Friday, 17 September 2021

Pit firing pots is a risky business

JANE WHITE has never been averse to taking risks — in fact she quite likes the thrill of it —

JANE WHITE has never been averse to taking risks — in fact she quite likes the thrill of it — and it’s a personality trait that has spilled over into her work.

The ceramic artist, who lives with her husband on a farm in Turville Heath, is the only potter in the country, as far as she knows, who has embraced the unpredictable practice of pit firing her pots.

After lovingly fashioning the clay into beautiful shapes, she then places the pieces in a giant hole in the ground, builds a pyre of all sorts of weird and wonderful organic objects such as seaweed, orange peel and driftwood around them, and sets fire to the lot. Two days later she goes to survey the results.

Although the pieces that survive are often beautiful and unique, many come out cracked and have to be thrown away — but it’s a gamble she is prepared to take.

Jane, 57, whose work will be displayed at the Chilterns Craft and Design Show in Stonor next weekend, discovered the process while studying for a degree in ceramics at Bucks New University in High Wycombe in 2007.

She said: “I looked into all different firing processes and went on a course in Suffolk where we did pit firing, and I was just taken by it. Most people’s pieces came out broken because it’s really uncontrollable firing, but my piece came out amazing. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to find out all I can about this’. So in my third year I researched everything I could.

“I graduated in 2008 but it took me two years to set up my studio as I had to restore an old building on the farm.”

She hired a digger to excavate a pit 15 feet long, four feet wide and four feet deep in an isolated valley of the farm, and started to experiment.

After creating a pot in her studio, she paints it with six layers of homemade terra figillata, leaves it for three to six months, and then fires it along with around 30 other pieces. The pit fire reaches 1,100e_SDgrC and is not as easily controlled as an electric kiln. However it is the combination of different organic matter — as well as a binding of copper wire that she strips from old electrical goods — that give the pots their unique colours and patterns.

She said: “My job is to create beautiful form and I spend a lot of time in museums looking at form. The colours and patterns I have to let go of. That’s down to the firing process, and after three days I find them lying there in the ash like some archaeological dig. That’s how risky it is.”

Her pieces are objets d’art rather than functional — they can’t be used for salads and thrown in the dishwasher — although some medium-sized bowls can be used for fruit.

She said: “Most potters are a bit nervous, they love control, but this process suits my personality. It’s fun.”

Her work will be in the Informed Design Graduate Marquee of the Chilterns Craft and Design Show at Stonor Park, August 23 to 26.

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