The camaraderie and creativity that occurs within the hearth’s halo is so natural it almost goes unnoticed. Except by potters. They have been delightfully aware of it for a long time, having spent many a congenial session gathered around a wood-fired kiln with fellow potters, family and friends.
Given the disappearance of the open fireplace in modern homes and reduced opportunities to feel the searing heat of a bonfire, does the hearth experience have any relevance in people’s lives today?
I decided to use the outside firing of my ceramic statue – adam – to investigate these questions and spark conversation about the beneficial interplay of ceramics, fire and hearth.
The book, the making of adam: a community hearth project, was the result.‘Fire has been the occasion for unforgettable memories, for simple and decisive personal experiences. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It contradicts itself; it is one of the principles of universal explanations’. Jacques Bachelard 1938
Introduction (the making of adam, pg 11)
I undertook the making of adam: a ceramic community hearth project, as a requirement for my Bachelor of Visual Arts (Contemporary Craft, Ceramics) at Unitec, Auckland, New Zealand in 2011.
For reasons I haven’t yet fathomed, I developed a lust to build an extremely tall ceramic statue in one piece, in a field, and fire it in situ.
When asked why I wanted to do this instead of making it in modules, firing it in (the lonely privacy) of an electric kiln and assembling the modules on site afterwards, I couldn’t think of a reason as to why I wouldn’t. Basically, I chose to fire in the open because I wished :
o my work to be part of an event in the landscape, and
o to generate the sense of connection and community that occurs around potters’ hearths.
Thinking about the hearth made me question the validity of the fireside experience in contemporary life. Given the disappearance of the open fireplace in modern homes, does the hearth experience have any relevance in people’s lives today, especially as a tool to engender connection, communication, community and creativity?
I became curious about the social elements of fire generally. Why is the hearth so attractive to people; what is known of its power to encourage a sense of connection and communion; what do people think about fire – do they have, as Bachelard(1) predicts, significant memories associated with fire?
I decided to use the outside firing of my work to investigate these questions, illuminate gaps, and widen conversation on the beneficial interplay of ceramics, community and hearth.
There followed six months of research both into the social elements of the fireplace and the more fundamental practicalities of carrying out such a firing – such as ensuring the two and a half metre high statue of red hot clay didn’t topple off the firebox in an explosion of starry shards!
The rich lode of experience and expertise in the ceramic community proved invaluable. I worked with people such as Peter Lange on kiln design, Brendan Adams on clay recipes and talked with Duncan Shearer about both.
Gradually word got about and an unofficial support team formed. Ceramists and friends such as Helen Perrett, Simon Leong, Margaret Sumich, Tina Perfrement, Carol Stewart and Kim Rochester turned up to help transport bricks, build kilns, chop wood and stoke the fire.
In addition, family, friends and any loitering potters were cajoled into pondering my survey questions – not that anyone needed much prompting to relate their memories about significant fire experiences. Guy Fawkes featured large. As did bonfires at the beach. It did become clear though that while people had fond memories, that’s what they were, memories. I even came across a Pacific Islander in his late 20s who looked at me blankly when I talked about sitting round the fire enjoying people’s company. He admitted that as a young urban man, he had not had the experience of that. Unfortunately he was unable to attend the eventual firing. His fresh eyes could have provided interesting insight about the experience.
The initial research findings, plus observations by Gaston Bachelard in his seminal The Psychoanalysis of Fire, encouraged me to add an anthropological element to my project. The open air firing of my ceramic sculpture now had three elements to it: the making and firing of a tall clay sculpture; the firebox and kiln design and construction; and the exploration of the social elements of the firing that others enjoy and find memorable.
It was envisioned that if successful, it could lead to further events. On a local, personal scale, the ceramic hearth may have a meaningful contribution to make to people’s sense of belonging and connection to a community.
I was asked to consider how, as an art form, will the planned performance live on beyond our memories and emotions and story telling? Was it worth sweeping up the traces of the firing and presenting them in order to stimulate continued discussion about people’s response to the day, fire, and contemporary ceramics?
I decided to document the event and its lead up; especially capturing the little cameos of personal connection that occurred around the fire, and see what happened. The book, the making of adam: a community hearth project, was the result.
If you wish to receive a copy of the book (NZ$45.00 plus p&p), contact me on email@example.com. Bachelard, Gaston. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Beacon Press, 1964. Print. Originally published in French under the title La Psychanalyse du Feu, 1938 by Librarie Gallimard. Print.