The big gas kiln in the studio was packed and lit for the first time this morning (it has since gone out). First the gas was switched on. The workshop manager climbed into the kiln and gave it a good sniff to make sure that it was working. He then lit a match and applied it to a hole in the kiln – and up it fired like a blow torch! This bisque firing is a turning point for the Irish group who have worked hard to have pieces ready for this. And it was only after much negotiation that they could arrange a slow firing. Just as the clay and working conditions are different in China, so too are firing methods. Health and safety concerns are also different. Lead glazes, for example, are cheerfully slopped around in buckets by gloveless workers. We may all return toothless.
For the ceramists, the timing is tight. The Fuping residency is unusual in that it requires a body of museum quality work to be made from start to finish, within a month. Given that the final two weeks must be devoted to drying and firing, this only allows a fortnight for making. There is precious little time to germinate ideas, and this is in contrast to most residencies, which allow time and space for creative development. Some of the makers are frustrated that China awaits – ancient, inspiring, and just a stone's throw away – when so much time is spent within the studio walls. The chance to explore a country so rich in ceramic history that it's actually called 'china' must, at least partly, be sacrificed to fulfill a brief.
But what the residency does offer is the chance to push work in new directions. Sometimes this happens by necessity – when foreign clay does not behave as expected alternative approaches must be found. If fine detail is hard to achieve, work can be made to a larger scale. Some makers find themselves handbuilding where they have been accustomed to throw, or learning to press-mould because slipcasting is unavailable. For others, and especially those in teaching jobs, the chance to devote a month to their own practice is particularly precious. Working in close quarters in an open-plan studio space also offers opportunities for the exchange of ideas. As people's work takes directions that they hadn't quite predicted, a small bit of advice, or even watching someone else work, can make a task much easier. This is the sort of interaction not usually available to practitioners working in their solitary studios.
In the last half hour we heard that the kiln is now firing again. Fingers crossed!