Kristine Aguilar at the Cerdeira Home for Creativity

The North-West Ceramics Foundation was recently able to support Kristine Aguilar’s workshop opportunity at the Cedeira Home for Creativity in Serra de Lousã, Portugal, through the Maureen Wright Bursary. Below please find an excerpt from the fascinating report  she wrote for us. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Kristine for her account and to wish her all the best on her future projects, which will undoubtedly be all the more exciting given her remarkable experience.

About an hour’s drive east of Coimbra, [Portugal] Cerdeira Home for Creativity is situated in the mountains of Serra de Lousã, in an old schist village by the same name. The oldest record of the village’s existence is from the late 1600s, though it is suspected to be much older. . . . Driving into Cerdeira for the first time one wonders, how did humans ever get to this place before automobiles? As you drove on, the feeling of remoteness starts to set in with each hairpin turn up the steep mountainous road. At the end of the road is a small cobblestone parking lot with a chapel on one side of a valley that’s divided by a stream. Stepping out of the car, you are immediately struck with an incredible view of the schist village enveloped by trees. This storybook landscape seems so surreal that it is hard to imagine a place like this still exists in 2023. It appears to be untouched by modern society, yet at the same time, reminders of the present can be seen with the wind turbines that top the mountain ridges. To enter the village, one needs to walk from the parking lot and cross a small wooden bridge above a stream. Like in Zen Buddhist gardens, a bridge is symbolic of a gateway- once crossed you are transported into another world. With each step towards the village, time starts to slow down and as you get absorbed within the history and nature of place that you find yourself now in unity with the environment.

I am here for a 9.5 day workshop called, “Making Glazes from Rocks,” taught by Matthew Blakely. Matthew is a highly accomplished and internationally renowned potter from the UK who fires with wood and gas. Unhappy with the commercially available clay bodies in the UK, Matthew began to develop his own clay bodies, as well as glazes, from local materials he collects. In addition to our glaze experiments and lectures, we also had 3.5 days to make as much work as we can to fill the Sasukenei Smokeless wood kiln for a firing.

We started off the workshop by conducting various glaze tests with materials that some of the participants brought. We had German river clay, dirt from Stockholm, wood ash from New York, Mount St. Helens volcanic ash, just to name a few. The participants who didn’t bring any materials were given some from the Azores to test, which were collected by the amazing artist couple who run the ceramic studio at Cerdeira, Renato Costa e Silva and Kerstin Thomas.

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After 2 days, we had a chance to see how our glaze tests turned out. We fired them in an electric kiln at cone 10 just to get a sense for what the materials would do at temperature. Those that had interesting results, made bigger batches of glaze for the woodfire. Others were driven to research their materials further and made more tests.

On day 5, we had to glaze, wad and load the wood kiln all in the same day as the firing was to start the following morning. . . .  After glazing, we assisted Renato load the kiln. September is deer rutting season in these mountains. Every night, we heard the grunts and groans of male deer trying to call a mate. I don’t know if one could ever get used to these bewildering sounds- sometimes they sounded like cows, sometimes donkeys- which came at random intervals that occasionally caught you off guard. On this particular evening, the calls were so much louder than other nights since we were up until dawn bricking up the kiln door. Nevertheless, we got a chance to see some deer close by.

Kerstin and Renato had first heard about the Sasukenei smokeless kiln concept through another Portuguese potter who used one while he was working in China. After learning who designed the kiln, Kerstin and Renato invited Masakazu Kusakabe to build one at Cerdeira in 2015. If the name sounds familiar, it is because he is the same person who had also built the Umbu kiln that was previously at the Shadbolt Centre. The Sasukenei is not a new design for it is described in detail in Masakazu’s book that he co-wrote with Marc Lancet, called Japanese Wood-Fired Ceramics, published in 2005. . . .  Another design feature worth mentioning is the two oven ports on top of the firebox for cooking. Although it is too hot for pizza, Kerstin had roasted some apples with cinnamon during the firing and while the kiln was cooling, she baked us apple loaves.

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After firing the Sasukenei for 33 hours, we finally had some recovery time the next morning. Later in the day, Matthew gave more lectures on glazes, wild clay and about his own work. Matthew revealed that he originally went to school for medicine but then later changed majors and found himself in ceramics instead. This illustrates Matthew’s ability to explain the scientific workings of a glaze in such an approachable manner that’s easy to comprehend. I highly recommend taking a class with him if you can.

The following day, we unloaded the kiln. The results were quite varied as one would expect from a wood kiln. Some pieces got a good amount of ash while other pieces were dry or underfired due to the air that was unintentionally let in from the side stoke ports. For the remainder of the day, we knocked wads off our pieces, sanded, wrapped them up with newspaper and stuffed our work into our suitcases. In the evening, we had a little commemorative toast to end the course and say our goodbyes. The next morning, we all had to check out by 11am. Rolling my suitcase on the uneven shale path, I slowly made my way back to the little wooden bridge and crossed over to the other side of the stream anew.

For more information on the kiln, please see Masakazu Kusakabe and Marc Lancet, Japanese Wood-Fired Ceramics (Kraus Pub. 2005).

Kristine Aguilar

September 2023