Community Hearth – Musings on Firesides

Below are essays written by Duncan Shearer and myself, musing on the camaraderie and creativity that occurs within a hearth’s halo.  They are taken from my book the making of adam: a ceramic community hearth project.

Com-mu-ni-ty [commune-i-tea], noun, verb
A group of organisms interacting with one another in a particular environment. The organisms in a community affect each other’s abundance, distribution, and evolutionary adaptation. Depending on how broadly one views the interaction between organisms, a community can be small and local or regional or global.


by Susan St Lawrence

(the making of adam, p17)

Take one lump of fashioned clay and add fire. Such is the simple recipe that lies at the heart and hearth of our complex lives.  Or used to be.

Today, what we often deal with are traces, remnants of a tradition that has perfected its move away from the elementary flame to that of less confrontational heat.  Crockery shows no trace of flame across its surface; water for the teapot is boiled in a jug where even the glow of the element is concealed.

Fire holds a special place in the human field of emotional well-being.  True to Bachelard’s observation that ‘fire has been an occasion for unforgettable memories’ (1), the stories people told me during my research interviews (refer appendix of book) centred on the sensations experienced by the fire and the social enjoyment of a fireside occasion.  Words and phrases often repeated were:

  • safety, warmth, food, spirituality
  • comfort, relaxation
  • scorched front, freezing back
  • fun, guitars, singing, Guy Fawkes
  • blankets and glass of wine
  • toasting marshmallows, cooking on the fire
  • sense of community, conviviality.

In a world flooded with email, texts and internet, it is a welcome antidote to dust off those communication gadgets that gather us together for a bit of good old face-to-face chitchat – the teapot, the picnic blanket, beach umbrella, fireplace, cafe table etc… Being a ceramist, I favour the hearth.

Fires were once lit for practical reasons – warmth, meal preparation, safety.  People gathered, relaxed and conversation flowed.  The camaraderie and creativity that occurred within the fire’s halo was so natural it almost went unnoticed.

Not so by potters. They have been aware of this for a long time, having spent many a congenial session gathered around a wood-fired kiln with fellow potters, family and friends. Communal food is shared (pot luck meals taking on a literal meaning), along with stories and the ups and downs of unpredictable kiln results.

Chester Nealie articulated the process when he noted in Playing with Fire, that many wood kiln potters come together ‘…sharing firings, learning from each other, creating a wonderful community spirit…’3

Several ceramists, Danish Nina Hole in particular, have taken this to another level by increasing the scale of the object and scope of the event to the point where the experience of the public firing takes precedence over the resulting ceramic sculpture. Nina strives to provide people with an ‘experience of awe’.  My thought was to use the open air firing of my work to provide people with the opportunity to experience the sense of community connection and camaraderie that can occur around a fireplace.

Gaston Bachelard in Psychoanalysis of Fire, offers several observations that can be argued for fire being at the heart of a camaraderie event:

Firstly: He observed a ‘slightly hypnotised state in all fire watchers’. The induced relaxation encourages daydreaming, or as Bachelard refers to it, ‘reverie’. What better place than a fire then, for people to gather around in relaxed friendliness to dream up a better world or new art projects?

Secondly: He theorises that ‘fire is more a social reality, than a natural reality’ because as children we learnt the fear and awe of fire through myths and legends and prohibitions from vigilant parents. We gained personal knowledge of fire much later, usually when we snuck a box of matches and lit clandestine fires in an act of what Bachelard calls “clever disobedience “. Thus fire, and all its subtexts, has imbedded itself in the human psyche.

Thirdly: Bachelard notes that fire has been for us ‘the occasion for unforgettable memories, for simple and decisive personal xperiences’. (Guy Fawkes, beach bonfires, bush fires, riots etc).

These last two points fuel the metaphoric and emotional power of the fire experience. Thus, Bachelard argues, fire is ‘one of the principles of universal explanation’. Therefore it opens up the ceramic hearth event to be meaningful, memorable and significant to its participants.

(1)  Bachelard, Gaston. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Beacon Press, 1964. Print.

(2)  Nealie, Chester. “Feed the Passion, Fire the Kiln”, Playing With Fire, p120-128, University of Auckland, 2011. Print.

(3)  Nina Hole, (1941 – ) Denmark. Ceramic artist. First performance firing 1994, Australia.

(4 ) Bachelard, Gaston. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Beacon Press, 1964. Print.



(the making of adam, pg 19)

One of the most attractive facets of wood firing is the sense of camaraderie that develops around the fire box.  Wood kilns take time and patience as the stoking of the wood develops a rhythm.

This process of measuring the day by how long a log of wood takes to be consumed by the fire alters the normal pulse of a day defined by a ticking clock.  It encourages conversation taken in bite sized pieces that fill the interlude between assessing the fire, checking the chimney for smoke and locating the ideal piece of wood for the next stoke.  The practicalities of firing a kiln with wood also encourages company – solo wood firings are rare and exhausting.  The universality of stoking, the similarity around the world of the way a wood kiln works, and the nature of the potters involved, allows a bridge to form that crosses divides of culture and distance.

It takes little to spark stories from the stoking crew, comparing this firing to previous, regaling others with tales from foreign kilns, catching up with the latest news from a wood firing conference.  All serve to while away the hours waiting for the final cone to drop.

The kiln itself becomes a contributor to the conversation.  Its whims and idiosyncrasies are discussed and, depending on how close the kiln is tracking to the hoped-for path, commended or decried. There is a sense of the kiln being alive, devouring wood, pulsating with flame and rumbling with joy when in full flight. The mood of those stoking reflects that of the kiln and it’s a tense time around the fire box if the wood is running low, the kiln seems stalled or the temperature cones aren’t moving.

This wood firing process has almost become an end into itself, a satisfaction that serves those involved almost without regard to the pots inside the kiln.  However reality is restored days later when the wicket (bricked-in door) is dismantled and the kiln shows off whether all that sweat, effort and the sleepless nights were worth it – hopefully so, as already another firing is being talked about!


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