A Traditional Pottery In Greece

Last year I stayed for a week with an old friend on the Island of Aegina, lying in the bay about sixteen miles out from Athens.  While there we visited one of the three old potteries still operating there. For centuries, up until the mid 1960’s, Aegina had exported pottery, particularly “water-coolers”, all over the Aegean. Refrigeration and bottled water has killed of the trade, though the coolers are still made, mainly for the tourist market. While the traditional coolers were porous (the evaporation of the water from the surface of the pot was what made them work), the modern ones I saw were glazed internally.  Some had (non-traditional) coloured floral decoration.

 

Our potter marked his pots with what would be called over here a “sprig” using a mould first used by his grandfather. He used two different clays, both quarried on the island. One fired to a terracotta red, the other a paler yellow-cream. He washed and prepared them in open tanks behind the workshop. Neither was especially plastic as a throwing body. Both were quite dense after firing and the redder clay, if lightly burnished, was more or less impermeable.

 

Sadly (to me) the pots are fired in modern electric kilns, but our potter was in the process of rebuilding his grandfather’s wood-fired kiln. This was (externally at least) a big brick cube, with the fire underneath. The fuel he was assembling was trimmings of olive and one would imagine that a considerable quantity would have been needed to fire this up-draught kiln to even low earthenware temperature (but it would have smelt great!).

 

I didn’t get to use his wheel, which was an electric one of some age on which he sat “side-saddle”. I don’t know what the traditional wheels were like, but, of course, it is from the Aegean that some of the earliest thrown pottery comes. There is a fine small collection of pottery in the museum in the island’s main town. It is apparent that the ancient inhabitants used water-coolers identical in form to the modern ones.

Our conversation was restricted by our ignorance of one another’s language (notwithstanding the interpreter’s efforts of my friend’s Cypriot wife) but at the end of our visit he presented me with a small water-cooler straight from the kiln.

Greek-pot1.jpg

Since then, my friend has sent me a link to an interview given by our potter to a local magazine: http://www.aeginagreece.com/aegina/pages/articles/culture/pottery_food_mesagros.html

You win some, you lose some

It is one of the constants of salt-glazing that the process gives you rich rewards one firing and a pile of disasters the next. The changing condition of the kiln and its furniture is added to the variations inherent in any “live-flame” firing. It can prove almost impossible to duplicate a choice effect. With luck you’ll get another treat instead, but sometimes not.

The last three firings each managed to combine triumph and tragedy. In one, for example, there were some rich bottle vases (a new venture) and large jugs in the upper half of the kiln, but platters and bowls below were ruined by falling bits of decaying kiln shelf. In another the performance of the oil-burners was so far at variance that the rear half of the kiln required re-firing – always risky.

It can be dispiriting. Any pot, not too far gone, has a chance as a “second” to be sold from a market stall. I have some loyal patrons who say that actually prefer the flawed pots. On a good, sunny day it is fun to chat with visitors and to see them part with a pot, that, but for a small scar, would be in a gallery at twice the price.  Sadly, this year sunny days have been few and far between, people have stayed indoors, and a couple of local fairs have been cancelled because of the weather. The seconds have mounted up!

On the bright side, a couple of new art galleries have taken my work, spreading me wider geographically – up into Cheshire and down into South Wales.

It would be nice to get more consistently reliable firings!

Winter Firing

A cracking good firing immediately before Christmas. A long night (in fact the longest night of the year). It was cold and showery (rain and hail) and I had to push the purist side of me out of the way and sacrifice some wood-firing time to prolonging the gas phase, which I usually think of as for drying out the kiln, and also to introducing the oil phase earlier. For those with an interest in the technical stuff the firing went (from raw) in degrees centigrade: 0-400 gas, 400-600 wood @ 75 per hour = 8 hours / 600-900 oil, oxidising atmosphere @ 100 per hour / 900-1,000 oil, strong reduction @ 50 per hour / 1,000-1,120 oil, lighter reduction @ 40 per hour / 1,120-1,200 oil, heavier reduction @ 27 per hour / 1,200-1,280 oil, oxidising @ 20 per hour (14 lbs salt between 1,220 – 1,250 and a good hour and a half of soaking till cone 11 was down. Crash cool to 1,000 (1 hour). Twenty four hours in all. As always, the pyrometer lags behind the cones.

Well on the way for a firing at the end of the month. The building of the new kiln will have to wait until the weather warms up a bit.

Christmas is Coming

The opening of the studios and gallery for Powys Arts Month was a great success and certainly worth repeating. I then set to preparing a couple of kiln loads for Christmas shows. A couple of kiln loads they remain, as a combination of factors, mostly unrelated to pottery, restricted the time available for firing. Making the best of things, I have used the mild weather to work outside on a new building (surely more than a mere shed!) for storing the stuff I have to rehouse when I build the wood kiln. I have been able to muster enough pots for two group shows in Brecon and Ludlow. I will also be taking seconds and some older pots to the Mediaeval Market in Ludlow this Sunday (27th November). It has to be done in costume, though I intend to slip some sort of thermal underwear beneath the tights this time.

Powys Arts Month

Powys Art Month will be rolling down Wales during October. In the third week the focus will be on Radnorshire where Far Hall is one of twenty-five venues in the region. Julienne and I have been working at turning rooms into painting and drawing galleries and friends recently completed the oak stair to give external access to the attic studio and showroom. In the great weather we’ve been enjoying the area is looking particularly fine and we hope to welcome plenty of new visitors to this little known part of Britain and to this listed building in particular.

Dining-Room3.jpg
Studio.jpg


Hereford Art Week was, by all accounts, a huge success this year; for sure, the pots sold well. I’ve been working at a few new ideas, or reviving old ones, for the Powys show. I’ll also be showing in a mixed salt-glaze exhibition at the Twenty Twenty Gallery in Much Wenlock.

I dismantled the Norfolk kiln over two days and loaded the bricks onto pallets. With Tony Hall, of the Castle Pottery, Knucklas, as co-driver, I’ll be hauling them back here on Saturday. They can then stare at me through the winter, challenging me to get on with the building.

New Kiln - Stage One

Looking for bricks, I came upon an advertisement in Ceramic Review for a whole kiln. I’ve bought it. It’s dry built so it came down in two days. I’ll modify it for Bourry box firing. Working out how best to haul the bricks back here to Wales from Norfolk. Below is picture of kiln as was. Older potters will recognise it as the COSIRA design from the late 60’s/early 70’s. It’s big.

Website Up and Running!

So the website is up and running now. The last couple of months have been busy making and firing for a string of exhibitions, too close together for comfort. It is not that I didn’t make during the winter, but the kiln is in an open-sided barn, and, not fancying twenty four hour firings when most of those hours would be in the dark and whichever side of me was not facing the kiln would be frozen, I put off packing the kiln until April. It was not the best strategy perhaps, as it meant I had little time to respond to a kiln’s results before I was packing again. Next year I must be tougher.

openarms.jpg


The years of squeezing in hurried firings during school holidays had given me the conviction that with live-flame firings it was almost entirely a matter of chance what came out. At last, heeding the advice of Phil Rogers, backed up by Nils Lou’s The Art of Firing, I am coming to see that the potter does have some say in what happens! Results are more consistent now and I am better able to understand what is going wrong and right.

…which is just as well, as I am about to finalise the plans for the new Bourry box wood kiln. I saw a couple of these at La Borne, where they are called Sèvres kilns. Roz Herrin built one with Dominique Garet and assures me there is no great mystery to firing them. We shall see. I don’t plan to salt in the new kiln, but to work with the ash glazes I used way back, and to enjoy the flashing and glazing of fly ash. I am trusting that the corrosive atmosphere will be a lot less than in a salt firing, as replacing kiln furniture, sometimes after just a half dozen firings, is a major expense. I’ll still be salting in the old kiln though.