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Pots, planet and profits

Faceted Firebox Vase by Rowley Drysdale , 28 cm in height, 2017 local clay

Melanie McEvoy is a ceramic artist from Toowoomba, Queensland. She fires in an electric kiln but has purchased 3000 firebricks. With these she intends to build an anagama kiln, on a friend’s farm at nearby Crow’s Nest. Mel’s very first woodfiring was in mid-2014, in an anagama with Stephen Roberts and Isaac Patmore at Quixotica in Cooroy, Queensland. She wants to woodfire because, in her opinion, wood-fired pottery ‘has soul and a particular feel which speaks of the process and the people firing it’.

One could describe Mel’s reasoning as ‘makers’ reasoning’ and arguably a ‘right’ reason for choosing to woodfire. Artists are entitled to adopt particular philosophies to underpin how they produce their work. There is certain absolutism about this.

Correspondingly, people utilise various criteria when choosing to buy work. Both areas – the reason(s) to make and the reason(s) to buy – have always been subject to dynamic changes.

At the 2017 Wood Fire Conference that took place in Cooroy, there was some commentary concerning what would most influence buyers of ceramic art in the decades to come. It was postulated that what might well become the major criteria are the ethics behind the making of the product, more so than even its aesthetics.

Events in the mining industry over the last two to three decades go some way towards supporting this assertion. Environmental Social Governance (ESG) is a term that began gaining traction in the sector in the late 1980s when, amongst others, James S. Coleman[1] challenged dominant ‘it’s all about profit’ attitudes.

With terms such as ‘social capital’ and ‘environmental impact’ being added into the equation, there emerged a concept of selective investment, which alludes to the idea that you might buy a product, such as a wood-fired coffee mug, not because it is the cheapest, or even that it is the most attractive to your eye, but that in fact it has been made in the most ethical, sustainable way. This underlying concept has now infiltrated thinking in many other industries such as fashion, food, cosmetics … the list goes on.

Vase by Rowley Drysdale, 27 cm in height, 2018. Local clay with feldspar additions.

In his book with the catchy title Cannibals with Forks, John Elkington[2] coins the phrase ‘triple bottom line’ and contends that ESG impacts on the total value (and /or worth) of any mining company. The argument is that social, environmental and financial elements or ‘people, planet and profits’ must be considered when measuring a company’s results. This leads to a more informed scrutiny of product.

I see a connection here. Nowadays many people are obsessed with the provenance of the food they eat. They want to know if it is organically grown, gluten free, genetically modified, locally produced, and they want to identify its carbon footprint. But it seems to me there is little regard for the provenance of the ware the food is served on. If that pottery is mass-produced somewhere, in places it likely was, there is a fair chance it has been produced with little regard for worker’s OH&S, little regard for environmental impact, and often enough represents abysmal social impact on the local community.

In short, there is a disconnect happening between the food, and the plate the food is served on. Television cooking show hosts love to employ the phrases ‘we eat with our eyes’ and ‘plating up’ but seldom, if ever, is there any comment about the plate itself. In Australia, you occasionally see a wood-fired plate in a restaurant, but it is a tiny percentage of all the ware that is out there in daily use.

There are numerous reasons why, eventually, informed shoppers might selectively invest in wood-fired pottery, and pay more for items they could purchase much cheaper from a multi-national retailer.

Lidded Jar by Rowley Drysdale. 14 cm in height, 2018. Feldspar and ash glazes

During his address at the 2017 conference, Sunshine Coast potter Angus McDiarmid referred to ‘canned sunlight’, in the context of wood being a renewable resource and his clear choice of it as a fuel to fire kilns. He borrowed the term from Gundaroo potter Ian Jones,[3] who actually coined the phrase when McDiarmid was just one year old. ‘Canned sunlight’ is an interesting way for consumers to consider the energy that has been used to create a wood-fired piece they are purchasing.

In a paper presented at ‘Woodfire ’89’, held in Gulgong, New South Wales, while outlining a considerable amount of research by scientists from Australia’s august Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) institution, Jones states that the use of wood as a fuel has less impact on the general environment than the use of fossil fuels.

Considerations to be factored in to this discussion include comparisons with energy produced on a mass scale requiring heavy infrastructure, such as electricity or gas.

Another is where the wood actually comes from. Woodfirers most often burn waste timber, not valuable bio diverse habitat timber. When woodfirers burn mill scraps, which in certain places, by law must be inefficiently burnt on site in order to deter vermin, they are arguably doing the environment a favour.

Other research contends that in some cases firing kilns efficiently with the toppings of introduced plantation pine could be actually carbon positive. Evidence for this assertion is based upon the fact that introduced pine breaks down extremely slowly on Australian forest floors. In 2017, researchers at Michigan State University pinpointed that the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, which emanates from decomposing vegetation, has a global warming potential 300 times greater than carbon dioxide.[4]

Gathering conclusive scientific evidence to prove that woodfiring is environmentally the most sound firing practise may be the most important task of the 21st century woodfiring community. More important than hunting down new local clays or developing knock out surfaces. If the evidence is indisputable, it may well underpin the whole philosophical approach for the decades ahead.

These are obviously crucial considerations while building the case for what could be described as ‘ethical ware’. Here again parallels exist in the commercial and corporate world.

At a tile shop in Noosa Heads, Queensland, a ‘Thank You’ notice outlines why it is good to support local entrepreneurship, local business, local economy, and cites environmental, community and health benefits.

Oceania Large Vase by Rowley Drysdale, 36 cm in height, 2015. Iron blue glazes, side fired on sea shells.

The collaboration inherent in the woodfiring process speaks to ‘community’ aspects as well. Firing an anagama is a potent ‘petit narrative’, which fosters teamwork and invites powerful and insightful metaphor in an era of decaying ‘grand narrative’. Visiting woodfirers to my anagama firings often comment that they enjoy the opportunity to share ceramic experiences. Much knowledge (and laughter) is shared at firing sessions. I sometimes wonder whether this positive sharing is also somehow absorbed into the work. A resultant ‘good energy’ is felt when one handles it. Much as a grandmother’s love is felt in a hand-stitched patchwork quilt, the good vibes from a team of happy potters can perhaps imbue wood-fired work.

Ultimately, financial sustainability will dictate the future of wood-fired ceramic art, as it does most things. I’d argue it is up to woodfirers to raise awareness of these issues, refine their practise in accordance with them and hold continuing conversations around them.

This may require a reworking of stereotypical perceptions from within and from outside. For instance, we know it is not necessary to have shooting flames and black smoke belching from kiln stacks. There are well-chronicled designs and techniques that can abate this negative spectacle.

In late 2018 the Cooroy Centre for Ceramic Excellence, which was established under the auspices of the most recent Australian wood fire conference, rebadged. In its place, the AWFU [5] (Australian Wood Firers United) was established.

One of AWFU’s goals is to establish a forum for the kinds of conversations members (including woodfirers and non-woodfirers) think are important. The ethics of woodfiring will be one of those. It is possible that what makers say and how they sell it will become as important, if not more, than what is made.

Rowley Drysdale has been a potter and wood firer since his early 20's. He has also been a ceramics educator for more than two decades. He regularly fires the three anagama kilns on his property, Quixotica Art Space, in Queensland, Australia, where he continues to make, and regularly holds workshops.

This article appeared in 'The Log Book', volume 80, November 2019

[1] James S. Coleman, ‘Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 94, 1988.

[2] John Elkington, Cannibals with forks: the triple bottom line of 21st century business. Oxford: Capstone, 1999.

[3] Ian Jones, ‘Wood: The most ecologically sound fuel?’ Woodfire ’89 conference proceedings, Gulgong, 1989.



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