Fermynwoods Friday 38 – Pit Firing

Fermynwoods Pit Firing workshop was a communal ceramics experience led by Nita Nathwani in 2017. Our current Sudborough Green Lodge Coordinator Sophie Cullinan recalls the event and how the lineage of wild working activities informed some of our current Outdoor Institute of Art events.

The Fermynwoods Pit Firing in April 2017 was the last, most spectacular and my favourite of the Wild Projects series of artist networking events to take place at our rural workshop venue, Sudborough Green Lodge.

Wild Projects had evolved from the previous Sudborough Green Lodge Coordinator, Kenneth James Martin’s ‘Working Party’ days, whereby tasks needed to renovate the site were shared by volunteers who came throughout the day, providing a rich opportunity for diverse and interesting discussions between volunteers and artists of all disciplines.

When I took over the job, the site had been fully landscaped and no longer needed a regular team of labourers, allowing the day to morph into more of a networking event than a physical workout. Wild Projects explored many rural themes, including several apple days thanks to our abundant fruit trees.

The finale of the series was instigated by the ceramicist Nita Nathwani, and was to be an experimental venture for all in a very primal form of kiln construction.

In a nod to the old Working Party days, the first job involved the strenuous digging of two pits – far more enjoyable job than it sounds, with participants wielding a mixture of pickaxes and shovels to create enough depth in the earth for about forty ceramic items. As the whole lengthy process would need to be condensed into one day, Nita cleverly did a bit of a ‘Blue Peter’, producing several pots she had made earlier and allowing us to experiment with wrappings of plant and man-made materials plus a varied array of glazes. One participant had brought her own ceramics along; MA final project work requiring just this kind of pit firing. Another participant was attending as a Mother’s Day gift.

The pots were later buried in the pits, below alternating layers of sawdust and palette wood. As the firing process would take several hours, Nita had also provided a speedier version – a galvanised incinerator that we layered using identical methods and materials, which was fired at the same time. This meant that it would be possible to experience the whole process in one day, and have something to take home at the end. The added bonus was that it was possible to cook baked potatoes in a rack over the top of the incinerator!

Once covered over, the pits burned intensely for several hours, late into the night, and still contained burning embers in the morning. It took several hours to excavate all the cooked pots, some of which seemed to be hiding in the deep recesses of the earth. But each time it was like finding a small present – super exciting!

Our current Outdoor Institute of Art programme features two descendants from these pilot Wild Project workshops. Wild Sharing, hands-on artist-led, skill sharing workshops; and Wild Learning, which delves into the theoretical underpinning of practice. Both of which continue to offer a uniquely Wild Education.

Sophie Cullinan

Sophie Cullinan curated Wild Projects from 2013 to 2017.

Look out for more Fermynwoods Friday posts each week looking back on some of our favourite projects over the past 20 years of Fermynwoods Contemporary Art.