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Visible Vapor with Ella Bendrups

Ella Bendrups’ exhibition Visible Vapor is a new departure in her practice. Known for her emphasis on form and texture, here, Ella has instead focused on experimental firing processes and surface patternation. Basic, hand-built forms have been used as blank canvases to absorb natural and chemical combustibles affecting unpredictable markings and colours.

We spoke with Ella to learn more about this new body of work, barrel firing as a technique and the direction this exhibition has pushed her practice.

Your new work is an experimentation with the alternative firing processes. What is barrel firing ? and what is involved?

Instead of applying glaze to a bisqued ceramic piece and firing it in a temperature controlled kiln, in barrel firing you layer bisqued pieces among combustibles such as small pieces of wood and sawdust in a standalone container (in my case a metal 44 gallon drum). The wood is set alight and after a number of hours burns away until there is just ash and the ceramic pieces at the bottom of the barrel. Subtle black and grey marks are created through carbon being captured in the surface of the ceramics and a variety of colours can also be achieved through the scattering of salt and metal oxides and some organic materials (like banana skin and corn husk) around the ceramics before firing. This alternative firing technique is a more modern take on the oldest form of firing, pit firing, which has dated examples from 29,000–25,000 BCE.

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What first drew you to experiment with this firing technique?
I first experimented with this technique in 2021 using the inside of an old washing machine drum as the container and firing with just wood and salt. I had purchased books on alternative firing techniques and was drawn to barrel firing as it didn’t require an expensive or time consuming set up and could yield really spectacular results.

Using this technique is a new step for me as in my practice I generally don’t apply glaze or surface colour of any kind, preferring to celebrate the clay body itself. Through barrel firing I’ve found an avenue to explore surface decoration in a manner that suits and excites me, one that is unpredictable and expressive.

Can you tell us more about the form used for your vessels and the power of repetition?
Unlike the bulk of my body of work where there is a focus on form and texture, I felt that a simple form would best showcase the surface patternation achieved in the barrel firing. This choice is also grounded in practicality, as a more intricate form would be more likely to crack or break during the firing process as the pieces do fall down and hit each other as the fire burns down the barrel. Repeating the same form in different sizes allowed the works to be visually grouped as a body of work while highlighting the individual surface patterns of each unique piece.

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Photographer: Henry Trumble

How has this firing technique pushed your practice?

I am still only at the beginning of my exploration of barrel firing and I have found it to be incredibly challenging and rewarding in equal measures. As much research and planning that happens prior to these firings, they’re still experiments and ultimately I have to fully surrender to the process, accepting the breakages and failures as well as the sometimes seemingly magical results. It feels like these pieces are more of collaboration with the elements than something that belongs 100% to me.

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Photographer: Isamu Sawa
View Ella's exhibition in the Vitrine Gallery