by Rich Pomerantz
Visitors to Joy Brown's studio in rural Connecticut are greeted by examples of her signature work - wood-fired stoneware figures.
One approaches Joy Brown's Connecticut studio by driving down a long dirt driveway, which appears to lead directly into a large marshy area in the woods. After crossing over a stream, the road turns uphill and curves through a grove of trees onto a plateau overlooking sparkling North Spectacle Lake. Visitors are then greeted by three of Brown's figurative sculptures, seemingly contemplating the quiet and beauty of the New England woods. Just beyond these figures is a three-building compound consisting of Brown's studio and kiln shed (housing a 30-foot-long wood-fired anagama), the house she shares with her family, and her husbands woodworkng studio.
Brown creates figures in a variety of poses, reminding one simultaneously of wise elders and playful children. Their genesis in traditional wood-fired Japanese ware may not be readily apparent; however, a closer look at the work and the artist reveals the path taken from apprenticeship with a 13th-generation Tamba potter in a traditional Japanese pottery, followed by two years learning how to fire with wood from potter Shige Morioka, to her current studio in the New England countryside.
Brown has spent a large part of her life in Japan, working for Japanese potters, studying Japanese ceramics and kilns, and simply absorbing the Japanese way of life. The daughter of medical missionaries, she lived in Japan for most of her first 18 years. She was first exposed to clay through the local Japanese ceramics collected by her mother and used by her family.
After obtaining a B.A. in fine arts studying ceramic sculpture at Eckerd College, a small liberal arts school in St. Petersburg, Florida, she returned to Japan to work first for Toshio Ichino, the Tamba potter, then Morioka.
At Tamba, she learned the discipline required of potters in Japan. "The commitment and focus demanded in this apprenticeship were absolute. There was little spoken guidance; all learning was by osmosis. I was told what to do to assist, and I did it. In the evening after the family had gone home, the other apprentices and I were allowed to work at the wheel. We were instructed to make one specific shape of sake cup for practice. We made thousands of them that year, never firing one. Everything I learned in college didn't amount to diddley squat in that apprenticeship." She found the Morioka apprenticeship that followed much "friendlier." She not only learned kilnbuilding, but also had the freedom to expand her throwing techniques beyond sake cups. After two years with Morioka, she spent some time at a pottery in Okinawa, then studied Japanese and Korean kilns. However, five years after returning to Japan as an adult, the constraints of the strict roles and duties compelled her to return to the States for good.
Unsure of direction upon her return, she traveled the country, visiting potters. While with Paul Chaleff in Pine Plains, New York, near the Connecticut border, she was urged to remain to help him build his wood-fired kiln, and stayed the better part of a year.
It was "a debriefing time, which I used to see how pottery was done in America. I had to learn what glaze materials were called in English, not to mention get through the culture shock."
While at Chaleff's, she learned of an opening at Webatuck, a nearby craft village, which she promptly assumed. Dealing with tourists and working in a public place forced Brown to learn to sell and market her wares. She found this especially difficult, as she was working from a Japanese aesthetic, while American tourists wanted "pretty" pots. "I hated the show-biz touristy part. People just didn't want to buy what I had to offer."
Her sales there consisted of cups, mugs and "funky little oil lamps," a tourist curiosity whose popularity still confounds her. The Japanese respect shibui, which Brown defines as "a serene, simple, quiet but powerful and sophisticated beauty, which sits there and doesn't jump out at you, but rather grows on you." That concept was lost on her customers at Webatuck, "but I sure got over being shy."
To survive, she drew on the discipline she learned at Tamba and stuck to it, working with attention and skill, knowing that her attitude and spirit would be reflected in the pieces. She stayed at Webatuck for five years.
Then, through a friend, she was able to buy 5 acres of land in nearby Kent, Connecticut, a small town known for its rugged and picturesque terrain (the Appalachian Trail passes through), wealthy weekend inhabitants and art galleries. Her property is isolated yet close enough to nearby towns to allow visitors easy access. She and her husband built the house and studios, as well as the anagama, using 28 tons of brick salvaged from an industrial site.
Just before she left the craft village, she had begun to create small, humanoid figures, precursors of her current sculptures. Knowing she wanted to expand the figures, she designed the kiln from the standpoint of knowing what she wanted to put into it. The door would need to be larger than the Japanese kilns, which have small entries. She also was forced to build on a ledge, endemic to the property, which lessened the slope of the kiln base a bit, but this suited her.
While the steep slope of the Japanese kilns helps create a fierce draft, allowing for dramatic ash deposits, she wanted the flame to "waft through the chambers, leaving a softer gradation of ash." She maximizes this effect by placing her more important figures at the largest area in the back of the kiln, where the temperature is coolest. The effect matches her clay, which she has mixed from a simple recipe of two parts Georgia red brick clay to one part Cedar Heights Goldart, with a little buff grog added. The pots stacked at the front of the kiln are made by Brown and other potters who sign on to help with the annual firing.
The figures themselves are made standing, sitting, relaxed or on the verge of movement, their faces reduced to a round ground, upon which Brown places a small straight nose, with small ovals cut out for the eyes and the mouth. This simplicity allows her to create a wide range of expression. The figures' bodies are likewise simple, consisting of torso, arms, hands with sausage fingers, legs and feet.
Standing figures are coil and slab built from the bottom up, oversized feet lend stability.
Each figure is coil and slab built from the bottom up, using no armatures or frame. Feet are oversized to lend stability to standing pieces, which can take up to a few weeks to complete. The coils are applied on the inside of the growing feet and legs, "like tsubo storage jars in Japan." She joins each coil by pinching, then paddles the outside surface. To prevent the edge from drying too fast, it is covered with a damp rag.
The torso is begun with a slab, which is stood on end and attached to the already-coiled legs. Coiled arms and neck are then added. The face is made out of a pancake-thin slab, with the nose pushed out from behind. She then plays with the expression by cutting out the mouth and eyes. Each piece is given its own personality.
While Brown may try to plan the expression and position she gives a piece, in the end, "it's like capturing little spirits, and each one is different." Indeed it is the "spirit" of each piece that she considers the true nature of her work.
"The expressions in the earlier pieces were more self-contained and now they are more outwardly oriented. I'm also more in tune with the nuances of the clay, the kiln and the process and what I want out of the firing."
And Brown knows that she doesn't always have the last word about a figure's appearance. The firing can even change the expression, since the face is quite thin at the eye and mouth holes, so a little warping or coloration from ash deposits can have a profound effect.
Her figures range from 2 feet to almost 5 feet in height. The larger ones can weigh over 100 pounds. Each is carried to the kiln and loaded on the same board on which it is built.
The face is formed from a thin slab with the nose pushed out from behind.
After pinching to join, the surface is paddled smooth.
Subtle variations in expressions are achieved by cutting out eyes and mouth.
Larger figures are made in two sections. After the firing, these are joined at the belly by a flanged lip. Large standing figures are made with a clay crosspiece in the midsection. Through this a metal pole is inserted from the feet; the pole is then bolted through a wooden base under the feet.
Lately, Brown has also been creating a series of pictorial reliefs, each the size of a kiln shelf. In a style reminiscent of a Henri Rousseau painting, the scenes are populated by Brown's whimsically rotund figures and animals (added recently to her repertoire after a trip to the circus).
Brown uses no glazes, so the placement of each piece in the kiln is critical to its final appearance. But after 25 years of firing with wood, Brown has no illusions about controlling the effect. She simply applies lessons from each firing to subsequent kiln loads.
While pots are piled and stacked, nothing is stacked on the four or five large figures loaded for each firing. The reliefs also fit one to a shelf, leaving plenty of room in the atmosphere for ash to "waft" through to adjacent pieces.
Firing the kiln once a year is akin to an annual harvest. Brown jokingly refers to each load as her "yearly crop." But relying on one firing certainly carries its own form of stress. Problems with a firing can significantly affect her income for the year.
Brown's work schedule revolves around her family. She is usually the first up in the house. The bulk of her work takes place while her son is at school, although she "pinches off more time" as the firing gets closer. Evenings are for the house and paperwork.
The "crucial lesson" she learned in Japan was that disciplined throwing promotes a grounding and a centering of the spirit, "allowing the spiritual, physical and emotional parts of the person to balance and integrate, to help you become more whole, which is what life is all about."
Wood Firing Notes
The 30-foot-long anagama consumes up to 8 tons of hardwood during the typical seven-day firing.
Up to 8 tons of hardwood are used to fuel Joy Brown's anagama for the seven-day firing. For the first three or four days, it is heated very slowly with a small fire outside the firebox at the front of the kiln. During this time, the ports on one side of the kiln are left open, to allow all moisture remaining in the ware to escape. These are closed as the fire is built up and moved into the firebox, where it is stoked from above through a stokehole built into the kiln door.
Brown's figures are placed at the rear of the kiln; when loading, the position of each piece relative to the flow of ash through the kiln is considered.
For the first three or four days, a small fire outside the firebox heats the kiln slowly.
Over the next two to three days, regular stoking is done in two-person 12-hour shifts, with the goal of bringing the front of the kiln (which is filled with stoneware pots) to Cone 9-10 by the seventh day. When the front of the kiln reaches or is close to temperature, usually at the end of day six or early on day seven, wood is stoked through the ports at the side of the kiln in order to raise the temperature in the middle and rear sections. By the middle of day seven, the front is sealed and only the side ports are used.
The rear of the kiln, where Brown's sculptures are placed, reaches about Cone 5. In addition to cone packs and draw rings placed strategically throughout the kiln, two pyrometers (one in front and one in back) help determine variations in temperature.
Placement of each piece relative to the flow of the ash through the kiln is considered when loading. If no other pot is available, Brown inserts "filler" pots in strategic locations to direct the draft. Large pieces may be loaded near one another, but not too many. The ashes need room to move around.
Once temperature is reached, the ports and all reachable surfaces are sealed with a slurry made of slip, sand and straw. The kiln is allowed to cool for another week before being opened. Even then, the pots are still quite warm, with a few too hot to handle. If there is any doubt, they are left to cool slowly inside the kiln, so as not to encourage any undue stress.
In addition to cone packs and draw rings placed throughout the kiln, two pyrometers (one in front and one in back) help monitor temperature.
As the ware is removed, it is laid out on the ground in the same sequence it was placed in the kiln, so that it can all be viewed together and any trends attributable to location inside the kiln can be identified.