Open Studio

The Southern highlands Arts Festival is upon us, and so are the Open Studio Weekends  are starting this next weekend of the 5th and 6th of November and followed on the next weekend of the 12th and 13th.
img_3780Two firings in 7 days
We have the kiln unpacked and re-packed and ready to fire in 5 days. This is only possible because I had all the pots made and bisque fired before I left to go to do my research in Korea. All we have to do now is glaze them and make sure that they are well dried before packing them into the kiln. I have learnt from experience that if I pack my thick felspathic glazes wet. They can just fall off from the outside of the pots. Especially from the underside of bowls.
It has been too hot and dry to fire for the past 2 days, so today has been forecast to be overcast and showery. I wake at 4.00am, just like clockwork. I amaze myself that  I can do this, but it just happens. I read an article in ‘NewScientist’ magazine recently about our brains ability to track time accurately, even when supposedly asleep. The article maintained that only part of our brain sleeps. A lot of it stays well awake, and is a very good time-keeper. I know this as a fact for me and my brain, but I can’t speak for others. I thought that I had taught myself to do this as an art student. Waking up every two hours to turn up the gas pressure on the kiln. I could wake up just a minute or two before the alarm went off. I didn’t like the alarm, so I taught myself to pre-empt it by a minute or so to avoid its harsh reality. Apparently, I’m not at all special. Loads of people can do this with no effort. It’s apparently quite normal. Ho-hum! There goes my last claim to be able to do something ‘special’.
We have the wood all cut and dried, up in the wood shed, we have all the pots bisque fired and stacked in the pottery. All the stones have been ground up and powdered. All the ashes have been dry sieved and bagged. All the glazes are made up and tested. Nothing can go wrong now!
 The firing proceeds well, very well. Just as it ought to after 48 years of learning. Starting in the quiet at 4.00 am and firing through into the night. I like the quiet of the very early morning. I can get a few minor things done while I’m confined here, once the kindling stage is over and I start to put big logs into the main firebox. I can steal a few minutes at a time to clean up my work bench and grind the bottoms of the pots that we just unpacked from the last firing. The Lovely  wakes up with the light and brings me down some breakfast and a pot of freshly plunged coffee. We have fruit salad and marmalade from the pantry to put on our toast. It’s a nice quiet time together.
In the middle of the day I’m well into the reduction cycle and using quite large, heavy logs, that can burn for 40 to 50 mins. This gives me time to do other jobs that demand a bit more attention. I decide to repair the coffee cup from the last firing that caught a falling piece of kiln brick. I spend a bit of time on it, grinding and polishing the brick fragment away to nothing, then polishing the remnants of the glazed rim back to a fine finish. I decide that since I’ve spent so much time on it. I will keep it for myself to use in the kitchen. I decide to do some Japanese inspired ‘kintsugi’ repair on it. Janine takes over while I concentrate.
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I rebuild the surface back to its original profile and then finish it with some 24 carat gold. This of course takes me several days, just a few minutes at a time, whenever I can fit it in. I do a batch of ‘less-than-perfect’ pots from the last firing. They all turn out OK. They are still ‘2nds’, but seconds that have been shown a bit of attention and care. Their ‘flawed’ surfaces turned to a thing of beauty, with some time, love and respect. Just as we do for each other. We shine when we are loved. These pots now glow in a simple honest way.
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For some reason, I can’t help but think of dentistry!


Best wishes

Winsome, Loose Some

We have unpacked the latest firing and it was largely good, some of it is quite good. A bit of it is very good, but as always there is the odd disaster.  I sport a winsome smile.

One single disaster was completely my fault. I made up a batch of glaze that has always been straight forward. Porcelain stone and limestone. I got distracted when someone called in and It seems that I forgot to add the limestone, so I have a bowl with what is essentially a coating of porcelain body. Not attractive.
The walls of my kiln are slowly dissolving with the build-up of wood ash. But not bad for 60 firings for home-made lightweight insulating refractories made from local bauxite!
Another casualty this firing was a piece of wall that spalled off and landed on the lip of one of my cups. I may be able to recover it with some judicious grinding and polishing. However, I ask myself if it really is worth half an hours work to make a 2nd grade mug worth $10 out of this ruin? It is quite pretty though. I may decide to spend a bit of time working on it and keep it for myself in the studio. This ‘mishap’ is not my fault, except in that I chose to build my kiln out of my own inferior, local, hand-made, fire bricks
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I usually test all new batches of glaze that we mix up, before using them on-mass. I did just this last week to test all the new batches of domestic ware glazes that we were about to use to glaze all the pots for the next firing, destined for the Southern Highlands Open Studios weekend sales. I fired the little portable wood fired kiln with test pieces and small bowls. They all worked perfectly and melted well. The colours that i get in a 2 1/2 hour firing in reduction to stoneware, cone 10, are not as clear and intense as what we get in the bigger kiln firing for 16 hours and with a much slower cooling. However the difference is only really marginal and the faster firing is just fine for domestic ware.
I photographed both sets of tests and there isn’t a whole lot of difference. There is better reduction, especially for carbon sequestration glazes, in the longer sustained reduction firing, and the granite and pegmatite celadons are richer. Funnily, the ching-bai porcelain glaze, on the right, looks pretty indistinguishable!
The tragic, sand-paper-like porcelain-stone glaze, sans limestone, was made up after this test firing, as an afterthought, so missed out on being test fired.
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We have just re-packed the kiln to fire again. This firing will have what I hope will be a new opalescent jun ash glaze. Here’s hoping! Ash is always so variable. We have to test each batch of ash and find the differences from the last batch, then alter the recipe accordingly. What is sometimes a blue opalescent glaze can quickly become a yellow crystalline glaze or a white matt. It changes from ‘nuka’ white through to transparent green glass with minor variations  of ingredients. It always requires felspar and silica to be added. Luckily, porcelain stone is largely composed of felspar and silica. I love it so much when it works!
There is something so rewarding about using the ash from the fire that cooked our dinner to make our glazes! There is something so truly organic and particularly rounded about the concept of waste-not/want-not, and self-reliance about this. Glazes like this are firmly embedded in my sense of place and my sense of self-in-place.
I couldn’t want for more – except perhaps a more reliable and richer opalescent blue?
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I pass the glaze through a fine sieve and although we have already dry sieved the ash beforehand, there is always a lot of material that refuses to pass through the fine screen. I scrape it off the mesh and put it in the large mortar and pestle. I give it a good few minutes hand grinding, until it doesn’t sound or feel gritty anymore. I know from past experience that it still will not all go through, but a lot of it will. I was lucky to see this 450 mm dia mortar and pestle in a junk shop and snapped it up. It’s a beauty! It dwarfs my Leach kick wheel.
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The kiln is bricked-up and ready to fire now. The weather is a bit warm and dry, so we decide to post-pone the firing until Thursday when a shower or two and some damp weather is forecast. This will be a much safer day to fire.
Ashes to ashes and lust to lust
Steve and Janine

Be Prepared

I realise that I’m awake and I’m not going to get back to sleep. It’s 4.00 am and we are all ready to fire the kiln today. I usually wake up at about this time on firing days. It’s a habit that I have got into. I like to start early. I love the quiet of the early morning. It’s beautiful. There is a very special time. Just a half hour, when the birds start to wake up and so does the sun in response to their chippering and calling. They have very fine senses. They are awake and calling when it is still dark. I can’t tell the difference with my old worn out eyes. but they know and call out to tell each other. They summon the sun.

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We packed the kiln yesterday and bricked up the door with our home-made fire brick blocks. It’s a big door for easy access for packing, so we needed some large blocks to speed up the door bricking-up process. Making our own firebrick is just one of the many things that we do to live this life of self-reliance. The sun was loosing its heat as drove up to the wood yard and loaded the truck with both pine and stringybark logs. We are all finished before the evening dusk falls. The truck sits in the dark and is slowly revealed this early morning as the sun comes around the curve and slowly illuminates the house and orchard in the distance.
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We have a new wood shed now, so all the pine is stacked and ready to load, dry and seasoned. Such luxury! it’s only taken us 40 years to get this small convenience built. There is always so much to do. We have lists! Even lists of lists. But ultimately, it’s a case of the squeaky wheel getting the oil. But now the time is here for a kiln wood, wood shed and it’s a beauty. We’ve had a wood shed for the house wood, particularly for the kitchen stove timber. We couldn’t function here in this self-reliant way without one. That was a very squeaky wheel and got built after only 10 years here. This masterpiece of re-cycling cost next to nothing, being made out of the old wooden tank stand and old roofing iron that we were given. It’s only taken us 40 years to get around to it!
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We are officially into the bushfire season now, so there are fire restrictions in place. Luckily for us today, it is overcast and there are showers forecast. It has just started to rain gently, but just a brief shower. I don’t even bother to cover the pine on the truck. Last night I called the fire captain to tell him that we were going to fire the kiln. It’s a polite notification. We have been here 40 years doing this with no problems so far. That is largely because we are very careful. During the spring, we pack the kiln and wait for a suitable day to fire. A day like this is excellent. Cool, overcast and with this brief shower of rain, it couldn’t be better for firing. The safest of conditions. If it were very hot and windy, we wouldn’t light the kiln. We’d just pack it and leave it full and wait for a break in the weather.
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When Janine gets up, she brings me breakfast by the kiln. We eat all our meals during the day down in the kiln shed. We get a visit from the chooks, who call in to see what going on. We fire through into the night. It’s a civilised, steady, easy firing process. With all the wood already cut, split and seasoned in advance. This prepared wood that we are burning, is work that we did months ago in preparation for this moment. To make our lives easier now. We make decisions and make preparations for the future in this way so that we can keep on working, and living this life into our older years.
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We finish the firing at night, on the same day that we started. Packing and firing the kiln is an intense couple of days. We celebrate the end of the firing with a bottle of bubbly. I cook pasta for dinner. It’s quick and simple, using all our own home-grown ingredients, preserved tomato pasta sauce, our own garlic, our dried tomatoes and dried mushrooms. It’s just like our firing, everything prepared in advance to make this moment of creation easier.
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Best wishes
from the well prepared Steve and Janine, working towards the up-coming Southern Highlands Arts Trail, Open Studio weekends. We will be open on the first two weekends of November.

Hit The Ground Running

It’s always good to be home and re-united with my 4 girls.

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I have a lot to do. Jobs that have built up while I’ve been away. I hit the ground running. We have 3 weekend workshop booked in for wood firings over the next 3 weekends. We have a lot of bisque-ware ready to be glazed for the Southern Highlands Arts Trail Open Studio Weekends that are coming up, but we can’t get access to our wood kiln until we finish all the workshops.

The effort that we put in to preparation pays off, as all the weekends go smoothly and everyone leaves with something nice to make all the effort worthwhile. And we are lucky with the weather too. It blows a gale all week, and then it settles down and we have a glorious weekend of still, sunny days.

We fire the big wood kiln overnight through the weekend, taking shifts of 4 hours and overlapping each change of personal by 2 hours, so that there is always some continuity. The nights are cold and we huddle near the firebox for warmth. This is a downdraught ‘Bourry’ style firebox, so there isn’t very much to do most of the time.

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If we stoke with big pieces of hardwood. It might take up to one hour for those logs to burn down sufficiently to allow another stoke. The kiln climbs slowly in an even, steady, reducing atmosphere.

The next weekend we have a low temperature wood firing workshop. We have half a dozen small wood fired kilns that we use throughout the day. We have 10 participants, who each bring 5 or 6 pots to fire, depending on size. We get through them all in the day, along with half a dozen wheel-barrow loads of wood.


When the day is over, we pack away all the little kilns, except for one. I leave it out and pack it with my glaze tests for all the new batches of glazes that have made up for the next big wood firing. It will have a lot of work in there for the  ArtsTrail Open Studios Weekends. I want to make sure that I haven’t made any mistakes or poor assumptions, when making-up these glazes.

I pack the kiln in the morning and start to fire straight away. I push it along, as I have other things to do this afternoon. This little beauty breaks all previous records and cruises up the cone 10 in just 2 1/2 hours in reduction. The results are really quite good. Everything is well melted. There is no flashing in such a short firing. Nor is there very intense reduction colour, but all the colours are there – only paler than I would expect from a longer wood firing. I’m finished by lunchtime and can get on with other things.

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I even surprise my self! I didn’t know that this sort of speed was possible for a stoneware firing, and with so little effort.

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The garden is producing well, with Nina in charge in my absence, she decides to have the evening baking and makes a couple of lovely dishes. A leek pie with a little bit of sour cream and a wholemeal crust, topped with some grated tasty cheese, which is amazing, followed with a berry pie with a baked sponge topping. Served with Edmonds custard. Yum! It’s an economical, warming, dinner on a cold evening. All this garden produce is a fitting reward for all the hours of weeding and watering. However, we don’t do it to save money, but to enjoy wholesome, unpolluted, fresh food.

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Over the years, we have made decisions that have allowed us to be in control of much of our lives, but nothing is perfect, nothing is finished and nothing lasts!

Enjoy the moment.