Elena Renker is a German New Zealand ceramicist based in Okura, Auckland. Well known for her Shino wares, Elena uses a traditional home-built wood-fired kiln to make pots that are remarkably unique in their form and finish.
We visited Elena at her studio to find out how she developed her remarkable style.
Keegan: Do you think more and more day to day people are getting into pottery?
Elena: Definitely, yeah. More people want to do pottery. It’s absolutely crazy now. I’m the president of Auckland Studio potters so, I know this is our biggest pottery centre in NZ and we just can’t save ourselves from people wanting to..
K: Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?
E: I think it’s a good thing but it’s just hard to cope with it. There aren’t enough pottery schools and classes, it’s kind of frustrating.
K: How does the association try and deal with the lack of infrastructure?
E: We debated it for a long time and then we said we can’t be everything to everyone so we’re just going to stick with what we’re doing and you know, there’s just a limit. And we’re encouraging other people to start teaching classes and you know potters open up their studios to others
K: Are there school programs that you produce? I know in the past the government sanctioned some pottery schools
E: No they don’t do that anymore. And most schools don’t have pottery programs anymore. It’s too..I think health and safety and things like that.
K: Is it something you’d like to see? Kids getting into pottery?
E: Sure, that would be great but I can see that it’s just too difficult. I mean kilns are expensive..
K: Even wheels are expensive I guess..
E: Well you don’t even need a wheel, you can do hand building. You don’t need to do wheel work but it needs to be fired, and that’s just difficult.
K: I guess even getting the kiln time, even if someone had a kiln, you still have to pay for it
K: You’re not exactly going to teach it.
E: Yeah and you just need to have the whole setup and you need to have somebody who knows what they’re doing. I think it’s too difficult but it would be nice to see, you know there’s a lot of community centres and stuff that offer classes…but they just have electric kilns and they just do low-fired clay and you know…
K: Boring stuff…?
K: So you’re obviously traditional, you use fire as opposed to electric.
E: I have my wood kiln so..
K: Where do you gain that knowledge? Did you have to go to Japan?
E: No they have a wood kiln at Auckland city potters and so I did a few firings there and thought I really like that process so I said, you know I’ve got this space here in a rural area I can build a wood kiln so I went to Peter Lange and said, you know, I want to build a kiln do you have any idea how to go about it? He says “ohhhh I know this friend in Italy, he’s got a really good kiln I fired once when I was there, I’ll write to him and get some plans.” So he did, and we kind of went over them made a few changes, and then I just started building and Peter, I don’t know do you know Peter Lange?
E: So he’s one of the older potters there but he’s done a lot of brick sculptures, he’s got this computer program for brick building. He would email me step by step instructions, and then I’d do it a little bit like lego… you know I’d build it, take photos and go back to Auckland Studio Potters. And there’d be all the old potters sitting around and they’d say ‘ah yeah that’s good’ and ‘nah that’s not going to work’ so I’d dismantle it again, do it again, you know…until the kiln was built! And you know, then peter and another potter, they came and helped me with the first firing and it went ok and then after that I was on my own. You just…do it. You know you learn by doing it.
K: Yeah it’s not something you can just read a book about..
E: Well you can but in the end… it’s a little bit like sailing a boat. Like, when you sheet in, sheet out, are you at the right angle to the wind? Firing a kiln is a little bit like that. You have to look at the flame, you have to listen to it, you have to you know…the sound of the fire going through the kiln, you just have to watch it. You just have to experiment. As long as you have somebody there who tells you what to do and solves the problem for you you’re never going to learn. You’re gonna learn when you confront it. Temperature’s not going up…what could be going wrong. Do I need more air…less air…is it choked with embers or…is it too much draft, is it not enough draft. Am I putting too much wood on, not enough wood on, too big… Is the wood too big, too small, too wet, too dry..
K: Is it the right type of wood…?
E: Exactly. There’s so many variables in wood firing so you just have to…you learn. And every firing is different. Each time you have this feeling, oh my god it’s not going to go…
James: What variables affect how the colouring in the surface comes out?
E: A lot of it is how you, the type of wood you use, that has a big influence. The kind of clay… Also for example take these pots [pointing] here, that’s the same clay and glaze as that, but it was a different firing so in this firing, at the very end of the firing when I was up to temperature I loaded the firebox up with really fresh green wood, and shoved it down. And they all went white! I have no idea why or what happened…
K: This is the beauty of the flame. The beauty of the fire, you really don’t know…
J: Is it because of the smoke? The green one is going to smoke a lot more right?
K: Even then, it could be different the next time if you did exactly the same thing. This is the art of mastering the flame…
E: And you don’t know…you get so many unexpected results, which makes it really exciting and fun. You never get the same thing twice, you just don’t know what’s gonna happen..
J: That anticipation?
E: Yeah. Whereas with electrical, it’s very consistent, always exactly the same. Gas kiln…pretty much. A little less consistent because you have to manually increase the gas flow and you decide when you start reduction etc so it’s a little bit different but wood…it’s really different, it’s just so different. You have absolutely no idea what’s gonna happen.
K: I feel it’s the true art, you know. You can throw a beautiful bowl but to control the flame is the real art
E: Yeah and even just getting up there you know…1300°C is pretty hot! It’s not easy to get to that temp, u gotta have everything just right.
J: What’s the process in getting to that?
E: Mostly is just consistently putting wood on, but if you stoke a kiln…so when I fire I start in the front there with just a little fire and then I’ve got a fire box, it’s got rods going across a grate on the top, and I’ve got a door on the side that I put the wood on. And then the flame goes…I can show you out there.
[explaining how she controls the flame and sets up]
It’s a matter of controlling the fire, which I can do with dampers. By taking these bricks out you can introduce cold air into the chimney and that produces the draft. And I also have the active dampers I can pull in and out
J: So it really is like sailing a boat..
E: You look into the kiln and ‘cause you have little spy-holes – little bricks you can take out to look into the kiln – you can see the flames flowing through the kiln like water. And you need to look in there, ’cause if you want…I don’t know how much you know about firings but there’s two types of firing. You have oxidation firing and reduction firing. If you fire in oxidation that means there is oxygen in the kiln doing the firing which is usually electric firings, so you get completely different results – colours – in your pots if you fire in oxidation. Reduction means if you’re introducing so much fuel into the kiln, so much flame, that it sucks the air and oxygen out of the pot and the glaze. Which means e.g. if you have an iron glaze – a celadon – it’s a blue when it’s in reduction and yellow in oxidation, or if you have a copper glaze it’s green in oxidation and red in reduction so it’s like the opposite colour spectrum. And the clay body itself, if it’s in oxidation it’s often quite a pale, pasty sort of colour and in reduction it’ll go brown or orange. So it’s a completely different thing. Usually when you fire with a flame in the gas kiln or a wood kiln you want reduction. And so the reduction means you need to kind of fill this whole fire box full of flame.. When you’re pulling the spy-hole out you don’t want to be able to look in and see the pots, all you want to see is the flame. Hazy…slow moving…swirling flame.
K: And isn’t that a manageable level? You look at some of the Japanese masters and they have multiple chambers going on..
E: It’s pretty much the same thing, they fire one chamber after the other. It’s just a bigger kiln. Apart from the Anagama kiln. Anagama kiln is basically just a tunnel, and there’s no wall to divide the pots from the flame, so you get a lot more ash onto the pots. You fire it for 5 to 10 days. It’s a different effect, it depends on what you want. In an Anagama kiln traditionally you don’t glaze the pots, but the flame does the glazing so you fire for maybe 5 days or 10 days. You have ash landing on the pots and then it melts and then more lands and melts and it builds up like a layer. That’s what’s glazing the pots, it’s a completely different way of firing. But because I fire by myself and I work by myself I can’t fire for 5 days.
K: The Japanese would have an entire team dedicated…
E: Yeah it’s not just the Japanese, like a lot of western potters do it as well but you need a group. You need a firing group that quite often you have 10-15 people. I mean those kilns are massive…I was in the states earlier this year and firing a kiln with an old potter there and the kiln was about 6m long and it was high enough that you could stand up and 3m across you know it’s like…it takes a lot of pots to fill that kiln.
K: Is it riskier then? Realistically you could lose your entire body of work if you’ve buggered it up?
K: Haha! You seem to be quite content with that!
E: It’s a fact of life! Some potters say if you fire a kiln and get one really good pot out of it it’s a good firing. It’s like you just don’t know, you can never rely on it.
K: How often are you firing a year?
E: I fire about 5 or 6 times a year in the wood kiln, and then a few gas firings as well for porcelain stuff where the wood doesn’t really do anything. Porcelain doesn’t do anything with wood so it just stays white so there’s no point in putting it in the wood kiln.
K: Where are you sourcing your clay, is it local?
E: Most of the clay is not local actually. There are a couple of clay companies in NZ but they make the clay out of imported ingredients dry so they just mix it up to a formula. There’s not really any place in NZ where they dig the clay directly.
K: Barry? Barry Brickell, used to do it in the coromandel, some of the terracotta clay
E: Yeah and I mean I use clay from here sometimes but it’s a very dark red clay, it’s not as consistent. You just don’t know, it doesn’t always work that well. Sometimes i mix a little bit of that clay in with other clay just for colour.
E: Well there used to be a really good clay in Nelson. The Japanese were really enthusiastic because it was such a good clay but I think the guy who owned the mine I think he’s sold it now for housing which is what usually happens.
K: Classic NZ
E: Well it’s not just in NZ, I had a really good clay from Australia that I was using that used a particular ball clay and it’s been turned into a parking lot, that’s it, you can’t get the material anymore. So it’s traditional.
K: Have you actively gone out to do some clay testing if there’s such a thing?
E: I do a lot of testing but potters used to go out to farms and find the clay but it’s a lot more difficult now to get access.
K: I guess the property developers probably aren’’t too interested in your pottery…
E: No and quite often it’s a lot of work you have to add things to the clay, mix it with other ingredients to make it workable. When they were building the railway in New Lynn, the clay..
K: From the old Crown Lynn clay?
E: Exactly so a lot of the potters were interested in that so one day the developers set up a parking lot and came with a truck of clay and a digger and anyone who came with a trailer they got a scoop of clay on it. So I got a scoop of clay but it turned out the clay has too much shrinkage so you make a pot and it just dries and cracks. So you can’t use it like that, so then you have to do a lot of testing and you have to mix it with other…maybe you have to add more feldspars or more sands, and by the time you do that it’s a lot of work, and testing, and then you have a limited amount of the clay… probably by the time you figure out how to really use it…
K: What got you into pottery?
E: Hah I had my first pottery experience in India when I was 16
K: Oh really?
E: Yeah I stayed for 3 months in India and I worked in pottery there and so that was my intro to clay.
K: Was that an intentional thing? Obviously going to India, was intentional, but working in pottery?
E: Well it was the 70’s and…
K: Smoking and…
E: Not so much that but going to ashrams and doing the whole thing, so I had contacts there and I spent half my time in a pottery that was run by an American potter in Pondicherry and the other half of my time in a weaving studio. And then when I went back to Germany I did a year in pottery in Bavaria and then decided I didn’t really like it that much and studied graphic design instead, and had lots of children…and when the youngest started school I really felt like I wanted to do pottery again so I started up again 20 years ago.
K: And that was still in Germany?
E: No no that was here.
Mary-Anne: There was a big emphasis on pottery back then wasn’t there. I grew up in Titirangi, Len Castle was the potter that was not far from us, we used to go and visit. But there were a lot of coffee bars that had all pottery for sale.
E: Well that was before they opened up…you know David Lange came along and opened up the borders to imports. It was kinda the only thing you could get…I mean I wasn’t doing it then but you know everyone said as long as it was brown and crooked and wasn’t Crown Lynn…people were just snapping it up. They did firing and they had people queuing on the street for the kiln opening!
K: Do you long for the days of people queuing?
E: Well it’s kind of a strange thing because I’m now in position where there’s more demand for my pots than I can fulfil and that gets quite stressful. You continuously have people asking, because I sell a lot of stuff overseas as well so people come and say ‘oh when are you gonna list pots again online?’ I’m just thinking it’s too much…
K: Have you taken an apprentice?
E: No I haven’t taken an apprentice…I’m thinking about seeing if I can find someone to work with me.
K: I’ll sign up
E: I do need help…it’s hard work.
K: Chopping the wood for one!
E: When I do a firing probably that whole day [pointing] is what you need for one firing so it’s a lot of wood that goes into it. I don’t like using pallets, I only do it if I don’t have anything else but all this wood there [pointing] is not dry enough yet. I only split that last winter or autumn and that needs to sit there for at least another year so it’s a lot of work.
J: Do you have an actual temp gauge that you use or…?
E: I have one that I use in the beginning of the firing but later on it doesn’t work. Then you have what we call cones. So you have these little, you put these things in and they’re different colours, they stand up high and then at a certain temperature they bend over. So this one [pointing] is cone 8, which is 1260, cone 9, 1280, cone 10, 1300, 1320…so they all have numbers and if you talk to potters ‘yeah I fired to cone 6….fired to cone 8…’ you never say the temperature
K: only talking in cones…
E: so it’s kind of worldwide, it doesn’t matter if you’re American and go in Farenheit or whatever…cone 10, cone 12, you know what temperature that is.
They also work with heat work so if you’re not quite at say 1300 but you’re at say 1280 but you’re there for a long time it’ll still melt.
J: That’s interesting so it means it’s actually telling you the temperature that the pot’s at, not the temperature that the fire is at?
E: Exactly. And then you know with your glazes you know ‘ok I need to get to this cone’ like I never need to get cone 11 down, it’s ok, cone 10 is enough. I know that. But I need to get cone 10 down otherwise they’re gonna be underfired.
J: how many kinds of glaze do you use?
E: In the wood kiln? Not very many actually, it’s mostly the shino glaze.
J: And what is the effect that the Shino glaze gives you?
E: I use 2 glazes quite often. I use a thicker whiter one and a thinner one so the Shino gives you…Shino does this kind of crazing and pin holing.
J: It almost looks like scales or something
E: Yeah so Shino is essentially a clear glaze, and it’s white where it’s very thick and it’s clear where it’s thin. So a lot of the colour of the Shino depends on the colour of the clay that you use. If I use a black clay or a darker clay then it’ll come out different than if I use a lighter clay. If I have a fine clay then it won’t do any of the pinholing and stuff. Also depends on the thickness. This is unglazed, that’s just the texture of the clay, so you can see this is one kind of clay [pointing] this is a different kind of clay. Different colours like the orange, whereas that one is more gray brown-y colour. Then you have the black clay which is different again. And these pots still have the same glaze on them but they were put in the firebox right at the front. So they had lots of ash landing on them and then the ash melts and it runs down and then it makes these drips. So you can see them all sitting like this, all dribbling down, and then of course when they come out they’re really really rough and then you have to spend ages polishing them up, sanding and grinding and…yeah.
K: And what was behind the move to NZ?
E: Not very exciting, my father decided that he wanted to move to NZ and so he applied for permanent residency, and so I had permanent residency. I was living in Munich in a 4th floor apartment with one child and another on the way and we thought ‘why not?’. Come and have a look…’oh it looks really good!’
J: When was that?
K: And your father was a potter?
E: no no no…
E: no I’m the only potter in the family. I just always liked making things by hand. Things that you can use. When my kids were little I made all the toys and did all the sowing…I enjoy that kind of thing and pottery for me was just a natural extension of that. ‘Craft’ I always like to think. Things that you can actually use.
K: I guess we forget how useful pottery is…like imagine your life without pottery…what would you eat on, what would you drink out of? Except for maybe some glass…
E: It’s such an old art form. It’s been around forever. It’s so fascinating because you can literally take the earth, the clay out of the ground. In Asia they just call it soil, they call it dirt when they translate it, they don’t call it clay. Because it is just soil, and you can dig it out, as it is you can make something with it, you put it on the fire…you can even fire clay in your wood stove, your wood burner….it doesn’t even need to be that hot. They used to just do it on the bonfire! You just put the pots in and you can make something that’s permanent and useful. Even firing the wood kiln…what is a kiln? It’s basically just a pile of bricks…they’re not mortared together. There’s only clay in between because there’s so much movement.
K: And you’re trapping an element in it…
E: Yeah, it’s just such a fundamental basic thing, and such a natural process.
K: What would you like to see for pottery in NZ?
E: mmm…actually at the moment it’s amazing, you know the restaurants are actually wanting…everybody’s into the natural look. It’s really nice to see. I’d like to see less imports of rubbish…
K: And I think more people are into food and it’s like, you want to really elevate your food? Go buy a nice plate!
E: And we did for the art week for a few years, we’ve done the mugging. The first 3 years we made.. Like a lot of potters made like 20 mugs each and certain cafes on Ponsonby rd if people went in and bought a takeaway coffee, they could exchange their takeaway cup and got a mug for free.
K: Do you do sculptures?
E: Not really no…
K: More functional
E: [nods] I think because my father was an art collector so I kind of probably feel a little bit intimidated. The sculptures I have seen…I feel like I can’t compete with that.
K: Do you think that had a large effect on your aesthetic and your appreciation of form?
E: Maybe..I don’t know because when I first started potting again, because I did the diploma and when I started the diploma I was very much into Chinese style pottery…porcelain, very perfect shapes etc. Then as I went through the course it got more and more loose and I ended up with this. I don’t know how I ended up making pots like that because it wasn’t what I started out doing. I decided that it’s really me because I’m actually…you know, I’m not a very precise person.
K: Your land seems fairly organic, this seems organic whereas…
E: I always like to let everything self-seed and things can grow where they want to grow and my kids do what they wanna do and that’s kind of like you know the pots do what they wanna do…
K: Seems to be a bit of a theme in the people we’re interested in interviewing…just let the thing do its thing.
K: Do you think that has anything to do with your time in the ashram?
E: Hmm I don’t know, maybe…I think maybe it has to do with having 5 children…