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dung firing: variables:was mata ortiz

updated wed 13 nov 02


Stephani Stephenson on tue 12 nov 02

I think I'd like to separate these thoughts form Mata Ortiz pottery
My closest experience and association with dung fired pottery comes
from a workshop and subsequent visit with Susannah Denet, a Hopi
potter; a warm and wonderful woman and one of the very experienced and
skilled potters art Walpi.
The other source of experience comes from various personal experiments
and lessons in both post fire reduction techniques and other lowfire,
wood and dung fire techniques., and also a workshop in traditional
Navajo pottery and firing techniques

I am drawn to Hopi techniques because the pots are only partially
reduced. The red, yellow, buff, gold color of the clay is brought out
in the firing, with only an occasional darkened are on the pot.. The
stack is much looser, much more oxygen in the fire, the most traditional
pots are green fired in this way. Sheep dung is used.

First and foremost, he beauty of these pots comes from the skill of the
potter. Handbuilt perfection, slip decoration beautifully and elegantly
applied, a lovely soft burnished surface.

A second contributing factor is the clay itself. Susannah gave me a
small bit of her clay. Beautiful buttery gold, fires to a beautiful red
and is very color-responsive to the nuances of the fire.
This clay itself is integral to the look and feel of her pottery .

With this pottery, the firing is also an integral part of the pot. Pots
fired solely in an electric kiln ,just don't have it. The fire itself
does lend a warmth and subtle variation in color which brings the pot to
life and best enhances the other skills of the potter, from my
perception as the viewer.
Even so, there is ,I think 'wiggle ' ,room in this part of the process.
Variations of firing methods , how and when reduction materials are
introduced: this IS an area which I think can and has been adapted to
suit the needs of the potter and the available resources while still
maintaining the same , or similar look .
We have many methods, from raku, to sawdust firing, to firing pots in an
electric kiln then introducing them into a woodfire, etc.... Everyone
does it a bit different, each potter works out a way which works best
for them, even under the umbrella of a 'tradition', in the same way we
all have a different way of making spaghetti or chicken soup, within
the traditions of spaghetti and chicken soup.

Stephani Stephenson

P.S. I was moved by mel's post describing the calligrapher's studio.
When I visited Susannah Denet, like any grandmother she welcomed me into
her house and gave me a home made cookie and something to drink . Her
clay space was just that, a little space, a little area next to the
house, a bag for sieving slip, a little grate, some pieces of tin, a few
hand tools such as her burnishing stone and her yucca brush. She said
her kids and grandkids would go out to her special place to get her
clay, she joked about trying to fool the neighbors, some also potters,
so they wouldn't find her particular digging place.
Women were traditionally, the potters , while the men specialized in
weaving. Nowadays those roles have opened up and there are men actively
making pottery. As young people learn elements of the craft some have
branched out into other ways of firing and some also work now in
sculptural ways, moving beyond the original scope and methods of the
traditional pottery.