Pit Fired Fern Vase Story

John threw this vase this summer, mid summer, I think.  Going big is always on his mind, and going big and pit firing it is a challenge.  He must have been inspired or possessed to do this, but that’s what makes pit firing so much fun. It’s one way to shake up the day-to-day studio potter production line feeling.

When we started this pit firing experiment, we got caught up in the surprise of it all.  We were having fun.  We liked the results, the colors, and the depth of the layers of terra sigillatta.  We found at the end of the summer that we had increased our production of the functional and pit fired.  Since we did it weekly, we had to be producing something all the time.  It was intense.   People liked the work enough to buy it.  By the end of the first year of pit firing, around the end of October, we were burned out, happy and ready for a break.  We had begun inviting people to demonstrations, offering mini workshops to school groups and finally a weekly mini workshop.

Up until a few years ago, John didn’t decorate using recognizable figures or shapes.  All of his work is the expressive brushwork, kind of an impressionist type of approach.  His Dad, a very fine and well-known Wisconsin artist was also very vigorous with his brush and use of color.   Well, John’s work is like that.  People see what they want see in each one of his pieces.  So it was quite a surprise to me, and I think John, too, when he started using leaves on his pit fired pieces.

What I learned during all of this is that I am an artist and potter, in addition to being a writer.  Customers took my work as seriously as John’s, even though I was all self-taught.

Pit Fired Fern Vase

Pit Fired Fern Vase side 1

Pit Fired fern Vase side 2

Pit Fired fern Vase side 2

This vase is about 18″ tall, with a base of 5″-6″ and at it’s widest it’s 14″.  John used stoneware clay and threw it in two pieces, and when the two pieces were firm enough to handle the weight, he attached them and disappeared the join.

When he bisque fires the pots destined for the pit, he under fires them thereby keeping the clay body open so it handles the thermal shock of the fire.  On this vase he used two terra sigillattas (red art and old mine #4).  The old mine #4 acts as a glue to hold the fern on the surface of the vase.  Then, using the high tech tool, a worn out toothbrush, he spatters the red art around the fern to create a shadow or silhouette.  He also poured on in places a cobalt blue salt wash.  Usually we use sea salt since there are trace minerals that add to the colors.  The copper blushing is not applied, nor is the carbon marks you see.  The carbon shows up, usually, where the pot is resting in the sawdust.  The copper blushing occurs randomly.  We do throw lots of copper on the slab wood, and sprinkled onto the sawdust even before placing the pots in the pit.  Sometimes we toss salts into the pit while loading.  We have learned with the salt washes that less is more, so a light hand is better.  Too much and everything turns black.  Not bad, of course, unless that’s NOT what you wanted.

One lesson we learned from our workshop participants was that the sequence of applications of treatments sometimes doesn’t matter.  Sometimes it does.  Each time we pit fire is like the first time and we learn something or regret something every time.   If you can stand that and even welcome it, then this is an exciting process.

It certainly hooked us.

Pit Fired Fern Vase side 3

Pit Fired Fern Vase side 3

Pit Fired Fern Vase side 4

Pit Fired Fern Vase side 4


One thought on “Pit Fired Fern Vase Story

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