Australian Woodfire Ceramics Conference
28 June – 1 July 2017

by Merrie Tomkins

Photos: Merrie Tomkins, Vicki Grima & Anna-Marie Wallace

When one hears mention of ‘Smoke on the Water’ you instantly think of Deep Purple strumming away on guitars whilst smoke drifts across a Swiss lake, back to the Woodstock days.

Well, it wasn’t quite Woodstock, but the small town of Cooroy, tucked away in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, became the gathering place for the 9th Australian International Woodfiring Conference, with 2017 being the first time it was held in Queensland. The conference is a triennial congregation held in the winter months, with new organisers and a new location each time.

Amidst magical weather in late June, 160 delegates, 20 artists and 30 volunteers enjoyed an extensive program. The pre-conference workshops, each filled to capacity, took place at Rowley Drysdale’s Quixotica studios and Tania Edwards’ Arcadia studio. At Quixotica, invited Korean artists Kim Jong Pil and Kim Se Wan offered an interactive hands-on workshop which involved demonstrations, making, loading and firing two anagama kilns. At Arcadia, Japanese artist Shirobey Kobayashi lead participants on a journey as they fired the newly-built anagama kiln.

Ceremonies in lighting the kilns were a highly entertaining mix of Japanese, Korean and Australian styles thrown together. Arcadia’s lighting ceremony was highlighted by Shirobey’s talented didgeridoo playing while over at Quixotica a Korean-style ceremony saw participants moving to the sound of the drum played by Singaporean artist Steven Low Thai Kwang whilst giving their blessings to the kiln gods. Participants were free to come and go from either studio allowing them to observe the kiln masters in action, Japanese and Korean.

Whilst the pre-conference workshop was in full swing some of the invited artists arrived early. Jennifer Halli (USA) and Todd Pletcher (USA) were eager to help in the building of the small kilns. Jiffy (Jeff Wainwright) surprised them by involving them in a spontaneous performance piece, making a sculpture in one minute, sticking a cracker in and ‘lighting the bugger’. The remnants were placed on display for all to see the next day. These are the things we do to entertain international artists.

The iconic Cooroy Butter Factory Arts Centre was the conference hub. On arrival delegates received a goodie bag with a ceramic mug handmade by Ray Cavill’s Clay School students. To be served wine, beer or any other beverage you had to pull out your potter’s mug – an environmentally friendly practice and a great conversation starter.

Demonstrations by guest presenters from USA, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Bali and Australia, including three potters from Darnley Island (Torres Strait) were held daily at the Butter Factory. Todd Pletcher pulled a few handles and Tim Christensen (USA) wove tales of his adventure across the Pacific to Australia by container ship. Talks by each of the guests were held in the local school presenting a window into their unique worlds.

A major highlight to the conference was the impressive exhibition of Gunter Schwarz’s private collection of International woodfired works – Lucien Koonce, Tom Charbit, Horst Kerstan, Jack Troy, Kumano Kuroemon, and Eric Knoche just to name a few. Maybe at the next conference he might pull out his Australian collection.

Evenings saw a street party with a live band, food vans, dancing, a Toyota Hilux Ute bar, a comedy night with Andrew Bryant’s Potters Party tale and the infamous Pot Quiz. Rob Barron, Derek Larsen (Japan/USA) and Su Hanna constituted one team and Neil Hoffman, Alix Brodeur (USA) and Kim Se Wan (Korea) the other with each battling out ‘who’s pot is this’, ‘Family Feud’ and a hilarious throwing competition on a child’s plastic pottery wheel toy, the aim being to replicate a Kim Jong Pil Edo tea bowl.

Down at the Aha Iti small kilns site, Anna-Marie Wallace demonstrated a technique using Australian native animal poo and fauna which left lush colours and marks on her saggar-fired wares. Isaac Patmore built the kiln to house Anna-Marie’s poo-filled saggars, while Grant Hodges fired up his mini cyber-slug kiln.

I demonstrated how to build small paper kilns using rolled newspapers and paper clay which the invited artists decorated. Heidi Kreitchet (USA) added beautiful flowers, Steven Low Thai Kwang decorated with bottles, and Todd Pletcher, who couldn’t get a handle on his handles, added a handle to his kiln along with a sneaky rocket. Using slip and sgraffito Tim Christensen painted a tawny frogmouth owl while Derek Larsen and Shirobey created a slip and sgraffito design to their kiln using long grass from nearby bushes. Jennifer Halli added a few firecrackers to her kiln for good measure. The kilns were then placed in kids’ plastic paddle pools filled with water. Rowley Drysdale filled one with ice and beer – an instant Esky.

The closing ceremony took place in front of a diverse crowd with the Gubbi Gubbi dancers performing, lighting fire the traditional way then passing the torch to the artists to light the small kilns … and viola … smoke on the water!

Many of us gathered the next day at Quixotica and Arcadia to view the opening of the big kilns. Treasures were bountiful with many sales. It was a magical day! Good byes were said, and with tears and hugs we farewelled yet another successful wood firing conference.

How will the next conference look? Will it be taken in a new direction and what will that entail? And most importantly, where will it be?

Photo: Anna-Marie Wallace,