Soft Beauty

Judith Duff


My career began in 1991 as a reduction gas fired potter, and then, after a few years, two significant events occurred that changed my life and my perspective on pottery.  The first was in 1998 when I built John Neely’s wood fired “Train Kiln”.  The second was in 1999 when I made my first of six trips to Japan to attend the International Workshop for Ceramic Arts in Tokoname (IWCAT).  These events were just the beginnings of my journey into the world of Japanese-style wood firing and shino glazed pottery.


The Wood Fire Experience

 I was impressed with the “Train Kiln” while attending a three- week workshop at Utah State University with John Neely and Owen Rye from Australia.  We had five wood-firings in the three weeks using their catenary arch and Train kilns.  The Train kiln was designed after an anagama type kiln resulting in a lot of ash on the pots. This is accomplished by having a stair-step configuration in the firebox and no bag wall to interrupt the flow of the ash.  I am interested in having the ash decorate the pots and leaving blemishes, flashings and melted ash that reveal the pots history in the kiln.  The Train is perfect for this.  

 After returning home, I began building my kiln by counting brick on the slides I had taken in Utah as there were no accurate plans for the size kiln that was at Utah State.  After I struggled through the building of my kiln, my daughter, an architect, undertook the arduous project of compiling plans using a three-dimensional computer aided design (CAD) computer program.  This resulted in extremely detailed plans.  Not only do they contain images from every direction and three-dimensional rotations, but also row by row construction.  

Train KilnMy kiln is the same size as the Train at Utah State.  The way the pots are stacked in the kiln is as important as making the pots. My bisqued, unglazed pots are mostly tumbled stacked in the front half of the kiln.  The back half is stacked on shelves. These shelves are used for my shino-glazed pots and other pots which may be tumble-stacked. The tumble stacking gives the pots a more interesting, multi-dimensional surface. The wadding I use is made from a mixture of fire clay (which leaves a warm mark on the pot), sand, sawdust, and flour. The wadding is applied in shapes that become part of the decoration on the pot - no perfect little circles.  When placing every pot I am conscious of how the flame will move around the pot and travel through the kiln.

 There are several advantages to the design of the Train kiln.  It is extremely efficient and easy to fire.  It is possible for one person to fire the kiln, although, since I fire for up to 48 hours, I have help with shifts.  Reaching temperature is not difficult – in fact, I often have to hold it back.  I fire with no black smoke yet I get reduction and, because of its efficiency, I do not have to rake ashes.  

 My wood fired work involves many forms that I have developed to take advantage of the natural ash glazing.  I also use various types of shino glazing in the wood kiln, which gives me a variety of results.  As a result of this experience with the Train, I have come to love the process of wood firing: the gathering and cutting of the wood, the stacking, the stoking, having a part in the entire history of the pot. Wood-fired pots ask to be held and examined and they truly engage the senses with their rich surfaces. 


The Japanese Influence

 IWCAT was an amazing experience.  There were 16 participants from 12 different countries.  We saw demonstrations by many amazing Japanese potters, fired an Anagama and Naborigama kiln, and learned much about the Japanese culture during the six week workshop. This opened up my eyes to a whole new attitude toward  pottery and the Japanese culture that has such a strong appreciation for the world of clay.

 Even prior to IWCAT, I had been fascinated with Shino glazes and their unpredictable nature. These high feldspathic glazes are simple but, at the same time, complex with their fat, juicy and shiny textural surface.  During this first trip to Japan, I was introduced to “REAL” Shinos and discovered that what we call Shino in America has little comparison to the soft beauty of traditional shinos whose characteristic surface is a soft, often under fired, feldspathic glaze that is thick, white, semi-opaque and placed over a porous clay body.  Traditional shino glazes ignore every rule: their tactile and granular surfaces often are characterized by crazing, crawling, pinholes, red color where thin and uneven glazing, defying machine aesthetics and creating sensual aesthetic effect which give them more uniqueness and value.  Shino glazed pieces convey a rich sensual message through their tactile properties which encourages people to touch and use them.

 As a result of my new found appreciation for traditional Japanese shino glazes, I applied for and received in 2004 a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council to attempt to replicate authentic Japanese Shino glaze and clay by using local materials.  I received the grant just days before a planned trip to Japan.  The timing was wonderful because I was going to the Seto/Mino area of Japan where Shinos originated.  The potter I was working and firing with knew potters in the area that specialized in the Shino glaze and he arranged interviews.  I learned about the special kilns that are used for Shinos and their firing schedules.  Samples of Japanese shino clay and glaze were brought back and I had mineral, chemical and particle size analysis performed on these samples. I then formulated my own mixtures, using feldspar, the main ingredient in the shino glaze, from my local area.  I pulverized raw feldspar in our homemade stamp mill to create the glazes that I used.  At the same time, I built a Japanese Shino kiln using hard brick with walls and door that are 18” thick.  The kiln is fired for 100 hours with gas and then is put into an oxidizing atmosphere and allowed to cool 20 degrees Centigrade per hour for 20 hours. After a seven day cooling period the kiln is unloaded.  

 Japan has continued to be important to me and my work and during several trips to Japan, I have been able to work and fire kilns in Shizuoka, Bizen, Tamba-Sasayama, and Seto-Mino and take part in exhibits and Museum Shows.  My work has benefitted greatly from these experiences and I have learned to appreciate the Japanese aesthetic.  

 Judith DuffIn 2011, I was invited to participate, along with 12 others from around the world, in the International Invitational Ceramic Festival in Sasama, Japan. This, in turn, led to participation in the Naori Ceramic Festival in Taean South Korea. Again, there were demonstrations, presentations, and museum shows.  This was a fantastic experience and exposed me to another whole world of potters and their approach to ceramics.  

 You can see that my venture into wood firing and my exposure to the Japanese pottery and culture have truly been life changing.  I am so glad that I took these steps and I encourage every potter to continually experiment with new ideas and never be afraid of failure.