Burning Stuff, Art Waste, Ethical Foraging, and Environmental Impact.

Raku burning in a metal reduction chamber with newspaper and sawdust

There’s a lot to unpack in this blog post. As my methods of making continue to expand, I’ve been re-evaluating the ecological ethics of my art practice. Something that always plays on my mind is the sustainable nature of my artwork in relation to pollution and climate change. It’s one of those silent killers that we either pretend doesn’t exist or we try to do our best while still living our consumer-driven lives. We are ALL consumers – everything from fashion, technology, tools, toys, sporting goods, transport, food, building materials… EVERYTHING we manufacture has an ecological impact. It’s a constant battle and unfortunately, as a global society, we are doing a poor job of slowing it down. This raises some questions regarding my ceramics work and what I can use for fuel to fire my pottery.

Oil and coal are unsustainable and non renewable fuel sources. LPG (gas for raku) is also not renewable but at least it’s cleaner to burn and its sustainable nature is currently debatable. Raku is a fast burning method (less than 30 min per session) so I feel slightly better about that.

Wood is probably the most sustainable and renewable but not clean burning. I love the look of old pottery and using primitive pit firing techniques. I’m new to pit-firing and I don’t burn masses of wood in a giant hole for a day. I’m limited to throwing a few logs of wood in our small, backyard drum fire for a quick natural glaze session. Spending time with loved ones, away from digital screens, which helps with my mental health and swapping a form of light/heat (electricity) during this process, abates some of my waste guilt. I’m also pro-sustainable forestry. You’d be surprised to know that recycled paper products can actually produce a greater carbon footprint (in terms of collection and manufacturing) versus papers made from sustainably sourced wood. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t buy recycled paper products, but suggest taking the overhyped marketing that promotes it as the “greenest” option with a grain of reality salt. A combination of reduce, reuse and recycle works best for me.

Pit fire pottery with wood fuel, garden waste and copper wire scraps.

Electricity is the most effective burning method but it’s also the most expensive and time consuming by comparison. I try to limit my (old and dying) electric kiln use for bisque firing and the odd low-fire glaze. I’ll be focusing more on traditional techniques in the near future.

When it comes to my carbon footprint on this planet, in relation to my art practice, I try to be conscious of the resources I consume and the pollution that these firings can produce. I’m not perfect… no one is (as mentioned above, we all consume to some degree). I live in the real, modern world – just doing my best in my current environment with the tools and processes that I have available to me. I also don’t own a car and ride my bicycle everywhere. Living in a city (that is still majorly designed for cars!) and risking my life every day to commute to work has got to count for some green points, right?

I do believe that plastic and single-use product pollution is a big, pressing concern to our environment and during my art studies in a rat-race city university, I was shocked to see how much art waste ends up in the landfill. A tip for first year students: please reconsider using concrete to make temporary art. Your ideas are not groundbreaking and its terrible for the environment (I won’t quote statistics, there is plenty of research available explaining why concrete sucks).

Ceramic and mixed-media work by Karen Wilde, 2022 (working title).

By producing long lasting ceramic/mixed-medium objects and recycling materials where I can, I’m doing my best to implement small changes to reduce some of my ecological and environmental concerns. Here are a few examples of how I run a more sustainable art practice:

Collecting and reusing both eco and plastic packaging for either repackaging artworks, protecting and covering works in progress, fuel for raku firings and reduction burning. I’m lucky that my household is as zero waste as possible when it comes to plastic pollution, we favour cardboard packaging if available and do all the usual eco-friendly options: bulk bin foods, reusable cups/bottles etc. We also grow our own veges and lead a fairly minimalist lifestyle when it comes to consumables. I’m not the most fashionable person either and prefer thrift stores when I need new clothes to help reduce fast-fashion waste. Yes, I know this recycled packaging and clothing will eventually end up in landfill but getting a few more uses out of a non-sustainable products is my main goal.

Recycling clay and glaze wastewater. While this does take more effort than I would prefer, it’s worth it to help keep (potentially) toxic wastewater going down the drain and clay from clogging up the pipes.

Collecting my copper wire offcuts, organic garden waste and some food scrap waste for natural pit fired glazes. I also recycle spent coffee grounds and homemade grog (from failed projects) into my clay bodies and glazes. I collect beach glass waste during my coastal walks to recycle into glaze mediums and occasionally incorporate site-specific materials such as sand and iron rich slip into my ceramic sculptures. I also use a few found objects from my surrounding environments as organic clay tools, such as weathered oyster shells and dried leaves to create underglaze stencils. I’m mindful of not taking too many objects from nature (and nothing of cultural importance or protected by conservation), leaving our coastlines and forests in a naturally healthy state.

I was saddened to read a recent article about the theft of a 23 million year old whale fossil from the bank of a west coast river. Grossly removing a precious taonga/treasure from its local visitors (without iwi permission) and creating an unnatural looking site with the use of a rock saw. That’s not to say I promote banning the discovery of small treasures in the wild. I’d be very excited to find a mini fossil in a stone or a small piece of petrified driftwood. There is also a part of me that wants to see this dinosaur fossil in a museum (which raises a whole bunch of ethical questions about stolen artefacts and their origins). I strongly believe there needs to be balance and harmony in how we treat our local lands. A way that allows future generations to enjoy te taiao and mahinga kai (the natural environment and gathering resources from these important places). Perhaps there should already have been better protection laws in place? I think that if you have to use heavy duty power tools to extract something of significant value (both monetary and historical value) – you should be asking permission and not ignorant forgiveness. The damage caused can’t be undone.

Aftermath of stolen fossil removed with power tools. Image courtesy of Stuff

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