Last Saturday I took the opportunity to visit the potter Jason Braham whose studio is located outside Llandrindod Wells in mid Wales. I first saw Jason’s salt fired functional ware at Ceramic Art Wales a few years back and had originally hoped to pay him a visit before going to study abroad. Like many potters who still make traditional country pottery, he lives out in the middle of the countryside as far away as possible from cities, a location difficult to access unless you have your own four by four. I was rewarded for my efforts though by a warm welcome and Jason’s generous and enthusiastic desire to share his knowledge and passion for pottery.
Behind the house is a roofed structure which contains the two kilns. Back to back, a curved chambered bisque/conventional glaze kiln and the salt kiln share the same chimney which can be blocked off with a sliding kiln shelf depending on the firing. Until recently Jason didn’t bisque the work before glaze firing. At the early stages of the firing wood is used which builds up a small layer of ash inside the kiln but after about 650C oil is the main fuel instead. Salt (16 pounds/ 7kg in total) is introduced into the kiln from 1260C and pushed in through the side with a long metal tray and a rod to push.
The salt kiln especially has warped and bulged from years of firing so that every time the entrance is bricked up it needs different sized bricks cut at the top. This is a problem I’m familiar with having struggled to seal he door of the wood kiln at Nääs. Jason suggested that the problem could be fixed if springs had been added to the metal frame rods in the construction of the kiln to allow some room for movement. Signs of wear too can be seen in the large quantity of broken kiln shelves lying around. Over time the inside of the kiln gets eaten away by the salt leaving a thick layer of glaze coating the inside walls. This salt affects the kiln shelves too so that after six or seven firings they become brittle and crumble apart. The kiln chamber’s inside walls too had to be propped up with flying buttresses to avoid collapse. Salt firing isn’t perhaps then the most economical way to make ceramics, especially as beginner, but there’s no doubt the orange-peel texture achieved by this method has a unique beauty.
The studio space is housed in a long wooden shed, kept warm from a log burner at the centre. Lining one end is a collection of wheels, one which Jason built himself is based on a traditional Leach style frame with an old heavy printing press flywheel acting as momentum wheel on the base. Jason explains how he enjoys turning on kick wheel’s like this, challenging himself to complete the turning of a section before the momentum runs out so the forms feels more fluid. He advises that unlike in his studio, the glazing and making spaces should be separated so it’s easier to keep the space tidy when holding workshops.
Our last stop off was the showroom. Here you can see the rewarding results of the months of hard work – jugs, tankards, yunomi, casserole dishes, espresso mugs, plates, footed bowls, bowls without feet, butter dishes, utensil pots and so on in range’s subtle colour scheme of blue-backs, ash greens and tan with some tenmoku and tea-dusts scattered in between. Richard Batterham style, some of the outer rims of the lids have been left without glaze and a thin red iron oxide wash brushed over to encourage a toasted look. It’s clear Jason has been very much inspired by Batterham’s work. There is a collection of the pots in the kitchen and he speaks highly of the DVD ‘Richard Batterham – Master Potter’ produced by the Joanna Bird Foundation which I’m currently trying to get my hands on. I too have been drawn to Batterham’s gorgeously balanced vessels with their lines of blue-green glaze and toasted, unglazed clay in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre collection. Similar to our visiting potter Stefan Andersson at HDK and Phil Rogers glaze recipes, Braham uses a glaze recipe with the proportions 2:2:1 for many of his glazes, using the three glaze ingredients of a feldspar (usually potash), hyplas 71 ball clay and mixed wood ash. To encourage bursts of iron in the body sometimes rust has been sieved and added to the clay. The stoneware clay is often a French clay from close to La Borne which is also favoured by Micki Schloessingk.
In the afternoon we paid a visit to another salt firing potter working in the area called Steve Harrison. Unlike Jason, Steve sells his work exclusively in Japan and lives most of the year making his work in London, coming down to mid-Wales only to fire. This set-up is common it seems, Deiniol Williams is a wood-firing potter who makes all his work in Yorkshire and returns to his family farm in west Wales to fire work a few times a year. Steve had just unpacked the contents of his last firing when we arrived, his wife Julia was rubbing off the wadding that has glued itself stubbornly to the bases of the pots with carborundum stones.
Steve, who was taught by Emmanuel Cooper, has devised an ingenious way of combining stoneware and porcelain, making delicate vessels with intricate handles and sprigs attached. While both potters salt fire, Steve’s method is a bit different to Jason’s as he uses a funnel which he calls a hopper though which the salt flows down a tube into the gas flame and instantly volatilises. Both potters appear to start putting in salt at about 1260C, at this point the glaze is fluid enough to be affected by it. Steve soaks are longer though, two hours usually instead of Jason’s half hour or so. It’s clear that Steve and Jason are part of a community of potters (including Phil Rogers) who have chose to situate themselves in this particular part of the country, working with similar processes but very different results. While Jason spent most of his career as a teacher and continues to invite groups to his studio for workshops, Steve’s focus since leaving art school was very much about pushing his work to a technical perfection and trying to make a living solely as a potter. Thinking about different kinds of websites in yesterday’s professional practice session we have two very different examples here – Jason’s as a shop and showcase for his enthusiasm to share skills and knowledge, and Steve’s as a very visual, interactive kind of gallery catalogue. I’m extremely grateful to both for their time and I hope I get the opportunity to try salt-firing one day. I’m still very drawn to learning about traditional firing methods and hope one day to build my own kiln.
Potter’s websites links: