The following article is a condensed version of the presentation we gave at the First European Woodfire Conference, held in Germany during September 2010. Please contact me for further info. Thank you.
Wood-firing in U.S. Academic Institutions
Shannon Sullivan and David Zdrazil
This article highlights the results of a survey we conducted about wood firing at accredited institutions in the U.S. in 2010. The institutions surveyed included public and private colleges, universities and high schools. The goal of the survey is to analyze current pedagogical aspects of wood firing in these institutional settings and to provide insight to an international audience; particularly those who aren’t quite familiar with the academic aspects of wood firing in the U.S.
The data was collected by means of an online survey, as well as in-depth interviews with certain individuals. Professors, administrators, technicians and students were invited to contribute. People were asked to participate via word of mouth, cards distributed at conferences, e-mail and networking on Facebook. The survey was created, accessed and completed online through the Survey Monkey website. It was distributed directly to over 500 individuals, of which 55 chose to complete it. This response rate falls within the 10-15% average response rate for online surveys.
There were 41 unique institutions represented by survey participants. Of these participants, 63% prefer wood firing for their own work, 2% never wood fire their own work, and 35% sometimes wood fire their work.
We came up with a list of questions that we thought would be relevant to ask, based on our own experiences with wood firing. The subsequent charts, photographs and quotes represent the statistical data and anecdotal information gathered by our survey.
We inquired about the level of interest in wood firing and also what type of students are interested in wood firing.
According to John Neely, a professor at Utah State University, “Wood firing has been an integral part of the USU program for more than 25 years.” In contrast, Doug Browe, a professor at Mendocino College in California, fires with his students off-campus and states, “I am new at the institution and previously there was no exposure to wood firing. Now the students are becoming involved and seeing the results and popularity is growing.”
Mark Lancet, professor at Solano College in California expressed “Wood firing is an integrated part of our fine arts program offerings. We have been teaching wood firing as part of all 3-D courses and as a stand-alone course for almost 10 years. It is very popular and seems to sustain its popularity”
Elmer Taylor, professor from the University of North Texas says wood firing popularity is staying the same and emphasizes, “Only a certain type of student will spend the TIME and ENERGY.”
Doug Jeppesen, professor of Waubonsee Community College in Illinois, says “I think it ebbs and flows, currently I have a few students transferring and there seems to be a group taking their place.”
We asked about the importance of wood firing for students pursuing diverse paths in their education. Warner Hyde, a professor from Meredith College – an all women’s liberal art college without a BFA program said “I believe students who are exposed to ceramics, enjoy it, and constantly say the wood firing experience and work, was their favorite.” He expands to say “My main focus with teaching wood fire at an institution like this, where I know the majority of students are not art majors, much less potters – is the important philosophies and self realization discovered by the wood firing process.”
Warner Hyde and a student salt the back of the “Educator”, a kiln designed by Hyde.
Students (above) in Mr. Becker’s ceramics classes at Verona Area High School, in Wisconsin.
Approximately 25% of the wood kilns used by instituions are located somewhere off campus and most are situated on a professor’s private land or home studio.
Professor Doug Browe said, “In the recent kiln building class we spent the first third of the course studying kiln engineering, the science of combustion, and learning to load and fire the gas and electric kilns here at Mendocino College. In the second two thirds of the class we designed and built a 30 cubic foot soda kiln at a student’s home studio. The student bought all materials and in exchange for other student’s labor they were offered discounts in firing charges once the kiln was up and running.”
The survey data suggests that the kilns are funded in a number of different ways, and that many students and professors scavenging materials to save money. Eva Kwong from Kent State University in Ohio said “We have built several wood kilns using hand-made bricks since the late 70s and early 80s. It is a wonderful way to build a kiln.”
Students and Professor Doug Jeppeson work together to lath the arch form for the anagama kiln at Waubonesee Community College.
The anagama kiln at Waubonsee Community College in Illinois takes 20 hours to load.
When asked about wadding techniques, the most common solution is to have each person wad their own pieces before the kiln is loaded. The second most common solution was to wad the pieces as they are loaded into the kiln. Wads are often glued on, and sometimes pre-fired wadding cookies are used. Randy Becker, a ceramics teacher at Verona High School in Wisconsin uses this technique and proclaims, “Another advantage to the wadding method is they are reusable! I usually get 3-4 firings out of most of the cookies.”
Potlucks and barbeques usually coincide with wood firing. Results indicated that the longer the firing is, the better the food is. Participants of shorter firings can be left to fend for themselves and eat junk food, while participants in the ten-day firing with Richard Bresnahan at St. John’s University in Minnesota are treated to food cooked by hired chefs.
Ceramics student Mimi Goldberg cooks an outdoor breakfast for the rest of her firing crew at College of the Redwoods.
When asked if wood firing has been a nuisance for others, about a third of the institutions admitted to having minor challenges. Common answers indicated that “The Administration” and/or “The Fire Department” were often involved in complaints.
Occurrences or major incidents with natural disasters were low. The most drastic example of destruction was a 6.5 magnitude earthquake collapsing a kiln at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California on January 9, 2010. On the bright side, it created an opportunity to have a kiln-building class and build a new and improved kiln.
While there is a large following of teaching a Japanese aesthetic in wood firing, emphasis seems to be focused on contemporary and technical practices. Most instructors want students to respect the possibilities of the kiln and use it as a tool for experimentation. Warner Hyde, a professor at Meredith College in North Carolina emphasizes the respect of the ritual, “letting go of ego” and “balancing the artist’s intent with the life of the kiln.” Von Venhuizen, a professor at Texas Tech simply states that, “The kiln is a tool to obtain effects that cannot be made any other way.” It seems that most teachers want students pursue their own expression before identifying with a certain tradition or style. Some teachers introduce indigenous and folk pottery practices only after students are involved in wood firing and familiar the effects.
A piece by Iesha Taylor, student at Meredith College. Photo by Warner Hyde.
Technical information is the most common discussion point to come up during a critique with wood fired pieces. However, the majority of responses also addressed ideas related to critical thinking. One phenomenon is that the looseness of wood firing can lead students to ignore the compositional and conceptual aspects that will make their art more successful. Marc Lancet, a professor at Solano Community College, in California, says: “A lack of integrity of form and technique will not long be disguised by an elegant wood-fired surface. Learning is foremost. Chance is not a significant factor when learning from results.”
Most people are pretty content with their situations and mentioned only minor things they would like to change. One aspect of change that is largely shared is the hunger for more wood firings, with many comments about wanting more kilns, more firewood, firing longer or more often and wanting more help from students in order to accomplish these things. Dean Adams, a professor at Montana State University sums it up by saying he would like to “build even more kilns” and use “more wild clay materials.”
The results of this research indicate that wood firing has a bright and hot future.
Environmental and economic concerns are major factors in the development of new styles of kilns. Many institutions have developed multi-fueled kilns and kilns that have separate zones for specific atmospheric effects.
The survey results illustrate the dichotomy of ancient ceramic traditions in today’s modern learning environments. Wood firing in an academic setting in the United States is no longer constrained by the historical influences and boundaries; student experiences are as diverse as the institutions themselves and offer a full range of possibilities.