Working as a woodfire potter in Finland in the 21st century might require some happy accidents. In my case it all began when I met an exchange student from New Zealand in 1993. Ben Stevens was staying at my neighbour’s house and we became good friends. We have remained in contact ever since.
I made my first trip to New Zealand 1999. I was 24 and looking for a direction in my life. Ben had advised us to visit Coromandel township and to go to see Driving Creek Railways and Potteries (DCR). That place blew my mind. All those beautiful ceramics, sculptures and pots, iron works, gardening, weird brick constructions (kilns) were not like anything I had ever seen before. The experience was like a religious one. I couldn’t get over Driving Creek and I felt that I would have to return one day. Back in Finland I enrolled at the Tammela College of Crafts and Design to study ceramics.
In second year we had to have a ‘learning at work’ period. I wrote to Barry Brickell, the creator of Driving Creek, and asked if I could come and work there. I received an answer within a few weeks, Barry recommended that I should come to New Zealand in spring (2001), because the weather is good at that time of year.
So there I was, going back to that mysterious place, trying to find out what its secret was.
I didn’t know where I was going to, I had no idea about Barry’s reputation as a potter, kiln builder, engineer and conservationist. I only had that magical spirit in my mind from my previous brief visit a few years earlier.
When we arrived at Driving Creek, Barry showed us (me and Johanna – my wife to be, who did gardening and other odd jobs while we were staying there) our lodging, – a cabin a few square meters in size known as ‘Mouse house’, where there was only a table and a bunk. Barry was smiling and saying that the potter’s life is simple. That was very essential advice. If you wish to survive as a potter in a modern world you’d better keep your expenses low and become fairly ascetic.
It was all about learning by doing and seeing. Barry wasn’t teaching anything. I could go and watch him throwing and ask questions that had arisen in my mind, but otherwise I just worked on my own. There was a vast collection of pottery books and magazines, heaps of pots from other potters and several kilns to study whenever I wished. The place was visually so rich that you just needed to keep your eyes open and feed your mind. The whole atmosphere fed the creative side of me. I just had to go make something out of clay everyday.
Three months went by quickly. I felt I had only scratched the surface, but intuitively I knew that this experience was going to shape the rest of my life.
I wrote a letter to Barry explaining our new situation. His answer was encouraging, and included a few other principles to follow: What you need is to be a skilled thrower with a fine feeling for form, raw materials and fire. He also asked if we could come back to work at Driving Creek again. That would have been a great option, but now we had an old farmhouse to take care of and we were expecting our first child.
I had internalized that simple lifestyle’s meaning. I was motivated to make my way without much money, using found and used materials. First I built a treadle wheel from things I found behind the shed of our old farm. I had converted a tiny room at the end of the house as my studio. The feeling was great; making pots with a self-built wheel, using my own energy to operate it, and all at no cost. When I first tried throwing at school on an electric wheel I wasn’t that hooked, but at Driving Creek throwing on a treadle wheel made a difference, somehow it felt right, speed control was more intuitive, the wheel was silent, and there was no electricity needed to produce a pot. I began to understand what ‘not the thing but how’ part of Barry’s philosophy was about.
Woodfiring would be a reasonable way to go here as well, as there is an abundant supply of pine all around me, and if I could only get it out of the forest to the kiln – it would be free. So I began to study all sorts of kilns. I read all the kiln books I could find, surfing the net for good ideas. I had plans for a catenary arch Bourry-box kiln from my schooldays, but I felt that I needed something wilder, more flying ash, and it must be manageable for one person only.
The May 2007 issue of Ceramics Monthly had an article about the Manabigama design, cross-draught tube built into the side of a hill. It was just what I was looking for.
I built the kiln during the summer of 2008. With no previous experience of such a task, this time was full of excitement and stress. The encouragement I received from a few ‘building engineers’ didn’t make it any easier; ‘Teppo, that’s not going to work out, but maybe you can burn some rubbish in it anyway’.
However, so far this kiln has been working well. Nowadays I do 24-hour firings, using the main firebox combined with side-stoking. Usually I fire twice a year, often alone. The surface effects and glaze palette I am able to produce now are exactly what I was looking for.
This is my 14th year in this business. These years have been full of great experiences and deep feelings. I feel I am using my natural abilities as I was meant to. This way of life is a beautiful combination of creativity and physical labour. This work makes my life comprehensible for me.
The role of humans has changed from active makers to more passive consumers. It means we don’t fully understand our surroundings and things we see and live with. I think it causes some sort of general indifference. I’d say this modern world makes us think like machines too, instead of humanity. The way we do things affects everything we see around us and at the same time it shapes our thinking.
I think this explains much of the spirit of Driving Creek that made such a huge impact on me back in 1999. I came from a city environment, from a country of engineers, to the middle of organic, handmade beauty and wild nature.
If you are to feel love and passion for what you do, the methods that you choose to use play a key role. I wouldn’t make ceramics any other way. When firing a woodfire kiln I can feel I am more alive. There’s always this pulsating excitement in the air, excitement about how things are progressing. That keeps me awake no matter how tired I am. If everything succeeds, the feeling is beyond description.
A few years ago I built a new wheel, I changed that treadle wheel to a momentum one with a heavy flywheel.
‘A potter’s wheel is like a musical instrument. It’s the most important instrument for a potter to make beautiful things. A potter’s wheel is like a violin, you have to choose your wheel as carefully as if you were choosing the most expensive Stradivarius. You must build your instrument to suit you perfectly. The same goes for the potter’s wheel.” (Barry Brickell, 05.01.2001)
Again I used mainly found materials, but this time I also spent a few Euros getting a proper bearing. My current studio is now built into the old garage where there is still another 20 square meters left for a little showroom. This will be the next project. Most of the materials needed have already been collected from rejects and boards have been sawn from the fallen trees we collected last winter.
Does it make any difference? When looking back, I am convinced it does.