Fire: Ceramics, Mystery and Creativity

Noborigama, Icheon, Korea, April 2009

Fire: Ceramics, Mystery and Creativity

Fire: Ceramics, Mystery and Creativity is the text of a lecture that I presented at the Ege Art Expo in Izmir, Turkey, December 2009 and at the International Society for Ceramic Art Education and Exchange conference held at the 2009 World Ceramic Biennale in Icheon, Korea.

Fire is humanity’s muse, spur to our noblest and most terrifying achievements, key to our aspirations and inextricable from the future survival of our race. Since the first hominids pondered the nature of the sun, fire has absorbed us with its mysterious force. No wonder then that fire holds such creative potency for the human brain; here is a power of poetic and epic proportions. Through ceramics, it is possible to ‘fire’ the imagination and the spirit because ceramic metamorphosis is redolent of human experience. This belief is central to all my ceramic work. No other avenue of human creativity so directly draws on this most potent element: only ceramics. The igneous fusion of materials is analogous to human emotion. This is very rich territory for creative exploration and discovery.

The writer Hermann Hesse used fire as a metaphor for his belief in continual creative renewal. A character in one of his books, the painter Klingsor, voiced this belief brilliantly in the phrase, ‘there is always new fire’. For Klingsor, the urge to paint was an internal fire that was continually extinguished and sparked anew through his work, a process that by turns consumed and renewed his spirit and ultimately spurred him to transcend ordinary painting. Fire and artistic compulsion are synonymous in literature and in life. The conceit, or ideal, of fire as a catalyst to the creative act has an enduring hold on my imagination because the image of metamorphosis through fire is abundant with allusion. I believe that art should be a transcendent experience and allusion is one of its most powerful tools to this end.

Fire can be viewed as ‘the fire without’, through its physical manifestation, burning, or as ‘the fire within’, our interior well spring that is arguably the core of creativity itself. For me, fire is both an internal and an external phenomenon. The act of combustion gives rise to an essential, primitive fascination within human beings. Naked flame is an umbilical link that re-sensitises our dormant primordial selves, recalling Neolithic fellowship, the cooking of fresh killed meat, the defence of camp and family from life-threatening predators. This link to primal warmth and comfort is deeply hard-wired in humanity’s collective psyche, hence fire’s pan-cultural magnetic attraction, its hypnotic allure: it is our most enduring conduit to mystery. I love mystery. Contemporary life, with its ready comforts, instant communications and the easy distractions of mass technology, has alienated industrialised people the world over from the power of mystery. We are used to instant gratification and no longer have time to wonder. The American performance artist Laurie Anderson contends that, ‘technology today is the campfire around which we tell our stories…’ This is true for her but technology is also that insidious campfire in the corner of the room - the television - that numbs our collective senses. Information technology assails us from every side. We are more connected than ever before and yet increasingly dislocated from our inner selves. In this age of choice, many of us lose sight of the fact that the acquisition of ever more sophisticated toys can never satiate us if they are merely used to distract us with ‘entertainment’ and stifle our imagination. The human imagination thrives on wonder.

Fire is a catalyst to wonder. Transmutation is in its nature. Fiery flux is, simply, full of wonder. Fire is wonderful. Fire changes materials and, through the genius of the human hand and art, those materials, thus transformed, alter our perception. The fruits of fire can penetrate our filters and help us re-connect with the power of mystery. I wonder. I wonder at that molecular morphing encapsulated in the word ‘melt’; I wonder at white heat: heat that sears the eyes to behold and strikes that primal spark in the centre of our being; I wonder at rivulets of molten glass, fused on arid parched clay terrain, a revelation of stark, ceramic splendour; I wonder at those untouchable shimmering forms, glimpsed through the furnace spy hole, each living its hellish rite of passage and whispering across the igneous divide, recalling ancient fiery genesis, the cosmic chemistry set, the building blocks of life itself… This is contemporary mystery, both beautiful and terrible. Human beings love stories. This direct link to our Palaeolithic campfire histories, this, the impact of fire on the ceramic surface, can be the catalyst of our own internal narratives. The pot’s encounter with fire is analogous to our own fleeting experience of life; the ceramic story is our own story, immutable, passed on through our own DNA. The DNA of ceramics is the DNA of wonder.

I once heard the polymath Jonathan Miller make this passing comment: ‘we speak in order to change people’s minds’. This statement, casually made, shook my world. ‘We speak in order to change people’s minds’. Think about it. Fire changes my mind, constantly. I want to go wherever it will take me. The echo of fire’s voice resonates through all of my work. I want its presence felt, its unseen, secret moments captured and revealed. The kiln affords me a tiny window on the awesome mysteries that preceded humanity by countless millennia - and they surround us still; mysteries that pierce our civility, render our achievements paltry, cow us, humble us to the core and inspire us. Fire is never neutral, never bland; rather, it is a livid reminder of the knife edge between destruction and creation, which is a dangerous and intoxicating place. In the no man’s land between attraction and repulsion, on the brink of danger and the abyss, I am most creatively alive. Fire gives me this awareness; it exhilarates me, refreshes and renews. It reveals to me the possibility of a fiercer beauty.

It is my privilege to speak through fire, to work with earth and to fuse it through fire, to court the creative allegiance of this energy that is both diabolical and sublime. I am ambitious for fire. Through ceramics, I want to give it lasting, corporeal shape; I want its searing energy to scorch my consciousness, rock me back on my heels, make me stop, make me think, make me feel. I want its transformative power; I relish it and depend on it. In this gadget-driven age of fragmented, diluted experience I want to harness fire’s ancient ability to make us pause and reflect. The fire without, the fire within, energy, transformation, the power of feeling, revelation, communication, wonder, transcendence: none of these moments are lost when fire is allowed to speak.

We have a duty to be present in every moment of our work; to be as present as we can be in the experience of creation because only then can the personal become universal. It is only the artist’s complete and un-distracted presence that can invest a work of art with the power to move the spirit. Fire, in its consummation and in its fluxed aftermath, reminds us that ‘now’ is all we have. Now is the most important moment in our lives. Ceramics is my arena of feeling, in which I explore ‘now’ unfiltered, raw, as I live it. I reveal what I find, with all the honesty, truth and wisdom that I can garner from my life’s experience. I work from a place of great uncertainty and risk, with optimism, with trust and with fire as my capricious ally. Fire; my teacher, my muse, the beating heart of my practice: I will never tame it, and in turn it will always enrich me.