Primitive Firing: Pots with a History

By Greenman, Geri | Arts & Activities, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Primitive Firing: Pots with a History


Greenman, Geri, Arts & Activities


Primitive. Before kilns and technology to gauge temperature, color and other results. The earliest methods of firing were fire pits. Animal fat and, perhaps, beeswax eventually became the predecessors of glazing so a vessel could hold liquids.

How did humans discover this? Most likely they realized that the ground around the campfire hardened from the heat. It didn't take long for our ancestors to make the connection. This understanding was a boon in performing daily chores and, in several cultures, eventually became a generational art form with a function.

Perhaps several art forms came together at the same time. Was it the cave painters first? By then, tools were being created out of stone, tree branches and bone; everything had a use. Then the vessels? Then the figurines/goddess of fertility and earth?

Necessity, the mother of invention--these developed skills were necessary for existence, eventually becoming necessary for our inner selves too. Think Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

We may never know for sure, although it seems likely that the aesthetically pleasing drawings of running antelope and bison were not created for pleasure, but to secure a good kill.

We seldom consider pottery's early beginnings, like most things. Modern ceramics eases our lives, yet we take it for granted.

SIMPLE PERFECTION My colleague at Willowbrook High School, John Epple, wanted his ceramics classes to rediscover these earliest firings, and to appreciate the beauty and simple perfection of functional forms. In many cultures, pottery-making is a family tradition and in some, female oriented, although we don't know for sure if this was true with prehistoric provenance.

The rediscovery of black-on-black pottery by Native-American potter, Maria Martinez (Maria of San Ildefonso Pueblo) and her family (and now her descendants), has brought national and international awareness to the incredibly austere beauty of these forms. The silhouettes alone are oddly modern, sleek and pure in shape. Then there's the surface appearance--the contrast between glossy and matte blacks.

Mr. Epple took his class through a journey of artistic rediscovery. They discussed the origins of pit-fired pottery, saw a movie titled Maria of the Pueblos, and talked about the chemical changes that occur with the clay as its molecular properties change from clay to stoneware. Also discussed was how the carbon created in the firing can alter the color, and how it's impossible to predict the final appearance of the pots as they come out of the firing.

Once the examples were shown, Mr. Epple had the students sketch the actual form and silhouette shape of the pot they wanted to create. His emphasis was on form and he cautioned the students to consider the pot's three-dimensionality. Once the shape of the pot was decided upon, he had them create the design of repeated shapes for the "band" around the neck or shoulders of the pot, in keeping with the typical style of Maria Martinez's work.

The design bands on their pots would have to be repeated, linking the shapes together. They were not to attempt to replicate a Maria Martinez design, but to create their own stylized design using contemporary or geometric shapes. In one particularly effective case, a student used interlocking treble staffs that revolve around the shoulders of his pot.

POT-BUILDING BEGINS The students used a brown (earthenware) clay body for this assignment, and a coil method was used to build the shape of the pottery. After the pot was completed, the coils were smoothed together, as with the pots of Maria Martinez.

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