Short film made by Krista Jutt during the 15th Kohila Symposium, 2015.

This article was first published in The Log Book, issue 63, 2015 / Külli Kõiv

Enchanted by Fire – Fifteen Years of Kohila International Ceramics Symposium

One can follow a new path without knowing where it will lead, or start a new adventure without knowing how it will end. At the start of the 2000s, nobody could have imagined that the curator of the exhibition ‘Enchanted by Fire’ – the Finnish sculptor and designer Pekka Paikkari would stand in the middle of the storage room of ceramic sculptures in Kohila in Estonia just 15 years later, admitting that the collection was unique almost in the whole of Europe. There are outstanding collections of ceramic sculptures in Guldagergaard, Denmark; Kecskemét, Hungary, and Paneveěys, Lithuania, but none of them are comprised entirely of wood-fired ceramics. Moreover, it is unexpected to find such a collection in a country which has no stoneware clay deposits, and where traditional pottery has never played too important a role.

But let’s go back to the beginning. It was in the 1990s, when Estonia restored it’s independency; the ‘iron curtain’ had crumbled into dust, and newly opened borders enabled artist and student exchanges, that the first contacts between the departments of ceramics of North Carolina University (USA) and the Estonian Academy of Arts were established. Richard Spiller, the then ceramics professor at NCU initiated the first contact. Richard, together with Andres Allik, the Estonian kiln master who was at the time at the start of his career, had the idea of building a large anagama with the goal of popularising wood-firing in Estonia. An intense fundraising period followed, where the crucial contribution was made by potters from the Seagrove Pottery Village (USA). Nancy Gottovi (partner of the potter David Stuempfle from Seagrove), supported the grant application made to an international arts organization based in the USA.

In 2000 a group of potters from Seagrove and their Estonian colleagues spent several weeks building the combined anagama/groundhog type kiln, known as the ‘Esthoggama’, in the Tohisoo Manor Park in Kohila. At that time, wood-firing had not been totally forgotten in Estonia. Like a Sleeping Beauty, it made its first movements after long years of sleep. Following the Soviet occupation period during which all the old wood-fire kilns had been replaced by electric ones in the modernization process, the first smaller privately owned wood-fire kilns had been constructed.

Though the circle of ceramicists who were attracted to wood-firing wasn’t especially wide, a desire for an international ceramics workshop was in the air. The idea was realized by Andres, who took the initiative of organising the first international wood-fire symposium in 2001. Since 2002 the Estonian Ceramists Association has supported the organisation of this annual event. Andres has been the kiln master for most of the symposia, and the organisational work was carried out by Aigi Orav and myself, together with several volunteers. The event has developed during the years and has found its own rhythm and characteristic features.

The symposium focuses on producing wood-fired sculptures and each participant has to create at least one large-scale piece during the event. Participants are always selected from different countries, taking into account the balance between established artists and young promising talents, and men and women. Up to 13 artists work and live together for three weeks in Tohisoo Manor, in June – July each year. This is the most beautiful time of year in Estonia – so kiln watching during our short summer nights, with early sunrise, is an unforgettable part of the memories from Kohila. Time spent together – working, relaxing, partying – give an extra shade to the colourful palette of the whole event.

The craft skills of working with clay and firing a wood-fire kiln are employed here in the service of modern art. The synthesis of ideas, experiences and knowledge shared during the symposia is reflected in the work of the participants and, through them, spreads all over the world, without recognizing any borders. Over the past 15 years, 158 ceramic artists and sculptors from 26 countries have participated in the symposia.

The modified anagama-type kiln is the heart of the event. With its packing capacity of 3.5 m3 it is one of the biggest – both in the Baltic countries as well as in Scandinavia. It allows pieces up to 130 cm in height to be fired. The firing lasts from 30 – 38 hours to achieve a temperature of 1300ºC – 1320°C throughout the kiln, using about 4 m3 of firewood – mainly pine offcuts from local sawmills. Salt, soda, and sometimes wheat bran are introduced to the kiln at high temperatures to create special surface effects.

After 97 firings the original kiln underwent in-depth reconstruction in 2014. A campaign ‘My Brick for Kohila Kiln’ was conducted by the Estonian Ceramists Association. People joining the campaign had an opportunity to buy virtual bricks by making donations.

Another kiln, a bourry-box type, was built onto the other side of the anagama chimney in 2012, by the ceramic students of the Estonian Academy of Arts, the Art Academy of Latvia, and HAMK University of Applied Sciences, Finland, during a project called ‘EcoCeramics’.

Each year at the end of the symposium, participants display their work in an open air exhibition, and every five years, some of the newest works in the collection are shown in a larger survey exhibition in Tallinn. In 2015, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Kohila Symposia, a large jubilee exhibition took place in Tallinn Art Hall.

The Estonian Ceramists Association invited Pekka Paikkari, an internationally recognised Finnish artist to curate the exhibition. Having taken part in the symposium in 2002, Pekka was not aware of the developments that had occurred since then, and got a big surprise when he saw a collection of ceramic sculpture that every ceramic centre would be proud of. Inspired by the size and variety of the collection, Pekka, together with his helper Mari Paikkari, and the local design studio Laika, Belka & Strelka, arranged the design of the exhibition. As there have been so many good artists taking part in the symposia during the past 15 years, it was a hard task to select the lucky ones, 78 in total, whose work was exhibited.

The Tallinn Art Hall is one of the most distinguished exhibition halls in Estonia. Pekka created an adventurous atmosphere, introducing the enchanting world of wood-firing to visitors. On curating and designing the exhibition Pekka stated: ‘My wish was to show the works from a sculptural aspect. The dimensions of the works and silhouettes of the forms played an important role in my choices. Also, the selected sculptures resonate well with the white exhibition spaces and with each other. The viewers should firstly look at the silhouette, lines and figure; secondly, at the idea of the work, and thirdly, observe the reaction that the works create in the viewers themselves.’

The entire wall in the entrance hall was covered with pages from the firing logbook, copied onto very thin paper. A light breeze, caused by people passing by, resulted in sheets moving mysteriously. Observing these pages one could read not only technical information about the firings, but also plenty of little funny messages in different languages, and see drawings made by various artists. The elaborate artistic logbook has become one of the characteristic features of Kohila Symposium.

Despite the solid weight of most of the large clay sculptures exhibited in the main hall, there was an overall impression of lightness, thanks to the light but stable plywood stands. The mural in the same room, specially painted for the exhibition by Sergei Isupov (and washed off afterwards), illustrated the dramatic character of the wood-firing process, expressing the beauty and sumptuousness of ephemeral art.

In the second room, large-scale vessels and organic forms were mainly shown on shelves in front of a large window, allowing visitors to enjoy the silhouettes and forms in a contrasting light. In another room where many small objects were displayed on a large table, the situation at the opening of the kiln after firing was suggested. Of this work Pekka stated: ‘In these small rough designs, we see the beautiful ideas and honest creative seeds that are germinated for use in larger sculptures.’

The wood-firing aesthetics can be especially well observed in surfaces, shades and cracks of these small objects. Even a disaster in the kiln – collapsed shelves – can create an enjoyable piece of art, if one has an eye to see it. Pekka stated: ‘I think that the soul and originality of the materials are hidden in the cracks. Flaws, cracks, and breaking – these are things that I play with in my practice … when something cracks and breaks, it is moving. When it is broken, the movement ends, the tension disappears.’ The same aesthetics was found in a small dark room, where the light was focussed onto a couple of very fragile, almost gossamery experimental objects by Ray Chan See-kwong from Hong Kong.

Having walked through the exhibition the visitor was met by a surprise in the last room, where they faced the installation by Urmas Puhkan. This completed the exhibition with an exact model of the Kohila kiln, and a video showing the firing process. Recorded sounds from the firing, together with colours of flickering flames gave an impression of the firing process and re-created a special, captivating atmosphere of wood-firing, which has been enchanting for so many artists all over the world – people enchanted by fire. Kohila Symposium has become one of the connecting links between these people, a part of the worldwide network of wood-firers.

Külli Kõiv graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts (ceramics) and is a founder member of the Asuurkeraamika studio ( She has been the leader of the Estonian Ceramists Association from 2012 – 2015 and an organizer of the Kohila International Ceramics Symposium since 2002. She lives and works in Tallinn, Estonia.

David Jones / artist and writer / 2015

Fire provides us with warmth and security and the power to change matter, but it also has destructive potential. These aspects of technology have been nurtured by the Kohila International Ceramics Symposium as a possibility for creating contemporary art; 2015 is its 15th anniversary.

This is a remarkable achievement for a country with no great clay deposits and no history of high-fired ceramics. It represents a unique contribution to the establishment of an international network of artists who wish to express themselves through clay and who are committed to the exploration of the possibilities of wood-firing to realize their intentions. The symposium is sited close to Tallinn, at the Tohisoo manor in Kohila, set in beautiful countryside. The participants are drawn from both local and internationally recognised practitioners, and the aim is to achieve a balance between experienced and emerging talents. The initiative for organizing the first ceramics symposium in 2001 was taken by the kiln master Andres Allik. Later the Estonian Ceramists Association was invited to help with the organization (the original kiln was rebuilt in 2014). The one chamber kiln (in Japanese, anagama) takes about 30 hours and four cubic meters of timber, mostly softwood off-cuts, to reach yellow-white heat throughout the kiln. The spontaneous effects resulting from flying ash and vapors that characterize wood-fired ceramics replace much of the need for glazing and special surface treatment. Thus the artist’s work is an expression of sculptural intent tested by extreme heat. A kiln is a connecting focus which links the participants in collaborative action: an ancient process where relays of firers must watch over the slow buildup of temperature. Thus sociability and the performative quality of the firing are fundamentals in the consideration of the artistic outcome.

Our most fundamental relationship with the world involves using it (what Heidegger calls its ‘ready-to handedness’). Fire contained by a kiln is just such a tool; its use allows objects fashioned from clay to be brought into the aesthetic world, as well as into the world of function. In addition, the utilization of fire in creating art can also have a symbolic value, since fire can have a ritualized effect on matter: fire is one of the central discoveries made by our ancestors and through its use we are permitted to enter this ancient atavistic realm and employ its symbolic ability to both physically and chemically effect change. Thus the artist can employ that passage of flame across the surface of the work and the marks indelibly left from that change to symbolize transformation in his or her work.

In the anagama kiln, the stoking and the piling of ash creates resonances with the creation of culture (and also its demise). The fir- ing of clay represents a way in which flame is made manifest, and yet it still represents the Apollonian control of fire, as opposed to the Dionysic destruction wrought when fire threatens to destroy a city. Nietzsche developed this polarity: the controlling aspect is named after the sun god and is represented by what we would now, perhaps, describe as the conscious ego; the Dionysic is the uncontrolled urge, the wildness that is manifest in unconscious expression. Dionysian Fire striking out across a clay body in a firing can complement, contrast with, or ruin carefully fashioned Apollonian Clay.

Our sustenance depends on cooking. Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Raw and The Cooked – his study of the myths of South American Indians – shows how for them a meal – ’real’ food – had to consist of cooked food, and his analysis shows that in these myths it is clear that raw=natural, cooked=culture. There is a strong kinship between food, its cooking and preparation and ceramics. This is also reflected in language. In many cultures there is an overlap between the words for kiln and cooking place. The etymology of the English word kiln comes through the Latin and Italian word ’cucina’, which also gives us ’kitchen’ and ’cooking’. The words for ’kiln’ and ’oven’ are the same in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Estonian. (’four’ in French, ’horno’ in Spanish, ’forno’ in Italian, ’Ofen’ in German, ’ahi’ in Estonian) etc. We can trace the route back through language; one can hear the words ’fire’, ’furnace’ and ’cooking’ within this etymological maze and find traces of the common heritage of firing, cookery and thus culture.

Since an anagama has no separate firebox (which might protect the clay from attack by smoke and flame), the artists are taken back to an earlier quality of firing, where the surface of the clay is directly struck by the flames of the wood fuel, instead of being protected from them, leaving marks of their passage through the stack of ware in the kiln, as the ash fuses with the surface of the clay. The anagama firing is in a kiln where the work is isolated to retain the extreme heat; it took 2 days heating and 2 days fast cooling in Kohila. The work was only revealed after being locked away for almost a week. It was a fast version of an anagama firing, which in some cases can last much longer. Working with such a kiln creates an opportunity to deepen the vocabulary of the embodied narratives of firing, since it provides a more profound marking of clay by fire through the highest possible temperatures and duration of firing; in addition there is exposure of the clay body to fly-ash, cinder burning and introduced combustibles. This is maximal ’cooking’ in Lévi-Strauss’s terms.

Kohila International Ceramics Symposium takes place since 2001. It focuses on wood-firing ceramics technique, promoting it among ceramicists and sculptors.

David Jones is an artist and writer. He is a member of the International Academy of Ceramics and the Craft Potter Association of the UK. He teaches in the BA and MFA courses in Applied Arts at the University of Wolverhampton. He is the author of Raku – Investigations into Fire, and Firing – Philosophies within Contemporary Ceramic Practice (both published by Crowood Press).

2015 marks 15 years from the beginning of the Kohila International Ceramics Symposium in Estonia. All the symposia have been conducted in Kohila, at the Tohisoo Manor, and have centered on a unique anagama-type wood-burning ceramic kiln in the manor park, which is one of the largest of its kind in the Baltics. During the symposia, the participants produce large-scale ceramic sculptures, at least of which one is added to the collection of the Estonian Ceramicists’ Association. Thus, a unique collection of ceramic sculptures has developed during the last 15 years, which has considerably expanded the boundaries of traditional ceramics.

Enchanted by Fire at the Tallinn Art Hall introduces a selection made from the collection by curator Pekka Paikkari, in order to make people more aware of the existence of such a distinctive collection and of wood-firing as a credible means for the creation of contemporary art. According to the curator, this is an extraordinary ceramics collection, the like of which cannot be found in Finland, or the other Scandinavian or Baltic countries.

“Even today there are areas where clay as a basic material is unbeatable. Clay can insulate, clean water, and construct solid, durable elements. Anything from engine parts to fibers and tiles for space shuttles can be produced from ceramics,” curator Pekka Paikari lists the opportunities provided by contemporary ceramics. “Clay is a material that changes shape throughout the entire production process. Starting from soil it can be moulded into chosen shapes. Forming, shaping, shrinking, heating and glazing are the necessary steps in turning clay into ceramics. The techniques used are thousands of years old and still an important part of our modern existence.”

The ceramics symposium unites ancient wood-firing traditions and sculptures with modern forms. “Historically, wood-firing has been used mainly for producing household pottery, and this tradition is still alive today. However, some artists and internationally recognized ceramics centers also use wood-firing for producing sculptural ceramics. In this case, fire is the uniting element, a kind of bridge between ancient traditions and modern art,” Külli Kõiv from the Estonian Ceramicists’ Association explains.

Since 2001, 158 artists – both ceramicists and sculptors, artists who have achieved fame in their field and younger talents – from 25 countries have participated in the International Ceramics Symposium in Kohila that was started at the initiative of kiln master Andres Allik. The Kohila Ceramics Centre is highly regarded amongst specialists in the field and is an important link in the worldwide ceramics network. Every year at the symposium, the participants display their works at an open air exhibition; and every five years, some of the newest works in the collection are shown at a larger survey exhibition in Tallinn. Previous exhibitions have taken place at the Rotermann Salt Storage (2005) and the Knighthood Building on Toompea Hill (2010). In 2015, we are introducing the best works in the collection that have been created during the last 15 years.

Pekka Paikkari (1960) is a Finnish sculptor and designer. He has worked since 1983 at the Arabia ceramics factory as a designer and artist. He also collaborates with architects, and in 2015, he completed a 10-metre-high public sculpture for the Lampa House in Helsinki. Paikkari is a member of the Association of Finnish Sculptors and has participated in more than 200 exhibitions around the world.

Laura Põld / artist and writer / 2015 Conversation with Pekka Paikkari, curator of Enchanted by Fire and ceramicist Ingrid Allik.

Pekka Paikkari, what were the criteria for selecting the works for the exhibition? Since the collection includes about twice as many works. When seeing the collection at Tohisoo Manor, what provided the greatest impulse for compiling the exhibition?

Pekka Paikkari: My wish was to show the works from a sculptural aspect. The dimensions of the works and silhouettes of the forms play an important role in my choices. Also, the selected sculptures resonate well with the white exhibition spaces and with each other. Perhaps the following can serve as crib-notes for the viewers on how to approach the works.

They should firstly look at the silhouette, lines and figure. Secondly, at the idea of the work. And thirdly, observe the reaction that the works create in the viewers themselves.

Each part of the exhibition in the Tallinn Art Hall has its own character. Please explain briefly what your aspirations were in each space and what the viewer should pay attention to.

PP: The main hall is devoted to large sculptures. They surround the viewer and they can be compared. The sculptures are on high pedestals in order to provide an experience that lighter and airier than usual when viewing ceramics.

In the room with the window, we see organic forms and objects, as well as containers that are exceptionally large in scale. The room with the small objects on a large table creates a situation similar to one experienced after the oven is opened. In these small rough designs, we see the beautiful ideas and honest creative seeds that are germinated for use in larger sculptures. The artists can readily experiment in small formats.

In the last hall, we see Urmas Puhkan’s video installation, which provides an exact model of the Kohila kiln. Here the viewer gets an idea of the dimensions and structure the kiln, and even the atmosphere during firing.

It also pays to turn one’s attention to the very first wall of the exhibition, where pages from logbooks or firing diaries are on display. These reflect the process and include the entries made by those tending the fire around the clock. You see a historical document that shows that every firing is different.

Pekka Paikkari, what do you believe makes this exhibition, the collection and the Kohila International Ceramics Symposium important?

PP: The heating of a kiln starts from a spark and after 40 hours of joint work and tending, it achieves a temperature of 1300 ˚C. This noteworthy thing, which has been done in Kohila, plays an important role as the developer of the ceramics culture in the entire region. Wood-burning knowhow and traditions have developed in Estonia. The local knowledge and experience is already respected elsewhere in the world, for instance, in Denmark, Germany, the U.S. and Tasmania, where Estonian ceramicists have been invited to speak at conferences.

But Ingrid Allik, let’s also talk a little bit about wood-firing! What makes this kiln different?

Ingrid Allik: This kiln is the largest anagama-type kiln in our region, which is heated with wood from start to finish – in Estonia, basically with softwoods. In this type of kiln, the items are in direct contact with the flames.

What creates the hue of the items?

IA: My colleague, Kersti Laanmaa, a member of the technology faculty at the Estonian Academy of Arts, says: “The items are brownish because the glaze that develops on the surface of the clay from the volatile ash in the kiln combined with the iron in the clay creates this result. The places untouched by the volatile ash are lighter in color.” But, if we look closer, we see many more nuances! The surface of a work that has undergone wood-firing can be seen as a landscape or clouds, and many different patterns can be discovered.

How would you briefly characterise the aesthetics of wood-fired ceramics?

IA: Wood-firing aesthetics can be compared to the beauty of a wooden plank affected by the sun and the wind, moss-covered ruins, or a worn pair of jeans. Wood-firing is collaboration between the author of the work and nature, i.e. between physical forces, the results of which are displayed at this exhibition.

Why are cracked or broken items on display? Can this also be interpreted as beauty created by the collaboration of physical forces?

PP: I think that the soul and originality of the materials are hidden in the cracks. Flaws, cracks, and breaking – these are things that I play with in my practice. For instance, I make clay floor tiles in this way. I let a large tile break where it wants to. In this way, I don’t have to cut it myself. This is a physical process and something I have discovered after 30 years of practice. Also, when something cracks and breaks, it is moving. When it is broken, the movement ends, the tension disappears.

The shelf with broken items and experimental pieces seem to be on an equal standing at this exhibition. On the other hand, we see many artists that are internationally respected in the ceramics world.

IA: Yes, there are many well-known names. For example, Estonian Academy of Arts alumni Sergei Isupov, who was commissioned to make a large mural especially for the exhibition; authors who have written books about ceramics-firing technologies, such as Marc Lancet and David Jones; also Priscilla Mouritzen, one of the founders of the Guldagergaard Ceramics Centre; and Neil Hoffman from Tasmania who specializes in wood-fired ceramics, to name only a few. Our own Annika Teder and others are also well-known around the world.

Why fire ceramics in a wood-burning kiln today and why is wood-firing in the Academy’s curriculum? What additional possibilities does such a kiln and firing method provide to ceramicists?

IA: The reason is the alternative results compared to an electric kiln, larger dimensions, the experience of international collaboration, exploring and expanding the limits of the speciality and the material, the unique nature of the results and the process itself. It should also be noted that the older and younger generation work together at Kohila. And the latter will be organizing the Kohila Symposium next summer.

Short film made by Tauno Sirel during the 14th Kohila Symposium, 2014.

David Jones / clay artist and writer / 2010

The history of Estonia is a history of interruptions. Estonia achieves independence from foreign domination in 1991; in the year 2000 the kiln at Kohila was first fired. This booklet reflects the product of the last five years of that kiln. It can be read as a new symbol of international collaboration and self-determination. Once upon a time progress was only conceived as the ‘new’ – perhaps now a looking to the past of other cultures can settle the country more happily as an important site of art, contemporary craft and creativity in the twenty first century.

The story of twentieth century art is a novella of appropriation. The generations of global exploration had resulted in a world of Empire (and empires) and an assumption of the superiority of the ideology of the oppressor over the dominated. Within Western Europe it was the artists who became aware that the civilizations that had been conquered were not merely a prequel to Christianity; there were qualities in the traditions of Africa and Asia that were equal to if not superior in power and expression to those they lived in. Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh and many other artists all brought these formerly alien references to their work. The tentacles of British Empire reached out into Asia and  Bernard Leach returned to England with a love of Japanese ceramics and became a potter, introducing Europe to a special kind of high-temperature, wood-fired ceramics, and an awareness of the qualities to be found in less sophisticated technologies than those that had conferred superiority on the aggressor. These features are those that can be seen in the anagama kiln used in the symposium at Kohila. Nowadays,  progress is not necessarily seen as a relentless development into a future freed from the past; with an awareness of the ‘Slow Movement’ there is now an understanding that there are qualities to be found in simple ways of making and firing that are lost in the safer world of electric  kiln firing.

One of the chief of these is rediscovered in wood firing that confers a warmth and subtlety of surface impossible to achieve within an electric kiln. The anagama kiln firing that has produced the work, over a ten year duration, depends for its results on an extended firing that allows the deposition of ash directed onto the carefully placed objects in the path of the flame, exposing the clay surface to much more extreme and some-what unpredictable experiences. ‘Anagama’ is a Japanese word that means a one-chambered kiln, without a separate firebox (which might protect the clay from attack by smoke and flame); this takes us back to an even earlier quality of firing where the flames of the wood fuel directly strike the surface of the clay, instead of being protected from them, leaving marks of their passage through the stack of ware in the kiln.

The kiln is a subtle instrument; a very complex and secret space; we might imagine it as a piano that is forever shut while the performer tries to strike the keys. It is an instrument with one conductor and an orchestra of firing assistants who must learn their roles perfectly answering the demands of the kiln and firing master who plays the kiln to reach a crescendo of heat. The Tohisoo mansion in Kohila, where the symposium takes place is not merely an art venue but also a music school; there is a practice piano in every room.  It stands as a symbol of our endeavors.

Firing is an ancient communal work (and play); it can also be read as a collaborative ‘art-attack’ on old and contemporary practices of making art. As a site of creation it can be read as a the place where ancient Cambrian muds are hardened and changed into ceramic through fire, where the surfaces are decorated through the direction of flame, which parallels the invention of narratives through the use of words. It is a wordless language, whose subtlety and directness of expression is only exposed when the kiln door is broken down at the end of the five days of imprisoning.

What happens between the careful and strategic placement of the objects in the kiln and their final removal?

The firing starts with discussion and careful collection of the work into discreet areas to correspond with placement in the tunnel which will later reach astonishing temperatures, approaching white heat. This packing in the kiln requires great knowledge, based on experience and intuition; there are many different effects depending on where the clay is placed and different questions arise: will there be a slight or a great accumulation of fusible ash on the work? Will the clay remain pristine or be profoundly burnt in the heart of the fire? Do we want our work cool or hot? – the kiln can offer this and more. It is only the great depth of experience of the kiln-master, Andres Allik, based on building and firing this kiln and many others, that can secure a felicitous outcome. It is his mind that constructs the physical pack and directs our success or failure. The firing starts early, in the dark hours (which are of course not really black in summer, in Estonia).

It is after midnight, a solitary potter feeding a tiny warming fire, situated under the main fire chamber, with small twigs – enough to caress the ware with gentle heat but not sufficient to keep her warm. A few hairs of smoke escape from the side stoke holes. All is anticipation. She fetches blankets from the store, and passes the watch of the tiny fire to a colleague who sits for a further 3 hours, through break of day. During the next quarter day the fire plods lazily along – we move through the boiling point of water; steam is given off by the clay until it is quite dry and we can progress faster. After nearly a day of firing it is time to increase the team of stokers and we sit about and chat as the pyrometer (reading the temperature within the still dark kiln) increases at a steady rate.  Most of the shift is spent in the chairs, talking – of former firings, lives and loves. Stoking embers, raking over coals. It is a ‘site of conviviality’, of talking and of silence. We are making pacts, anticipating outcomes; we are aware that the kiln is waiting to become complicit in our desires, but for now the conversation flies over the surface, alighting on the best clays to use or woods to burn; we are building towards later.

The next night shift is when the kiln begins to become greedy; not yet really demanding, but each new stoking needs to arrive faster than the previous and voices a gentle appreciative roar from the growing fire. The cracks between the bricks glow red in the darkness and we can see that the kiln is reaching another critical temperature: as it reaches red heat, water is driven off once more from the clay – this time not a reversible reaction – this change forces malleable mud to the stony rock that is ceramic – as the water of crystallisation is vaporised. At 600 degrees Centigrade the kiln is gurgling contentedly; no longer, though, are we trying to ignite small sticks but we are trying to satisfy a growing appetite. But we must advance through this transition carefully, as too much speed can cause the steam trapped in thick clay to produce catastrophic explosions. The kiln now demands a steady rhythm. Three of us stoking – one to each stoking position, throwing the wood in diagonally and one to open the door to the now fearsome fire. The door is quickly closed, locking in the inferno. Leave the door temporarily ajar to allow oxygen to access the kiln. Close the door tightly to create reduction effecting subtle colour changes in the oxides in the glazes and within the clay. Maintain temperature; re-open the door; check the ‘cones’ measuring the ‘heat-work’ deep in the kiln. A haze of heat rises above the kiln, causing the view to the trees above the kiln to vibrate – to dance.

We wait silent now for the next command. The door is re-opened faces are illuminated by an orange searchlight; we stoke again. We are transfixed by the regularity, even the monotony of the actions; we are totally present to the needs of kiln master/conductor and of the kiln. Our changing orchestra of firers must now maintain its constant steady exhalation of wood energy to hold temperature; to play this steady ululation of heat. Each quartet of players must re-feel the beat of the kiln, re-experience and know its deep insistence. The kiln is a woman; nurturing, gestating its precious cargo, waiting for parturition. She has a greedy, even cruel, appetite.
The last shift takes up position; all are swathed in cloths to protect faces from the extreme heat. Wood is stoked from the front; wood goes through the side stokes; more bundles are collected; the pace is relentless and exhausting. Eventually enough embers have accumulated for the firing to be stopped. Suddenly all falls silent. The kiln is left to cool for days while the ceramics adjust to their new state, in pools of ash.
Finally the kiln has cooled sufficiently to remove the ware. The pieces are pulled greedily from the kiln; too hot to handle without leather gloves – work is examined for felicitous effects, for absence of cracks – for proof that it has survived this rite of passage. At last the objects can be shown in the exhibition, cold – their secret life at such extremes of temperature only revealed in the painting that the flame has left across the surface of the ceramic, and in the melting of glaze.

Estonia is an ancient country with a young history of freedom to choose and identify its own destinies. The ceramic symposium, located in Kohila, is testament to a new openness to contemporary art forms, and means of expression; these have developed out of ancient, sometimes alien craft practices and which can be appropriated as part of this globalized experience of contemporary art and ceramics. Like the ancient erratic boulders, from a quite other geological world, deposited on the north coast of Estonia by the retreating glaciers in the last Ice Age, this new practice of anagama firing, perhaps finding a kinship with the ancient pagan religions, stands out in the contemporary craft and art landscape.

David Jones is an artist and writer. He is a member of the International Academy of Ceramics and the Craft Potter Association of the UK. He teaches in the BA and MFA courses in Applied Arts at the University of Wolverhampton. He is the author of Raku – Investigations into Fire, and Firing – Philosophies within Contemporary Ceramic Practice (both published by Crowood Press).

Inna Laanmets / head of Kohila Educational Center in years 1993-2003 / 2010

It was back in the mid-1990’s when Professor Richard Spiller from East Carolina, USA, suggested the Estonian ceramicists the idea of building a wood-fired kiln in Estonia. At about the same time Kaja Pirnpuu had started ceramics courses at Tohisoo manor. In spring 2000 Kaja asked Andres Allik to give a course on pit-firing. The idea of building a kiln was about to become a reality by that time and Tohisoo Manor park seemed to be the right place. So Andres convinced us that this was the right place.

After saying yes to the idea, everyday life broke in. I quickly invited local employers, asking them to support the idea and it’s realization. Hugo Sepp who was municipality architect at that time helped with planning the area and co-ordinated the documentation with the Environmental Board and the Rescue Board.

The basement for the kiln was made by AS Vesiroos (Riho Pihlapuu), the local community administration sent an excavator which worked for three days in order to install the underground cable up to the kiln. Road master of Kohila (Toivo Heinla) helped with gravel, AS Veeder (Kaarel Mänd) helped with timber and beams.

Roof was made of hundred years old beams which were brought from Vabaduse Street 10, where had been a house with cultural and environmental value, which had burnt down earlier the same year. Thus the old beams got a new life in the construction of the kiln. Following the example of Americans, Estonians could take part in the movement “My brick for the kiln” and support the construction of the kiln by buying a fireclay brick. About a hundred people participated in that action.

The kiln that has brought much recognition to Kohila and Rapla County through ceramics symposia, pottery fairs and through artists who have participated in them, is one of the few objects in Kohila where so many people have contributed to. Many thanks to you all!

Kai Lobjakas / art historian / 2005

Public opinion in Estonia is currently divided over the issue of whether old manor complexes, the crowning glory of Estonian rural architectural heritage, should be in private custodianship or serve wider national cultural interests. While this debate has continued, the Tohisoo manor, just outside Kohila township, has quietly been reborn as a cultural centre that hosts numerous events every year. The Tohisoo complex has been truly rediscovered and its settings facilitate a wide diversity of activities. One such activity has been the annual ceramics symposium which began in 2001 and this year celebrated its fifth anniversary. The event was born of a combination of enthusiasm and practical thought that found expression in the building of an anagama kiln in 2000 and its continued active use. Apart from widening possibilities for local artists, the symposium has grown into a reputable international art event that now allows one to speak of a strengthening tradition. For five successive years the centre has been turned into a ceramics commune for two weeks, as artists from various countries and cultures work and live there, using clay as a common means of expression.

The main aim of the symposium has been to reintroduce woodfiring to Estonia. This is significant for several reasons. Firstly, it offers an opportunity for local artists to create large monumental ceramic works, an issue that has been rather problematic in the past. Secondly, the reintroduction of such a firing process is practical as woodfired kilns can be built in open air and countryside in a somewhat more relaxed planning atmosphere. The building of a large woodfired kiln may appear to mainly serve the interests of individual artists, however, its presence, together with the symposium, has prepared ground for the meeting of different cultural and intellectual expression. What makes the Tohisoo symposium unique is the seamless merging of an archaic method and modern thought. The range of artists, who can all participate the symposium only once, has been diverse, each contributing through work and specific expertise to the wide spectrum of conceptual and expressive possibilities that is contemporary ceramic art.

The annual symposium contains many smaller but equally important events and happenings. The two weeks are spent planning and create the work, as well as packing, firing and unpacking the anagama kiln about three times. These events are as attractive and important as the final exhibition of works on the lawn in the manor park. They enable one to experience the creative processes involved in the making of the works, to witness emotions and reactions and, therefore, give a more intimate understanding of the resulting art. While part of the attraction lies in the unpredictability of the results and processes, equally important is the symbolic outcome of the symposia. Each symposium produces a body of works that stays in the manor and, over the years, these have grown into a substantial, diverse and international collection of ceramic objects. Therefore, it is fair to say that, while Tohisoo has, in the Estonian context, gained an undoubtedly important role as a ceramics centre, it also carries an honorable responsibility; that of ownership and care for a truly unique collection of art.

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