Last week we had the pleasure of hosting local ceramist and our dear friend Brian Croney for a lecture at our concept store. With handmade cups and inspiration books in tow, Croney spoke about wood firing, a consuming process that begins with sourcing and making his own clay, and ends with shoveling ash from his kiln after forty-eight sleepless hours of uninterrupted firing.
It all started with an ancient tea bowl. When Croney was very young, his brother returned from a trip to Japan with a tea bowl stuffed in his suitcase. It had been given to him by a monk he had met during his travels. The bowl, made for frothing matcha in tea ceremony, dated back to the 16th century. Wide and primeval, there was something about it that yearned to be touched, observed and remembered. Years later that same tea bowl is a pivotal source of inspiration and Croney, now a successful ceramist based in Fishtown and rural Pennsylvania, is still determined to make a tea bowl as beautiful as that one. The years have brought with them an apprenticeship with ceramist Jeff Shapiro, a successful pottery business, and an enduring fascination with the complexities of wood firing.
As opposed to traditional ceramic firing, which uses a kiln powered by electricity, Croney fires his pieces using firewood, preferring the unpredictable sensibility that comes from introducing elements like ash and smoke into raw clay. With strategic placing, those natural elements bring shine, color and texture to his pieces without a single wick of glaze. Because the process is completely natural and handmade, no piece looks exactly the same. Wood firing complements Croney's aesthetic: the resulting pieces hold a raw, almost primitive quality that recall the halls of Beowulf.
After learning about the organic spontaneity of wood firing, it's difficult to think of the pieces as just plain works of pottery. With their textured finishes and undulating shapes, they seem almost like live forms set in clay. Listen to Croney talk about his work and you'll often catch him referring to his cups as they. After the lecture, an audience member confided that she had picked up one of his display pieces in the store on a day leading up to the event, and been compelled to smell it. "I don't know why," she confessed, "but I expected an earth-like scent."
Today, Croney still considers the cup to be "the most intimate object" because it touches both your hands and your lips. Though the beauty of his pieces is undeniable, he stressed the importance of remembering to look at the unglazed base of the cup's foot. From an artist's mark to a throwing detail, it's a space where the personality and handmade nature of the cup shines through.
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS SETTY