at 3, 000 Feet
Bill Jones writes about his experience of firing in the Alps.
"I haf news for you, Mr Jones, you are za only von on za course this time, so ve are just the two for za week."
The words still ring in my ears. This was the start of a fascinating and hair raising experience in the French Alps, in which I confronted my own inadequacy, loneliness, some hairy workshop practices, wild boar, fields of majestic Alpine Flowers, tumbling rivers, hidden valleys and the best food and wine I have ever had the privilege to sample.
Fredrik Blok makes really fantastic garden sculpture, as well as vases using the three techniques: ceramics, bronze casting and glass slumping. His creations interact with the wild place that he lives, high in the French Alps, just a little below the snow line. Imagine frozen snow, dripping and melting down a rock face, veined with bronze and copper tumbling over lichen and rich iron based ceramic rock and you will have a feeling for his art. Pots with glass lids that melt and fuse into the necks of well-thrown stoneware pots. There is much to the manufacturing.
Unloading a large kiln of raku pieces (enough to use ten large sacks of sawdust on) in a great smouldering heap, which if it were allowed to ignite would engulf the studio. Yes, he has his quirks: glowing red hot, the first shelf with all its pieces, is lifted out by two hands wrapped in ceramic fibre. "First out will be za feet." I was amazed as a kiln shelf full of tiny feet came toward me. The heat was so intense I wondered if it was advisable to wear shorts, but then in fifteen minutes, when the last of the red hot pots ware extracted, I was wishing I hadn't worn a shirt at all. The feet were glued to the bowls of wine goblets that had had their stems cut off. In many tourist shops you will see these quirky glasses, standing proud on their little raku pottery feet. The heat was also so intense as we poured molten metal from the crucible into the moulds we had made from a lost ware process.
I have never met anyone so frugal in his work, nothing wasted, not even a yoghurt pot, or broken piece of glass. The stems, which I would have discarded, became melted into knobs on top of glass lids or used in abstract pictures and wall hung ceramics. While being frugal and prudent in his use of all materials: oxides, clay, plaster, etc., he was the most generous man for giving you information on recipes for glass staining, on how to control the temperature for glass slumping: a mine of information on technique, freely given, and encouragement on every task I undertook. When things went wrong, the artist in him would not allow you to discard failures, to him there were no failures. Things could always be used for something else.
Then there were the meals, usually taking up to two hours or more, accompanied with generous bottles of wine and aperitifs, delicious home cooked pies and pastas, using all the fruits and wild produce of the valley. Wild celeriac, nettles, dandelion and flowers. He was passionate about the food and always had ample supplies of fresh fruit to go with it and the cheese, oh the cheese, was a delight. We walked through wild flower meadows over rough streams to find hidden valleys. Not Fredrik and myself but his blind alsation and me, we were inseparable for the week. I think the dog understood that I was there by myself and with no TV, no other English voice to listen to, he appreciated the poems I recited out loud to him and the songs I sang as we walked. Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed my week. Every day was full of action from morning to late, late in the evening and at night-time it was a beautiful starry place.
I enjoyed the challenge of the various methods of work. I had learnt how to turn a wax figure into a living bronze. My horizons were stretched in what I could achieve. But I didn't like the loneliness. I didn't enjoy the dusty atmospheres that were created in the studio. I thought the introductions to glass cutting and dealing in red hot molten metal were very dangerous- and I'm a pyromaniac. Next time I will wear a mask and dispense with my shorts and sandals. But the scenery, the food, the wine, the cheese, I will never forget those.