Ceramics that get their colors by chance

BAURAVILLA, Ireland — Sinéad Fagan credits the beginning of her award-winning career in ceramics to a book.

In 1993, Ms. Fagan was 19 and considering studying ceramics when she borrowed “The Encyclopedia of Pottery Techniques” by Peter Cosentino from a local library.

“It’s the Bible for potters,” said Ms. Fagan, 48. “It was well thought out when I got it – even more so when I gave it back!” The following year it inspired her to enroll in a two-year course in ceramics and sculpture at Cólaiste Chonghaile, a school in Dublin.

Then in 2017, the publishers of Mr. Cosentino’s encyclopedia asked Ms. Fagan for permission to include her work in a new edition, published the following year. “I was happy,” she recalled, “it was like I had come full circle!”

Three of her pieces – a wall disc and two tall vessels – were shown. The accompanying text referenced the colors of the West Cork landscape that influence her work, mainly decorative wall tiles and convex vessels, and the technique she uses, an ancient method called the saggar firing process.

“A saggar is an oven within an oven,” said Ms. Fagan said. “It creates a micro-environment in the larger kiln that protects the piece.” She also places flammable objects inside the saggar that burn during firing; their vapors permeate the ceramics and create colors.

“It’s not a conscious thing, but the effect I get is quite painterly,” she said. “My work is fun to define, it seems to straddle craft and art.”

At her farmhouse, tucked among the rolling hills of Bauravilla, most of her work begins in her indoor studio, where she forms a shape on her ceramic wheel using white stoneware clay, her hands, water and an assortment of needles and knives to cut.

Nothing goes to waste, she said – scraps of clay and failed pieces are recycled in a bucket of water. “There are about 80 things that can go wrong with a piece of pottery!” she said laughing. “I like to recycle, it’s part of my personality.”

Once a piece is shaped, she waits two to three days until it is what she called “leather-hard” — dried to the point that it will no longer shrink. “Then I can turn it over and shape the bottom and start turning; it is the cutting of excess clay.”

The piece is then left in the indoor workshop for up to two weeks, depending on the season and humidity. “This is called the greenware stage,” she said. “It must be completely dry for the first firing. If there is moisture in the clay, it will blow apart.”

Ms. Fagan fires her work in an outdoor shed that shelters her two ovens, one electric and the other gas.

Operating them is hard physical work and the environment can be dangerous, she said. She wears a protective mask and fireproof gloves to protect her from the heat and the potentially deadly gas fumes. “It’s dirty, dirty, dirty,” she said, “but what can you do?”

First Ms. Fagan places the vegetable in his electric kiln at 960 degrees Celsius (1,760 degrees Fahrenheit) for what’s called bisque firing, a roughly 12-hour process that hardens the clay in preparation for a second firing. At this point, the clay is still semi-porous “so it will absorb the things I burn with it in the saggar,” she said.

When a piece has cooled, she grinds it smooth and then fires it again in the gas oven she built herself. The bottom of the oven was made from “a part of a running machine that I found in a skip [dumpster],” she said, while the body was constructed of wire sheets that Ms. Fagan covered with an insulating ceramic fiber capable of withstanding high temperatures.

The result is what’s called a “top hat” oven, she said. “You lift the top up and down to give access.” (A friend with “technical know-how” recycled an old boat game for the task.)

Ms. Fagan makes his own saggars to go into the gas oven. First, she rolls what’s called krank clay — “a very durable, coarse clay that contains lots of gravel and sand and is able to withstand a lot of thermal shock,” she said — and then rolls it up into the right shape .

She places the ceramic pieces on a bed of sawdust inside the saggar – several at a time, depending on size – along with combustible items such as seaweed she collects from beaches and plants from nearby fresh water sources. “You get a different color from each type,” she said. “I also use grass and sawdust from a local carpenter. Seashells give a pink tone.”

She visits recycling centers to get wires “cut from hair dryers, toasters, whatever,” then removes the metal wires and sometimes wraps them around a piece of ceramic before firing it. “You get lovely black lines. Iron gives rust-red tones,” she said. “Putting a line across a piece automatically creates a horizon that appears to our human brains as sky and land or sky and sea.”

Ms. Fagan said she often consulted a detailed record of her work over the past 12 years. “The shape of the tub matters,” she said, “and whether you put it sideways or upright makes a difference.”

When everything is ready, she seals the saggar with a clay lid, places it on a circular base that sits on a fireproof brick in the oven, and lowers the “top hat.” She sets the gas oven to 880 to 900 degrees Celsius (1,616 to 1,652 degrees Fahrenheit) and runs it for about three hours. Then she lets it cool naturally and waits until the next day to see what she has produced.

When the closing pieces appear, Ms. Fagan dusts them with a sponge. And she gives them all names like “Hedgerows,” “Charcoal Blends Over Moss,” or “Ebb Tide.” “It’s very random,” she said, “every piece is a blank canvas and I never know how it’s going to turn out.”

Ms. Fagan’s work is priced at 120 to 600 euros (about $120 to $615) and she sells through several private galleries in Ireland. She also exhibits her work in Ireland and abroad, such as a convex vessel called “Grand Soft Day” on display until Jan. 3 at the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts (RUA) in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

“It’s quite a calming piece,” she said. “It was supposed to be blue, but it ended up gray. There’s a hint of the sun in the corner from a piece of seaweed that burst and created an orange ring.”

In a criticism of Ms. Fagan’s work in the summer 2021 edition of Irish Arts ReviewNicholas Mosse – one of Ireland’s best-known potters – wrote that he admired the “gentle, otherworldly forms” of her pieces and their hues and patterns: “dark and light, flashes, nights and days, moons or suns, seas – they can all be found in these minimal, contemplative works of art.”

He wrote that he doubted that her findings came about by chance. “Fagan claims too much about the accidents of the firing and the materials, but I suspect that great experience and long observation have given her an artist’s intuition for perfection,” he wrote. “The work itself borders on the sublime.”

Speaking of coincidence: In the same issue of the magazine, Ms. Fagan noted that the RUA invited artists to apply for its annual sculpture award.

“It was purely by chance,” she said, “I only had the magazine because I was in it.” She decided to enter one of her pieces called the “Underwater Cavern,” a convex vessel that she said delighted her. “When it came out of the oven I thought, ‘God, Sinéad, this is actually quite good’. I was surprised that it came out such a nice blue.”

It won the sculpture’s first prize of 500 British pounds (about $590), and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland bought the piece.

Ms. Fagan’s career path has taken some unusual turns over the years, including a stint as a gardener. But she always returned to ceramics.

After she finished her first ceramics course, in 1996, Ms. Fagan spent the next year on a government program that included part-time work as a teaching assistant and 20 hours a week to concentrate on his own plays. “It was a chance to work on a portfolio for Thomastown,” she said, referring to the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland’s ceramics course, which accepted her the following year.

After completing the class, she worked as a thrower — someone who executes designs — for Rob D’Eath, an Irish potter who creates Asian-inspired functional ceramic objects. Then she decided to visit friends in Spain and ended up spending four years in the Alpujarra mountains, working in horticulture and making sculptural pieces for her own enjoyment. She had planned to return to pottery making in Ireland, but “when I came back in 2006, I was shocked!” she said. “Everything had changed since I had gone away, there were no more jobs for casters.”

So Ms. Fagan went back to school, first gaining a Higher Diploma in Professional Art at Cólaiste Stiofáin Naofa and then a Bachelor of Arts degree in Ceramic Art at Crawford College of Art and Design, both in Cork.

She was in her fourth year at Crawford when she began experimenting with sawdust firing and was fascinated by what she called its “unpredictable results.”

“There’s a beautiful dichotomy of carefully creating a smooth, blank canvas of clay and then giving away any control over the finish to the whims of the kiln,” Ms. Fagan said. “Depending on how the materials change, how the thread twists and moves against the clay, or the different colored vapors combine, the results will always be unknown.”

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