Formed through a process of endless experimentation, ceramicist Elena Renker's textural, organic vases, which you'll see in every room of The Hotel Britomart, are each unique works of art.
There are no shortcuts, and very few breaks when wood-firing pottery. When German-born, Auckland-based ceramic artist Elena Renker stokes up her kiln, she knows she will have to work almost non-stop for the next 24 hours.
To keep her hand-built kiln heated to 1200 degrees Celsius to bake the beautiful earthenware vases featured in each guest room at The Hotel Britomart in Auckland, she had to feed the fire with wood every three to four minutes. In between each load, there was just enough time to sit down, take a few sips of tea, a bite of the food she prepared the day before, or dash to the bathroom.
“I often feel that firing the kiln is a bit like giving birth,” says Elena who, with five children, has some experience in that area too. “It takes as long as it takes, and you can't stop, because then everything's lost. You can't just say, ‘No, I'm too tired. I'm going to bed.’ You just keep going and going and going until it's done.”
The huge effort is worth it. Elena’s hand-thrown and hand-carved vases and tea bowls are each works of art, with unique patterns, irregularities and ‘imperfections’ that give them a human element and make them come alive to the touch.
She works in the Japanese Chawan tradition, using two or three types of fresh clay blended with sand and ‘grog’ (pre-fired and ground clay) that will fire to a rich brown hue. Once formed, her pieces are decorated with ash or iron slips and partially glazed, using quick, gestural movements.
Her work is an endless process of experimentation and play. The white Shino glaze she mainly uses took over a year of testing before she found a formula she loved. For firing, she experiments with woods and flammable materials to see how their ashes ‘paint’ different residues in the glaze.
“It's really incredible how different woods have a different look. Gum will give a very green ash and pine gives a dark red ash. I've even experimented with cobwebs to see what that does, or cabbage tree leaves. One winter, every time I went for a walk, I collected lichen and tried that. It's that process of thinking, ‘What if?’ Of imagining there's a possibility. Maybe it's nothing but maybe it's something incredible.
“That's what I love about it. Wood firing is the chance to get something out that's really, really amazing.” She laughs. “Of course, often you also get something unexpectedly horrible.”
Elena was excited to take on The Hotel Britomart’s commission that allowed her to experiment with a set vase size, but using different clays, glazes and firings to ultimately deliver more than unique 100 pieces.
“The old potters learned by making 100 pots a day – the same thing over and over until it became automatic. And as a potter making a lot of one-off commissions, I hardly ever get that chance now. I look forward to doing things that are a challenge to me and that I feel inspired by. This was one of those projects.”