In October of this year, the Cultural Confluence conference on woodfired ceramic process will make its way to Helena. The conference brings a huge following of artists and art supporters from around the globe, and because of this, MSU is holding their own series of exhibits throughout the month of October entitled, “Upstream of the Confluence.” The exhibits will feature current MSU undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni, showcasing a wide range of woodfire work, something that has a long history here at MSU.
“It will give students a broad range of the aesthetic that is derived out of this process, and the variety, too,” Josh DeWeese, Associate Professor of Ceramics, said of the upcoming exhibits. “There’s a lot of different effects that happen from the process, so it will give students a wide range of both the process and a glimpse of the work of MSU alumni.” DeWeese went on to say that, “At the grad studios we have a unique large scale woodfire kiln that would be really interesting for people to see — the facilities there would be of interest to anyone. Students might not even be aware of it.”
There are two exhibits at the graduate studio — a curated show of current woodfiring students, and the work of current graduate students in a variety of disciplines. The Exit Gallery will also display woodfire work from the Ceramics Guild. In conjunction with this conference, the plethora of student work is what is really driving the exhibits.
“I really like the woodfire community, and I’ve spent a lot of time photographing them, so I’m excited to showcase the results,” Jessica Hayes, director of the Exit Gallery said. “I’m excited to showcase our students.” Hayes’ role is helping with advertising and PR, as well as helping students curate which of their work they will showcase. According to Hayes, the biggest bumps and difficulties are behind them, and those involved are ready and excited for the exhibit to begin.
The process of woodfiring ceramics has been used throughout the world. The higher temperatures necessary for stoneware and porcelain were first achieved in Asia over 1000 years ago, and the knowledge has migrated around the world. In the U.S., there was a resurgence of woodfiring and people embraced this aesthetic in the 1980s. In the early 80s there were only a handful of woodfire kilns around the country — now, there are hundreds.
There is a distinct element of surprise in woodfiring. The natural organic qualities of the fly ash moving through the kiln create the aesthetic aspect. “Depending on where the work is placed in the kiln, the resulting piece will have ash deposits on the work. The surface is controlled, but is also at the whims of the fire,” Ella Watson, School of Art Gallery Director for Helen E. Copeland and Waller-Yoblonsky Galleries, explained. She went on to make clear that a seasoned woodfire artist will be able to read a piece and tell how the fire cooked the clay to create the aesthetic aspects. “In my mind, that is the key to understanding woodfired ceramics: the colors are not as vibrant as from other electric or gas kilns, but it is the nuances of the work that make it incredible,” she said. “It strikes me that the artist is not just crafting clay, but using a slow fire as a tool like a brush. One cannot passively dismiss the woodfired ceramics in the gallery with a quick glance and still expect to ‘get’ the work.” In order to fully take in all that woodfire art entails, it needs to be studied closely, and the color differentiation and texture will begin to reveal itself. As Watson put it, “the viewer must give time for the pupil to adjust to the intricacies of the fire’s dance upon the clay.”
Here at MSU, the first kiln was built by a graduate student named Jim O’Connell in the late 1970s, and it was patterned after a kiln at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena. That kiln is gone now, and there have since been several featured in the Haynes Hall complex that were built by students as part of a class project. They were fired for about 10-15 years before they needed to be rebuilt. Currently, there are two different designs by undergraduates on campus at Haynes Hall and two by graduate students at the Melvin Graduate Art Studios
What makes woodfiring unique is its communal aspect. Some different processes of art are very solitary, but woodfirings often take several days, so they need to be constantly stoked. “People tend to sit and hang out while doing this, it’s so communal,” Watson said. “These people have sat there for hours stoking fires together through the night over several days, which is sort of a beautiful thing.”
The process of woodfiring is a complex one, and Josh DeWeese explained it best, “When you’re loading a wood kiln, the stack of the wares is considered with the flow of the flame in mind. The stacking of the kiln is really important. The firing begins as a tiny campfire and becomes 2,400 degrees inside the kiln,” he expanded. “The stoking rhythm you get into with the fire, through time, with wood that is dry, cured and prepared, makes you really pay attention to the rhythm of the fire and add the right amount of wood at the right time.”
Different types of wood can have various effects on ash quality in woodfiring. At MSU much of the wood is scrap that would have been mulched, but instead was donated by Simkins-Hallin for the artists to create with. Although there is visible smoke from the fire, when you factor in all the elements, it nearly balances itself out in terms of the carbon footprint.
Students in the program often use indigenous “wild clay,” which entails hiking out in nature and digging up the clay and ceramic materials they will use. They process the material by drying, milling and testing to formulate glazes and clays for the fire it will endure.
Provided by Ella Watson
September 14 - 15: DeWeese Cross Draft Kiln
September 28 - 29: MSU Haynes Hall, Cross Draft and Bourry Box Kilns
October 9 - 13: MSU Melvin Graduate Studio-- Train and Pony Kilns
Thursday, Oct. 11, 9:00 am - 12:00 pm in the Ceramics Studio, Haynes Hall, MSU Bozeman: This event will feature ceramic demonstrations by Dan Murphy, Associate Professor from Utah State University, and Julia Isidrez, Studio Artist from Paraguay. Both will be lecturing later that afternoon, at 4:00 pm in Cheever 214.
Thursday, Oct. 11, 4:00 pm in the Cheever Hall 214, Bozeman Campus: This lecture will feature Dan Murphy and Julia Isidrez speaking on their practice and work
East Fork at the Helen E. Copeland Gallery in Haynes Hall
Exhibition: Oct. 1 – 25
Reception: Tuesday, Oct. 16
6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Exhibition: Oct. 14– 19 Reception: Tuesday, Oct.16
4:00 - 6:00 pm
Middle Fork in The Beyond Gallery at the Melvin Graduate Studio
Reception: Tuesday, Oct. 16
4:00 - 6:00 p.m.
Helena dates: TBD
Downfire/Downstream in the Exit Gallery in the SUB
Exhibition: Oct. 15 - 26
Open Monday - Friday
10:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.