Many year ago I discovered, in an accident of American Raku firing, that
fresh leaves and grasses can, under the right conditions, create vegetation
images on hot pots: During an all-day firing marathon, a storm blew up
unexpectedly. The tornado-force-winds arrived so quickly that I didn't have
time to stop the firing which was in process. I had just pulled a large
bottle out of the kiln, had flamed it in sawdust, and covered it with a metal
garbage can. Fierce gusts of wind unexpectedly blew the trash-can half a
block away, and the still-thousand-degree bottle rolled down a dirt
embankment, through some grasses and came to rest against a fence post. To
say that the retrieval of both the cover and the pot was "spirited", would be
to understate the duress of the moment. However when the resultant cooling
had taken place, I discovered to my amazement that the pot retained images on
the copper-stained surface from the grasses through which it had rolled.
Not wanting to abandon this fortuitous event, I continued to fire in the
waning wind, hoping to possibly replicate the "accident" by placing the very
next fresh-from-the-kiln copper-stained pot on its side, atop a mound of
sawdust covered with freshly picked sumac leaves. Twenty minutes later I had
my first successful follow-up piece: a lovely soft likeness of the sumac
appeared as an image in the copper stain, on the side of the pot. And
subsequent firings yielded only successes as I pursued this method.
Several years later I abandoned my pursuit of American Raku as I had known it
-- disillusioned by the fading/re-oxidizing surfaces of the copper stain.
The once- brilliant colors, after several years, became drab and muted, much
to my disappointment and to that of my customers. Not having found a
solution to the problem, I discontinued marketing these pieces. It was a
hard decision: I loved the vivid images of vegetation against the
serendipitous variation of the Raku coloring.
I began to look for some other method of firing which might capture, on the
same piece, the magic blend of spontaneity and explicit detail. Somehow I
intuitively moved toward saggar firing.
Looking back, I conclude that it was an unlikely leap of logic which caused
me to assume that saggar firing would be the answer: that saggar firing
would somehow capture the explicit detail of fresh vegetation pressed against
pots, while still offering unpredictable spontaneous surfaces.
And it was likely one of those acts of grace or good fortune, which
occasionally enter each of our lives, which caused the startlingly successful
results in my first 'veggie-saggar' attempt: wonderfully explicit images of
fresh vegetation dancing in and through the seemingly
'celestial/astronomical' patterning which blessed the rest of the pots'
I say, "good fortune/grace", because for the next several hundred pieces I
fired, there were no successes at all! Oh yes, the pieces had some
successful saggar-fired markings, but no explicit imagery from the vegetation
-- at all.
Perhaps it was a 'healthy' state of denial which caused me to keep trying,
in the face of relentless failure ("Surely it will happen again if I just
work hard enough."); perhaps it was my life-long interest in landscape
photography -- my passion for images which were close up, which revealed
explicit and intimate detail (like those made by Paul Caponigro and Arthur
Lazar) that spurred me on; perhaps it was the too-easy transition from
tornado-accident to regular successes in the 'veggie-raku' realm that caused
me to remain stubbornly optimistic.
It was an odd and curious experience to have these several (original) very
beautiful veggie-saggar pieces (which I had made) in front of me on my desk
each day -- pots with delightfully-delicate imagery, pots with such explicit
detail that I could see the veins and tears and worm holes in many of the
leaves; pots which were the ceramic counterparts to the contact prints which
I routinely made from my 4x5 negatives in the darkroom; pots which had seemed
so easy to produce in my very first attempt -- and at the same time to be
continually, perpetually, interminably failing in each attempt to produce any
more of them.
I continued to investigate this mysterious process, but I was not able to
explore it in a full-time manner. (I was producing and supervising in a
full-time production studio while this pursuit was in motion.) So the loss
of several hundred pots covered a period of about a year and a half. Each
unsuccessful unloading had me scratching my head, writing more notes about
procedural decisions I had made in that particular firing, and comparing my
results with the pieces on the desk.
If ever a character defect was an artistic advantage, perhaps my stubbornness
was, in this case. Unable to repeat the accomplishment of the first firing,
but also unable to believe that I couldn't do it again, I kept trying. And
eventually after a year and a half, I did finally begin to see at least
occasional results which lived up to my best hopes.
I now know that the devil is in the details. After ten years of practicing
this firing method, I have concluded that these are the variables to which I
must pay attention, and which ultimately make a difference in the successes
(or failures) of the firings: a) sawdust particle size, b) the amount of
sawdust in the saggars, c) the type, thickness, substance and placement of
the vegetation, d) the firing temperature, e) the kind of kiln in which the
saggar is fired, f) the kind of saggar used, g) the manner in which the
saggar is sealed, h) the length of time the saggar is cooled, and i) the
manner in which all of these variables work together. It was only after
paying close attention to these variables, and their interrelatedness, that
I discovered what I had so blithely (and fortunately) stumbled upon in that
first successful firing. However even now, more than ten years later, the
best results are sparingly attained and seem elusive. With the success rate
for the best works at far less than 20%, I've needed to develop a tolerance
for more failures than successes.
Here is a general explanation of how I am now firing for the results which
are shown in the photos which accompany this article: A saggar is partially
filled with 5 inches of fine sawdust. The pot is laid sideways onto the
sawdust and pressed down to create a "nest" in the sawdust. The pot is
removed, and fresh vegetation is placed into the nest, and the pot is put
back in place (on its side) on top of the vegetation.
Next, more vegetation is placed onto the exposed top side of the pot. It is
then covered by an additional 5 inches of fine sawdust. The saggar is then
During firing, an anaerobic atmosphere develops inside the lidded saggar.
The vegetation turns into "activated charcoal" and in the process, releases a
film of carbon. The bisqued porcelain, being porous, absorbs the film of
carbon, capturing the image released from the vegetation.
This speeded-up process mimics, according to the paleontologists to whom I
have spoken, the much-slower fossil-formation process called "carbonization"
or "carbon-film-transfer" (which, in nature, causes volatile materials such
as nitrogen and oxygen to be squeezed out of vegetation, and chemical action
changes the tissues of the vegetation into a thin film of carbon. What
remains is a residue forming an outline of a portion of the previously living
leaves. If thick accumulations of plants derived from swampy coastal lagoons
or deltas are carbonized more completely, coal deposits may develop).
Because the saggar maintains a relatively anaerobic atmosphere (no oxygen),
the vegetation does not burn (and instead becomes activated charcoal), and is
still present after the firing is completed (albeit in a black, shrunken form
of charcoal). The anaerobic atmosphere also explains why the carbon image on
the pot is not burned away: red-heat temperatures would "perceive" the
carbon in the image as a fuel, and burn it off the pot if oxygen were present
to complete the combustion process.
Very slight air leaks in the lid of the saggar may cause white areas on the
surface of the pot to occur (in these cases, carbon is burned away). Careful
control of the particle size and depth of the sawdust can lend a bit of
mastery over the light and dark areas -- allowing one to dictate whether the
carbon images read as "negatives" or "positives", and adding to the sense of
the 'miraculous' which sometimes attends these surfaces.
A final word about the "miraculous": the paleontologists with whom I have
spoken have referred (when speaking about fossils) to the "miracle" of
preservation, due to the vulnerability of organisms to decay and destruction
after death (and the resulting potential loss of record of many
'individuals' or even entire species). Recently a 'combustion chemist'
visited my studio and expressed a similar perspective regarding the
unlikelihood of consistently creating these "fast fossils" (due in large part
to the near-endless number of variables at work in 'simple' cellulose
combustion or partial-combustion).
Something about the unlikelihood of this process, and its elusiveness are an
attraction to me. It is an arena in which there is much to learn: one
could choose to take a paleontological or combustion chemistry approach in an
attempt to discover what is actually happening in the process. And such
learnings would, no doubt, offer some keys to additional methods of control
(and perhaps successes) in what is otherwise a rather capricious process.
And there is much to master simply through the continued practice of the
firing process (regardless of what one understands of the paleontological or
combustion-chemistry implications of the method). Careful observation and
documentation of one's decisions will continue to yield tools which may
offer a little more control.
However the inherent lack of control which will always accompany this
approach to firing and surface articulation is also what contributes to some
of it's most amazing successes. I believe that the process produces results
which are far superior to anything which I might make, if I did control most
or all of the variables. In that respect, this approach, while full of loss
and disappointment, is also full of wonder and surprise -- an approach which
transforms me into as much a "receiver" of these works, as a "maker" of them.
It is, in part, this mystery which propels me to continue on with this