Kiln Projects: Material and Process Experiments in/of the Landscape



The kiln works from 1979 to 1992 were inspired by a wide range of natural and conceptual ideas. Originating from my studies of geology and oceanography as a student in the late 1960's (this research is still very much ongoing) the materials of sculpture and ceramics are perceived and worked with from the viewpoint of natural origin, process and scale; dolomite, kaolin, feldspar, etc., existing a powders in the glaze room made up rock formations I had studied in nature.  This adjustment of scale and context was further informed by a strong interest in the work of 19th century landscape artists such as Turner, Homer and Kennsett.   In graduate school at Humboldt State University in the early 1970's I was especially intrigued by the nighttime firing of an older salt kiln by another student.  Flames were pouring out of numerous spaces that had opened up between the bricks and around the loosely stacked door – I realized from that experience that the firing itself was for me the real thing and that the objects inside were essentially “residue’ of that event, of more or less interest but not at the heart of the matter, it took me another 6-7 years to figure out how to engage this idea fully . 


Teaching at the University of Kentucky in the mid- 1970's I focused on the residue aspect of the firing – an analog to fossilization, the kiln burning out organic material, straw, twigs, pinecones, etc., was an accelerated fossilization process, and with the ship works of the time they represented the idea of a voyage into the unknown ("like Antarctica," was the phrase I used at the time), the zone of 2000 degrees F, the ships were extensions of myself into that space that could not be directly experienced.  I set up numerous structures designed to collapse during the firing, clays near their fusing point, burning out of organic structural materials, etc.  This was also inspired by the emphasis on chance that I perceived from Japanese ceramics and the Shinto-inspired attention to nature in their work, wood ash, objects being fired over and over again.  Also during this time a friendship with the New York conceptual artist, Dennis Oppenheim was begun, he was a visiting lecturer at UK,  we had numerous conversations about earthworks, process, conceptual strategies, etc., this began a long friendship that still continues. 


In 1979 I was invited to University of Notre Dame to work for a week in their large field-house, here I did the first experimental kiln work, Fired Earth Piece, a simple 20 ft long kiln in the shape of a boat hull made of stacked bricks about 6 rows high with a suspended Kaowool top and no bottom.  I was interested in seeing how the native earth would react to ceramic temperatures. I made a point of not knowing the "cone" that the kiln reached, I basically inserted one burner at one end of the kiln and walked away, purposely trying to let thing happen and defuse the overt (I thought) emphasis on specific temperatures and control – I wanted things to be out of control, more like nature. In 1980 I too a trip to the big island of Hawaii specifically to see the active volcanoes and lava flows… lava flooded forest, Kilauea Crater (Sheridan Volcano House).


This attitude first found its expression in a series of ceramic landscapes and objects of the early to late 1970's that got larger and larger approaching outdoor scale.  These relationships were further expanded in the 1980's to early 1990's into a body of work utilizing site-generated kilns as instruments of experimentation, performance and transformation of natural materials in the landscape. An important property of the kiln projects that has informed later work is an unleashing of natural force or substance such as fire, weather or sediment in a enclosed structure, like a scientist's test-tube or retort,  allowing the forces to have their own voice and create a visual engagement between the artist/observer and that force.  Regarding the firing of a kiln project I noted in an earlier essay:


Since 1979 a series of experimental kiln projects have been completed in various sites in both America and Canada.  These projects attempt to present the kiln, an instrument of change, as having its own quality as an associative object or force, as well as an investigative tool for exploring the process of change and products generated by that process.


The kilns are constructed as specific images out of high temperature insulating blanket made of clay fibers suspended from inside a metal armature.  Heat is produced from propane powered burners that generate temperatures of over 2000ľ F.  The firings occur at night when the kiln can become a glowing effigy as light from the heat is transmitted through its surface.


Most of the kilns are bottomless, beneath which a surface is often prepared with glaze materials that melt to form other imagery of fused materials revealed when the kiln is removed either at the peak of the firing (as in Land Monitor/Fired Volcanic Boulder) to show the molten state or upon cooling (as in Prairie Starfish/Glacial Epoch) to show a solid, glass-like state.  This image is related to the kiln itself by form alone but also through the materials being subjected to the dynamics of heat movement and intensity, causing chance mutations, flows and blendings.  In the Wave Kilns #1 and #2, the kiln bottom is sealed to that the glowing image, a "mold of heat." is the result.  In Mountain Kiln/Black Orchid, a central "throat" or opening is the bottom of the fused "Orchid" serves as part of the image as well as part of a draft system for the burners connected underground to a remote flue.


The kilns are designed from a knowledge of principals about heat flow, from conceptual ideas and from an intuitive point of view.  The kiln's operation and results are only partially predictable and are allowed "a mind of their own."  When successful, a firing can approach an irrational point, the verge of losing control, and a metaphor is suggested of the unconscious in a primitive or vulnerable state where time becomes emotion, chemistry spirit and matter theater.


            John Roloff, Kiln Projects, Artery, William Paterson College, February/March, 1983, pg. 6



A complete listing of the kilns and directly related projects:


Fired Earth Piece, University of Notre Dame, 1979,
Encased Piece, San Francisco, 1979,
Small Fiber Kiln
, San Francisco, 1979,
Land Monitor/Fired Volcanic Boulder, J Volcano, Albuquerque, NM, 1980,
Prairie Starfish (Glacial Epoch)
, Craven, Saskatchewan, 1980,
Drawing: Tributary Furnace, 1981-86
Mountain Kiln/Black Orchid, Oakland, CA, 1982,
Wave Kiln No. 1, No. 2
, Oakland, CA,
No. 3, San Francisco, CA, 1982,
Coral Orchid, Oakland, CA, 1983
Wave Ship (of Fire)
, Detroit, MI, 1984,
Drawing, Study:
In-Situ Vitrification Project, Gas Works Park, Seattle, WA, 1984,
Collision: Lava Ship/Trellis Ship
, San Rafael, CA, 1985
Ancient Shoreline/Island for Lake Lahontan
, Reno, NV, 1985
Obsidian Terrace (Seabird Caves)/Shellmount (White Forest), 1985-7Signal Caldera/Shell Flow (Ohlone Shore), 1985-7
Taking Tree
, Reno, NV, 1987,
Vanishing Ship (Greenhouse for Lake Lahontan), 1987,
Untitled (Earth Orchid)
, Hartford, CT, 1988,
Oculus: Emerson/Beebe, No. 1 & 2, Santa Barbara, CA, 1988
Oculus: Dead Sea/Oil Field, Arvada, CO, 1989,
Humboldt Ship
, Arcata, CA, 1989,
Drawing, Study: Falling Knight Furnace/ Forest
, 1990,
Drawing, Study: Wissinger Tomb Furnace/Orchard, 1990,

Drawing, Study: Orchid Eclipse (Spherical Furnace with Slowly Closing Refractory Petals),
Video Installation, 51 Million BTU's / Metabolism Study / C3H8, e-, NaCl, 1991
Metabolism and Mortality/O2, Elkins Park, PA, 1992,
Rotting Flame, Oakland, CA, 1994, Photo/Orange pieces, Oakland, CA, 1994-5,
Draped Flames,
Manchester Guild, Pittsburgh, PA, 1995
Process/Photo works, 1995-96
Pitzer Project:  a Prototype System for the Production and Distribution of Ancient Sunlight, Claremont, CA 1996,
Novum Organum (Two Suns), 1998Drawings:
Wrangelia I & II
, Seattle, WA, 2000.



John Roloff, 2004