Monday, May 4, 2009

smoky sunday

last sunday definitely didnt feel like a sunday. my cat perumole got stuck on the second floor ledge and the entire morning went onto trying different ways to bring him down! once he came down i fed him i had to run to the studio-big day... every firing day is a big day but this sunday we were doing two firing at the same time- one our regular wood firing , mainly antra's work and some of mine and the second smoke firing.
i was reading jane perryman's book and got all excited about pit firing and smoke firing , and had casually asked antra whether we can try it at some point at gbp. (antra came to gbp as a student and then assisted ray for a year and later joined as a teacher- she does her own creative work, and assists ray and helped debi in her firings.) antra got even more excited and said we could do a firing anytime, so thats how it all happened so quickly.
we had five days to make pots for this. initially we thought of doing a proper pit firing but we ended up doing a smoke firing- to look back i think it was a good move, we got an idea about this and next time we can plan for an actual pit firing.
pit firing is one of the oldest methods.this process uses no glazes the colors come from the fire. the pots are buried under several layers of wood, sawdust, straw, dog food, and other combustibles. the fire is ignited and burns for several hours. temperature in the pit may reach 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.smoke-firing is another primitive way of firing pottery. This process uses "no glazes"; the colors come from the smoke of fire. smoke-firing is less intense than pit-firing. This process has a different look and feel, one that offers a soft patina which gently envelops the piece. you can see the movement of the smoke in the soft and dark hues. The colors can vary depending on the combustible material used; it can be soft tans to warm browns and black. control of the depth of hues can be achieved by the amount of oxygen allowed to enter the firing chamber. Many people ask the difference between pit-firing and smoke-firing; it is the intensity of heat. Pit-firing is fired below ground where the pieces are buried among the red hot embers, which come from wood, straw, sawdust and other combustibles. Smoke-firing is above ground, fired in a brick chamber. The combustible materials used are much faster burning and the chamber allows for oxygen to enter. This creates a much less intense firing atmosphere, which develops the soft hues of smoke firing. both smoke fired and Pit-fired pieces are not intended to hold food or liquid.

i started reading about pit and smoke firing and decided to burnish my pots. whole of last year i never liked round forms and burnished ones, but surely its changing, after this experience a steel spoon has been added to my tool box. and i also learnt the right stage when the pot has to be burnished (of course after couple of failures like always). i started making the bottles, and bending their necks a little- i liked the way they were leaning to one side. at drying stage before the pot goes to the bone dry stage i burnished it with a spoon. and kept the pot in a damp wardrobe and burnished again after one day. then at the dry stage i burnished them again and one last time just before they went into the bisque kiln. rakhee seems to hv learnt a simpler method of burnishing the pots on the wheel from a village potter and next time i will try that method. otherwise burnishing can be quite a time taking and patience testing work! we did a regular bisque firing with them (today me and antra were thinking whether to fire them to a little lesser temp next time so that they can absorb the smoke more). thinking that we will be doing pit firing we applied some clay slips on some pots- i kept most of my bottles raw- just the burnished surface thats all.
we soon had a group- rakhee came from auroville with her pots, nivedita an old student was in town, neha this years student from bombay also joined to see the firing. it was quite a day for antra- she was stoking for her wood firing, i did the stoking for some time and then she was helping everyone to construct the kiln like structure with bricks. we decided now that the pots are bisques we will smoke them for twenty min or half hour.
we used kiln shelves as the base on the ground. and built the walls with the bricks keeping possibility for holes the bottom. we spread one layer of saw dust. (first we kept the pots directly on them. then rakhee came up with the idea that we will put saw dust and one layer of amber and cover agian with saw dust only after that place the pots- this really helped for the saw dust to catch fire. antra was right. although it was difficult it was a good idea to do this along with the glaze firing, there was enough amber ready for us from the already burning fire pit of the kiln) then we placed the pots and placed some banana peal -this i got from perryman's book- so i bought 30 bananas and made payasam out of it and used the peal for firing :). we sprinkled another layer of sawdust on the pots. then we covered the entire pit with newspaper. now the amber. let the newspaper catch fire and let the pit be open and let fire travel downwards to the saw dust. once that happened we closed the pit with two shelves and let it smoke for another twenty min. once we thought it was enough we took the pots out and put them in a bucket of water. we didnt want the pots to turn completely black- well i didnt, not this time. i was more interested in seeing variations of colors.
everyone was excited. it was new. it was a new way fire was holding ur pot. best part of this is u get to see the pots immediately unlike the woodfired kiln- i think its great for people like me! i dont like much glaze either. so this suited me just fine. we did about three or four rounds of the same thing. we smoked about twenty two pots.
few things worked, few things didnt. i made notes of all that. the slip wasnt of much use- in some pots it had created a nice effect where it acted as a shiled against the smoke- so there was a beautiful pattern - 3 layers, the color of the clay , smoke and the patches where slip was applied. rakhee's terracotta pot was a beauty, the smoke effects and the red color of the terracotta is just perfect- its like a perfect note. the mud and fire have done all the work and u simply watch. isnt that enigmatic?
no one complained about heat, although when we did the smoke firing it was two thirty in the afternoon- smoke , fire, the temperature from the nearby kiln , mosquitoes nothing bothered us. all we wanted to do was to get each pot and put it in the water and let it reveal all its beauty very slowly.
we thought it was only the beginning and everyone was already planning for the next firing- oh we will do this next time, we will not do that again! antra and me thought this would be our gift to ray and debi when they return this week from the US.
we finished antra's firing by 10.30 at night and when i returned home parumole was still looking shocked and there was a strong smell of cat poo as soon as i entered, i was dead tired by the time i finished cleaning. but did it bother? was there any complaint in life i asked perumole , he looked quite happy to be sleeping on the bed and not on the hot ledge. i was happy too my cat and pots were safe and happy.


Bernard said...

Thanks for this writeup. Wonderful to be able to use a tech this old (ca. 10,000 y.a.?) to do the kinds of things you're doing. And now we know, too, at least the principles of it. I would have thought that dumping a hot piece of pottery into water would crack it, no?

Ashwini Bhat said...

ya, its amazing how a pot takes two extreme temps. its called rapid cooling- its an essential part of smoke firing as well as naked raku...