Signpost featured artist: Michael Prokos
Michael Prokos in his Placitas studio
Wood-fired kiln in Tres Piedras, New Mexico
|Orange Bottle, wood-fired kiln ceramic vessel
||Tea Bowl, wood-fired kiln ceramic vessel
Playing with wood fire: The timeless ceramics of Michael Prokos
For centuries, artists have valued the beauty that exists in nature. Following the Renaissance, a work of art was judged largely on the extent to which it represented nature faithfully. But there is a difference between using nature as a guide, even reproducing its grandeur in two or three-dimensional form, and harnessing nature’s most powerful elements to create art—as is the case in wood-fired ceramics.
Placitas artist Michael Prokos was among the first artists to experiment in wood firing in our state, and the organic and sometimes rough appearance of his works bare the very process by which they were made. For 1,000 years, the Japanese have appreciated the natural, sometimes elemental, beauty that wood-firing enables. Such an aesthetic took centuries to catch on in America but is enjoying a Renaissance in New Mexico, where there are currently at least ten wood-fire kilns, all of which have emerged in the last twelve years.
Prokos helped build New Mexico’s first wood-fire kiln—modeled after a Japanese Anagama kiln—in Madrid in 1999, when there were only about a dozen wood-fire kilns in the country.
Wood-firing—the oldest firing method—necessitates community, as the process can take up to ten days, during which time, the kiln must be stoked every few minutes. As one person can’t possibly tend to a kiln every few minutes, day in and day out, a group of artists must band together. The finished products are the creations of individual artists, but their existence is predicated on a partnership between various artists working toward a common goal.
During a several-day firing, the kiln will slowly reach the desired temperature of about 2,350 degrees. While this temperature could be achieved in about a day, a slow-rising temperature ensures that the wood ash thoroughly coats the ware. To explain wood-firing, Prokos has developed a helpful analogy: “I think of it as a river, the pots are stones, the fire and the ash are the water flowing through.”
Glazing has become synonymous with ceramics, but the glazing that occurs during a wood firing entails much more than painting a clay piece and placing it in a kiln. The ash that moves through the kiln as you stoke the front is called “fly ash,” and it bonds to the silica in the clay to create a natural, oftentimes textural, glaze. Prokos stacks the kiln according to the firing effects he wishes to achieve; sometimes he positions his pieces so that one protects another from the ash, or strategically places rice stalks and sea shells on a clay body for a sought-after effect. Small, high alumina clay pieces that are resistant to the wood ash support each clay piece to ensure that every object within the kiln doesn’t fuse.
Although Prokos enjoys seeing the “happy accidents” that take place during the course of a firing, he has a good idea of what a piece is going to look like before examining the final product. Over the years, Prokos has done about thirty wood firings and has become familiar with the interactions between particular types of wood and types of clay bodies, the amount of reduction and oxidation in the kiln, and the chemistry of both the clay bodies and the wood ash. Even with all this knowledge, though, Prokos maintains that you “have to release control. Let the kiln do its work.”
Sculptural and often utilitarian, Prokos’s work complicates and blurs all traditional distinctions between fine art and crafts. His tea bowls, for example, are functional objects inspired by those traditionally used in tea ceremonies. In Japan, such bowls are highly revered art forms. If one views these tea bowls in light of their context, their spiritual function can not be separated from their aesthetic, and they become objects with visual, historical, and practical value—objects that defy being branded as either craft or fine art.
The tea bowls offer an obvious connection to the Zen tradition, but much of Prokos’s work is in fact rooted in a sort of Zen mentality. Prokos says, “Part of the aesthetic in wood firing is not having full control over the results, the Zen idea of letting things be how they are. Set up some things and hope that you get what you’re looking for. Release a bit of your desire.”
There is a powerful beauty conveyed through Prokos’s style and medium, as if the moments endured during the many days spent inside the fiery, ash-filled kiln—the ash bonding itself to the clay, spreading itself slowly but surely along the curves of the clay body—are worn permanently by the finished piece. The piece itself and the centuries-old process it underwent are indelibly connected. Some pieces emerge from the kiln looking quite polished, even controlled. But others, Prokos explains, “actually can have a certain type of abstract beauty that’s hard for me to describe.” Indeed, Prokos’s own aesthetic instincts and intentions, coupled with the vital forces at play in a wood firing, endow his works with a coarse, almost primordial quality.
Michael works full-time as a ceramist and is a thirteen-year resident of Placitas. His work was recently published in the book 500 Raku: Bold Explorations of a Dynamic Ceramics Technique. It is carried in national and international collections and can be viewed at the Weyrich Gallery (weyrichgallery.com) and the Chicago Art Source (chicagoartsource.com). You can also visit www.placitasartists.com/m_prokos/.