the most of the good summer weather, and working towards a deadline, to have pots ready for the ceramic selling event, Earth & Fire.
I fire my kiln, on a warming pilot flame over night, it has usually reached about 300 degrees by the morning. I am firing my pots from raw, so the initial stages to drive off any water from the clay needs to be done with care.
I begin to turn up the gas and light more burners as the day goes on, starting from about 7 in the morning. If nothing goes amiss, (burner won’t stay alight, gas bottle runs out etc.) then I am usually ready to turn off the kiln by about 3pm. I fire to between 1140 degrees C and 1180 degrees C and I reduce on the damper to the final 100 degrees or so.
When all the 4 burners are roaring away, and the temperature is holding steady at 1180 reducing on the damper I find it hard to turn it off, even thought I know I should. It’s like a big breathing thing, that has taken a long time to wake up, and I don’t like to quiet it down.
I force myself to shut off the gas bottles, reflecting on what pieces I have in the kiln, which clays I have used, and how much tolerance they will have for this kind of treatment.
Packing the new muffle with pots is a whole new experience. Instead of a selection of small and heavy saggars to lift and stack in the kiln, I now have one chamber to fill. The new Muffle. The first firing was a selection of small pieces, which I packed on kiln shelves. I balance the pots on oyster shells to prevent them from sticking to each other or the kiln shelves. I surround the pots with dry black seaweed, and seal up the front of the muffle with crank clay.
I fire the new muffle to 1140 degrees. The kiln fires well on a warm sunny day reaching temperature in 8 hours with reduction for the last 100 degrees.
I am very happy with the results that came out of the new muffle, and look forward to making some larger pieces. I want to make the largest pieces I can while still being able to fit them in the new muffle.
The walls of the kiln were fired slowly to 1260 degrees in an electric kiln.
The only element to warp badly was the roof. The warping happened as the pieces were drying out, mainly due to lack of space and not regular enough turning.
The Muffle is designed to slot together and not to need any other fixing. However it is important to me that it is as air tight as possible for the firings, so I sealed the seams with clay and clamming.
When the muffle was assembled in the kiln, I gave it 2 coats of batt wash to protect it a bit from the corrosive atmosphere in the kiln.