Tony Moore: Painting With Fire

Wood-fired ceramics is an ancient art.  Fire has been used for millennia throughout the world and in almost every culture to harden clay in to utilitarian vessels and culturally significant objects.  Often the objects have been used in ritualistic or spiritual ways to embody the beliefs of a culture.  Its makers, though representing traditional archetypes, have often incorporated their own personal or idiosyncratic iconography in to the objects they make.  Each maker’s characteristic hand or tool-mark is present, whether made by an individual, collective group or machine.   Clay, a seemingly elemental material, continues in the 21st Century to be used for increasingly sophisticated ends.  


In wood-firing, I endeavor to use different types of clay-bodies and firing processes for creative needs.  

Clay is the material, the kiln is the tool, and fire and heat is the vehicle for its transformation in to a unique object —- for in wood-firing, no two objects can be the same.   


Wood-firing is both an elemental and yet incredibly complex process of using different clay-bodies, different types of kilns, temperatures, firing processes and even different types of wood, to achieve different effects.  Think of the kiln as a crucible where chemical changes take place.  Think of the clay as both the material and the ground were the fire and molten wood ash, drawn through the kiln, is painted onto its surface —- then one might think of the wood-fire process as “Painting with Fire”.  



More than forty years ago while in high school, I was absorbed by the sensuous nature of clay passing through my finger tips on a potter’s wheel.  I was also intrigued by the apparent meditative nature of its cyclical rotation.  
One was not only centering a lump of “mud/earth” and bringing it to life through its forming, but one was also centering and creating one’s self.  I painted, sculpted in various materials and formed clay, but clay was preeminent.  



In the UK (my native home) I spent four years after high school at a progressive Art College where I investigated the creative technology of utilizing many tools, materials and creative processes.   Large assembled/fabricated sculptures dealing with phenomenological cycles of nature became my modus operandi.   My interest in one’s relationship to the object, whether physical, psychological, or perhaps spiritual (ritualistic) became apparent.   


At Yale graduate school I built many environments that investigated interior and exterior relationships of the self, space and others.  Eventually, walls, doors, mirrors and passageways of transition were broken down into objects/surfaces resembling stage flats, existing in three-dimensional space, like sculptures, or against the wall as paintings.  Often one’s perceptual thoughts moved back and forth between tangible material forms and fictional illusionistic space.  

Titles such as “Theory Landscape: The Relationship of Man and God” epitomized worldly and philosophical concerns.  The cyclical perception of the viewer to the object, to the space, the projection of one’s self into and beyond the space —- and back again —- perhaps had its perceptual roots in my meditative perceptions of the turning potter’s wheel.   


After Yale I lived in NYC for twenty five years.  I had made mixed media sculpture for about fifteen years and then painted for another fifteen before returning —- through circuitous means —- to my humble beginnings, sliding wet clay between my fingers on a potter’s wheel.  The elemental self coupled with the humble and seemingly elemental clay suggested new beginnings, just as transitioning from sculpture (tangible space) to painting (intangible, fictional space) had created an impetus for renewal and regeneration.  Making a transition in a physical way often moves one’s perceptual level of understanding to new heights.  One could say, “It’s invigorating”.  



With my renewed involvement with clay came a love relationship with my future wife and life-partner, Cynthia Ligenza.  In 1998 we moved to the Hudson Valley where on a mountaintop property I built a studio, gallery and wood-fire kiln.   


Since my re-introduction to clay I had avidly explored new processes, first with my friend, the potter Ragnar Naess at the 92nd St. NY in NYC and then with Pascal Chmelar via his Anagama wood-fire kiln in the Catskills.  

Those experiences invigorated me to investigate and learn from many of the established wood-fire ceramic artists who are operative in the Tri-State region and beyond, including Jeff Shapiro, Peter Callas, Joy Brown, Tim Rowan, Roger Baumann, Jane Herold, Paul Chaleff, Jack Troy and others.  My relationship with Kenton Baker and Beverly Fisher of Lancaster, PA was particularly fruitful.   


I fired with Ken and Bev for several years until I could build my own kiln.  This was designed by them to meet my specifications which were based on several innovative kilns they had previously built.  



In 2003 the 18ft long hybrid Anagama-Noborigama Japanese style kiln was completed.  While this double chambered cross-draft kiln is likened to traditional Asian kilns it has many unique and innovative properties.  To mention a few: My pre-requisites were that the kiln would not be too large to fill with work on a regular basis, but large enough to also incorporate the works of participants and ceramic artist/potters from the community — for one cannot fire a kiln such as this on one’s own.  It requires a team of participants — a community of friends — to help prepare wood, to load/unload and to fire the kiln.  (See  


The very idea of “community” and “tradition” is in fact a significant aspect of the ceramic world and particularly wood-firing that I enjoy.  Unlike the traditional “art world”, of which I have been an active member for many years, the “world” of ceramics instilled in me the value of the collective community.  There is an indebtedness to others, in that what one knows and has learned is passed on from generation to generation.  There is a sense that one does not own knowledge, but willingly passes it on.  The idea of “community” is therefore not just pragmatic, but timeless.  Socially and philosophically it enriches one’s feeling of being an integral part of the continuum.   


The fine art world and the Avant-garde tradition, in contrast, often strives to break with the past.   


I have my feet, so to speak, in both camps.  I am an artist currently working with clay (a traditional medium) and using wood-firing (an ancient technique) to address contemporary, yet timeless issues of the human condition.  Most recently these have been concerned with socio-political events and the Iraq War.  

While a thesis could be written about the functioning of this kiln, there are several noted features.  The kiln is a cross-draft — that is, the draft, fire and air, cross the interior length of the kiln from the front air intakes (ports) to the base of the chimney, exiting vertically through the stack.  On its way, the kiln is played like a musical instrument.   


If one were to use the analogy of a trumpet with wind blown into one end, with valves opening and closing and air/sound expelled at the other end, one might get an idea of how a kiln might be fired.  It’s the amount of air (oxygen), or lack of oxygen that is drawn into the kiln through the front and side air ports, the opening or closing of these ports and dampers (like valves) coupled with the combustion of fuel (wood) by the fire, that creates the end result.   


The fire within a kiln can also be likened to the turbulence of a raging stream or the languid flow of a meandering river.  The former analogy suggests rapidly moving white water as it flows around and between rocks and boulders in a stream.  In a similar way, when the kiln is firing at full speed (high temperature/+ or – 2350 F.), with the rapid introduction and combustion of fuel and air/oxygen, then the fire is in full turbulence moving around and between the objects in the kiln.   


As the fire moves it not only interacts with the chemical composition of the clay, but deposits on its surfaces the fluxed/melted particles of ash drawn by the draft, racing through the kiln.  Therefore, how one loads the kiln and where objects are placed is of particular relevance to the imparting of ash and “fire-color” on to their surfaces.  Likewise, a slow eddy of fire and ash might give visually calmer/softer results.  



I am often asked whether wood-fired results are arbitrary or made by chance.   My answer is at least twofold.   The first is that wood-firing is an organic and elemental process in the sense of it using the base elements of clay (earth/water), air (oxygen), wood (fuel) and fire (combustion/energy) interacting within the kiln.   The interrelationship of these elements and how one manipulates them is crucial to the end result.   One uses knowledge and intuition based on past results.
 It is also rather like the artist Jackson Pollock dripping paint.  While Salvador Dali might have used a small brush, surely the parameters of control are only a matter of degrees.  Whether driving a VW Bug or a Mack truck they are both steered toward one’s destination.   


Through wood-firing I intend to dust the surfaces of my sculptures with ash and to impart fire-color to their forms.  The rest is history.   


Tony Moore

Written on the occasion of the solo exhibition “Painting with Fire”, White Plains Gallery, Westchester Community College, White Plains, NY.  2007


Tony Moore’s work is represented in international museum collections, including the Guggenheim Museum and Brooklyn Museum, USA and the Yorkshire Museum and Derby Museum, UK.  The British-American artist is the recipient of a Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, CAPS Grant and Sally and Milton Avery Fellowship.  He received his MFA in Sculpture from Yale University.  After 25 yrs of work in NYC, Moore moved 50 miles north to Cold Spring in the Hudson Valley.  In 1998, on a mountaintop property above the Hudson River he built an 18 ft long hybrid Anagama-Noborigama (Japanese style) wood-fire kiln.  “His unique clay sculptures are arduously fired for one week in the kiln, which allows for the maximum flexibility in firing temperatures and optimizes both controlled and accidental impact from ash and other by-products of the wood-firing process.  The transformation of clay through the alchemy of heat is metaphorically linked to his interest in all aspects of human existence, the actual demonstration of the interaction between flesh and spirit.”  Vivian Goldstein