Here at Art Elements we are lucky to feature the work of several AMAZING ceramic artists. Many of them practice what has been termed “alternative firing methods.” Essentially, this means that they use something other than a traditional gas or electric kiln (the type of kiln you probably saw if you took ceramics in high school) to fire their pottery and sculptures. For these potters, the firing process is a fundamental step in their art making that has a huge impact on the look of the finished pieces. These methods are often more physically demanding or time consuming that traditional firing practice, but the results they yield are amazing.
Easily the most ancient and time honored of these “alternative” firing methods is called “pit firing.” Practiced as early as 25,000 BCE, most potters think of pit firing as the original method of firing or “baking” clay into its hard finished form. The Greeks and Romans, as well as the ancient peoples of North America practiced pit firing. Basically anywhere that you can find a long-standing ceramic tradition, there is a history of pit firing.
Ancient Aztec Pit-Fired Vessel
Just as the name suggests, pit firing involves digging a out a pit in the ground (usually 2-2½ ft deep depending on how large your pieces are and how many you are firing), laying your clay pieces in the pit, covering them with combustible material, setting it ablaze and then allowing the fire to slowly burn down over the course of several hours.
Schematic of a pit firing http://www.alexmandli.com/process/pit-firing.html
Like baking in the kitchen, in order to fire pottery, the clay must reach a specific temperature in order to vitrify or become hard. Throughout this process the clay becomes porous and soft, like rubber, anything that comes near it will stick to its surface. This also means that the clay will absorb any chemicals or fumes that pass over it during the firing process. This means that in pit firing, the ash and smoke created by whatever you have used to fuel your fire (wood, grass, leaves, even buffalo chips) will have an impact on the final colors and look of the piece. It is the fire itself that creates the color in a pit-fired work.
This means that no two pit fired pieces will ever look exactly the same, and that to some extent the process is rather unpredictable. However, experienced ceramicists can also manipulate the colors of their pit-fired art works by adding other chemical elements to the fire. This can by done by covering the individual pieces with specific compounds like copper carbonate, or it could be achieved by adding elements to the fire itself. Items like tea bags, banana peels, and animal bones will all create different color affects on a finished piece. A great example of this is evident in Mark Terry’s figurative sculpture entitled “Ariadne” – the bright oranges and greens dusted across the figure were created by this kind of experimentation with different chemicals in the fire. As you can see it can have some pretty amazing results. This allows the potter to play scientist, artist and pyromaniac all at once.
(Mark Terry “Ariadne”)
Once the fire has died, the finished ceramic pieces will have to be left under the ash and debris for several hours to cool. If they are unearthed too quickly the exposure to the cold air outside of the pit will cause them to crack. Once they are ready, the process of digging up the work and cleaning it off reveals all of the color and texture that the fire has left behind. It’s an exciting moment for the artist. Some pit-fired pottery is then waxed or polished to give it a sheen, further drawing out the depth of color created by the ash and soot.
Pit fired pottery has a distinctive look that is easy to identify once you are familiar with the technique.
Blythe Eastman’s pit fired animals provide a textbook example of the pit-fired aesthetic. The smokey grays, browns and blacks leave traces of the smoke and ash that licked across her little animals as the fire burned around them. It gives them a decidedly earthly feel, further associating her animals with nature, organic matter and the natural environment from which they are inspired.
(Blythe Eastman, “Rabbit Washing”)
(Blythe Eastman, “Horse”)
Another great example of pit-fired pottery is the work of Linda Workman-Morelli. Her work shows off the almost painterly affect that the fires traces leave behind on the surface of her work. Like Blythe, Linda creates objects that are evocative of the natural world. They make us think of stones, or shells. This is further enforced by the fact that she has polished them, almost like a stone at the bottom of the riverbed. The depth created by this polished look really shows off the natural color of her pit-fired pieces.
(Linda Workman-Morellia, untitled)
While pit firing is just one of many unique and interested alternative firing methods, its long history and rustic technique harkens back to the work of the first ancient potters, in a unique way. The pits that Linda, Blythe and Mark dig out to fire their pieces are no different from those dug by their ceramics ancestors. Both these contemporary artists and their predecessors return their clay pieces back to the earth from which they were created in order to finish and bring them to life. What is amazing to see is how truly modern this practice becomes in the hands of our talented potters.