2017 WCA Scholarship Recap with John Brooks

Last year we held our first annual WCA Scholarship - a chance for a member to be awarded a $500 scholarship to take a class of their choosing related to clay.  John Brooks received the scholarship, and he wrote an article to share what he learned!  Thank you John for sharing your experience! We are still accepting applications for our scholarship for 2018 - be sure to check it out and apply!

 Details of Soda on a piece by john Brooks

Details of Soda on a piece by john Brooks

   Hello! My name is John Brooks. I am a studio potter living in Olympia, Washington. I have been working in clay for sixteen years and earned my BFA in ceramics at the University of South Dakota.  Six years ago I moved out to the PNW to pursue my ceramics career.
    I was so excited to discover the incredible WCA - what a wonderful community of clay folks!  Setting up one’s own studio is a fun yet daunting task, and there can be so many things to figure out.  It’s so great to have such a vast network of people that are so knowledgeable and friendly. The more we all can work together, the better it is for everyone.
    On top of being such an amazing organization, the WCA has a scholarship program, geared to helping Washington clay artists improve their practice.  I was so humbled and ecstatic to receive the WCA Scholarship this last year which allowed me to attend a soda firing workshop with Damian Grava, as well as purchasing clay and glaze materials to test in a soda vapor atmosphere.
  

 Damian Grava and his up-cycled downdraft conversion soda kiln

Damian Grava and his up-cycled downdraft conversion soda kiln

Since working primarily out of my own studio I have been firing cone 6 electric, but had been really missing firing with atmospheric surfaces. In undergrad I fired gas and wood frequently and had experimented a little with a humble re-purposed electric updraft soda kiln dubbed “Rocket Boy”. Firing cone 6 electric was a whole new game. I do enjoy firing electric, but it is undeniable the pure thrill of magic one feels when firing a soda kiln.  So many variables are different.  The form of the object must be considered for soda, not only in consideration for the way the fire will wrap around it and the soda blasting it when introduced, but also the proximity of that object with its surrounding ceramic companions.  Depending on placement, one can affect flash marks on raw or slipped clay bodies. The process of identifying the various properties of the clay and how they determine the interaction with slip, glaze, and vapors in the kiln. I would like to build my own soda kiln in order to explore these variables more in depth.

Damian’s workshop was a dynamite immersion in throwing, geometry of clay bodies, slip work, firing, loading styles, and kiln construction techniques. In addition to learning how to make, load, and fire pots in a soda kiln, we were able to study and fire Damian’s up-cycled downdraft conversion kiln.  It is a soft brick electric kiln body, with all the elements removed, an additional floor built with burner ports and a brick chimney.  I was most excited to see how he had constructed his kiln. It is a much less expensive option for building a soda kiln and until I can save enough for an all brick kiln this is the best route to go.
   

 soda details on a piece with a breadtag texture

soda details on a piece with a breadtag texture

crossdraft.jpg

I was also able to soda fire some of this work created from the WCA scholarship with Chase Lilleholm at Pottery Northwest in their cross draft soda kiln.  It was incredible being able to see a similar process in 2 different kilns and compare.  The up-cycled downdraft kiln was a little smaller, and fired in reduction. Lots of soda ash build up, with bright intense flashing of reds, oranges on the clay bodies. The cross draft was fired in oxidation and then reduction cooled at the end.  This created a juicy bluish green hue where the soda had built up, with softer blushes of pale pinks, oranges, purples and yellows, also lots of white/cream surfaces.
    One major misconception I had was thinking soda went through the kiln like fly ash in a wood firing.  The ash flows with the flame, working tightly through all the pots, much as water flowing through a river flows through the rocks.  However, the difference in a soda firing it seems, is that the soda combusts and creates almost a smog that hits the front loads but won't aggressively fight through the kiln, usually choosing the path of least resistance.  By giving vessels more space in the kiln, staggering the height by wadding, or crowns, posts or tumble stacking, one may have fewer pieces, but more dynamic pots with a wide ranges of surface, from heavily blasted soda to brilliant flash marks.
    It is the unknown that entices me, to explore all the variables, to really see what the materials can do, often learning by what they can’t do.  I was really happy with many of my pieces but more importantly was able to take away the experience of making, loading, glazing, and firing in a soda kiln.  Being able to fire and absorb so much information has given me the experience and confidence to build my own soda kiln.  I can't stress enough how invaluable this opportunity was for me as an artist. My work deals with using a variety of common household objects to create rich, in-depth textured patterns and designs.  I believe these surfaces are greatly enhanced by the vapor effects of a soda kiln.
    I wouldn’t have been able to have this experience without the WCA Scholarship, and I am so grateful for everything I have learned through it.  I highly encourage any WCA member to apply for the scholarship this year, it is an amazing opportunity you shouldn’t pass up.

 details of mug with household item textures and soda

details of mug with household item textures and soda

One major misconception I had was thinking soda went through the kiln like fly ash in a wood firing.  The ash flows with the flame, working tightly through all the pots, much as water flowing through a river flows through the rocks.  However, the difference in a soda firing it seems, is that the soda combusts and creates almost a smog that hits the front loads but won't aggressively fight through the kiln, usually choosing the path of least resistance.  By giving vessels more space in the kiln, staggering the height by wadding, or crowns, posts or tumble stacking, one may have fewer pieces, but more dynamic pots with a wide ranges of surface, from heavily blasted soda to brilliant flash marks.
    It is the unknown that entices me, to explore all the variables, to really see what the materials can do, often learning by what they can’t do.  I was really happy with many of my pieces but more importantly was able to take away the experience of making, loading, glazing, and firing in a soda kiln.  Being able to fire and absorb so much information has given me the experience and confidence to build my own soda kiln.  I can't stress enough how invaluable this opportunity was for me as an artist. My work deals with using a variety of common household objects to create rich, in-depth textured patterns and designs.  I believe these surfaces are greatly enhanced by the vapor effects of a soda kiln.
    I wouldn’t have been able to have this experience without the WCA Scholarship, and I am so grateful for everything I have learned through it.  I highly encourage any WCA member to apply for the scholarship this year, it is an amazing opportunity you shouldn’t pass up.