ALCHEMY – noun (‘æl k∂ mi)
- A form of chemistry or speculative philosophy, practiced in the Middle Ages & the Renaissance, concerned principally with discovering methods for transmuting baser metals into gold, finding a universal solvent, & producing an elixir of life.
- Any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.
- Any seemingly magical process of transforming or combining elements into something new.
Such a fantastic word, alchemy; to many it conjures up magical imagery of vast possibilities, limitless outcomes, & untold treasures awaiting discovery…
To me, the Saggar Firing process must be one of the best examples of this. Taking base organic matter & transforming it into something transcendent, something more than just the sum of its parts. Creating an artefact that speaks of its origins but outshines them immeasurably.
The process itself is a whimsical, erratic, often volatile, & always moody affair; it is definitely not for the faint hearted! It is almost completely unpredictable, only slightly persuadable (at best), with outcomes so varied & usually unrepeatable that most dismiss it as folly. But it is here in the unknown where we learn the most, perched uncomfortably somewhere between our a priori knowledge & our a posteriori knowledge (where most of us spend too little time), that is where the magic happens.
As a very organised, disciplined, & focused person, used to working with materials that did mostly as they were expected throughout my life as a product designer, you can imagine that getting to know the capricious medium of clay was a new kind of challenge. It took me beyond the solely technical concerns & obstacles, it tested my will, made me question what my purpose was, & invited me to reasses what my intentions were. Working with clay alone introduces so many variables, so many steps in every part of the process, leading to so many opportunities for failure or variation in outcome. Combine that with the unpredictable & often elusive results achieved from firing only with the unrefined oxides & minerals found in foraged ingredients, extracted by fire, time, & often muttered prayers, & you have a recipe for a nervous breakdown. What level of insanity must a person harbour to actively choose the most temperamental & inconsistent medium of all media known to humankind, & then team it with the unpredictability of firing with scat & other organic waste materials? (I ask myself that question often…but I’m not sure I really want an answer!)
When I first started Saggar Firing, I tested every native Australian organic material I could get my hands on over a period of around 6 months. Quandong, Kutjera, Geraldton Wax, Saltbush, you name it, I set fire to it! I had so many failures…& successes too, but generally a lot more failures. (Read; a failure rate that would make most people just give up.) But what I noticed with every defeat, every revised test, every adaptation & transformation in temperature, firing time, material combination etc. was that I learned more about myself with every firing.
Working with this unorthodox approach for so many years has of course taught me many things about the technical nuances of my craft, but it has also taught me many more important lessons; like personal resolve, perpetual patience, & awareness of my attachment to outcomes. Most importantly it has taught me to let go, to relax into the unknown, & to focus less on the end result & more on enjoying the process of creating something with my hands. Saggar Firing is, for me, a magical process transmuting a common substance of little value, into a substance of great value, both physically & metaphorically. It is pure alchemy.
Life lessons really can come from the most unexpected of places. ♥ Anna-Marie
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