Mapping Obvara

The residency with Sím Korpúlfsstaðir offered me time to further my research/experiments with Icelandic Obvara mixtures and Leir 7 (Clay 7), through documentation of the process towards publication and the potential of new works.

In 2016 I was fortunate to meet Halla Steinolfdottir and purchase 5kg of clay that is found on her farmland. My research involves exploring this relatively new clay body and various Icelandic Obvara mixtures. This particular clay is only found on Halla Steinolfdottir’s farmland, in the Westfjords.

What is Obvara?:
Obvara, which is said to be pronounced ab-vara (and is sometimes known as ‘Baltic raku’) is believed to have originated in Eastern Europe (mainly Belarus, Estonia and Latvia) in around the 12th century. The technique is known as ‘hardened ceramics’ or ‘blackened pots’ in Latvia, ‘sourdough pottery’ or ‘yeast pottery’ in Lithuania and ‘scalded ceramics’ in Russia.

Obvara is a mixture of flour, sugar, yeast and water. I intend to work with Icelandic rye flour, and locally produced grains, capture wild yeasts and create different mixtures using diary (of which, Iceland sells many variations). For the sugar portion, I intend to work with Rima Villihunang (wild Icelandic honey) from south Iceland apiaries.

The Obvara is mixed three days in advance of firing. Pieces are made and bisque-fired before the final firing. Using a Raku kiln, work is fired to approximately 850c. Pieces are removed one at a time, dunked into the Obvara and then quickly into the water. Then they air cool. The Obvara burns quickly on the surface of the piece before going into the water.
The water stops the burning and colour change.
Obvara interacts with the clay to create random, chaotic patterns. Often making lichen-like, dendritic patterns, and structures on the clay surface. This is the beauty of experimenting with Obvara mixtures; different flours, sugars and yeasts yield entirely varied results.

Upon my return from Iceland, I plan to use this research towards developing new work incorporating my glass sculptures and the Westfjords clay body, but I hope to start working with Canadian clay bodies. Working with clay enables my current sculptural works to grow exponentially larger.

This Sím residency takes place in Iceland, in their Korpúlfsstaðir residency which is situated in what used to be Iceland’s largest dairy farm. This Icelandic clay is sourced from Ytri-Fagridalur in the Dalir region of West Iceland found in the Westfjords. My long-term goal is to work with and explore further Obvara mixtures from capturing wild yeasts, locally grown/found sugars and flours in different parts of the world and document my findings through publication.
Short-term goals are to find the firing temperature of this Westfjords clay to see what, if any affects lichen/moss and seaweed might play during the firing stage and how Obvara might influence or even possibly destroy the fired forms. My time at the Ayatana Research Program at Carleton U, and the Canadian Nature Museum greatly fuelled my work towards cruelty-free, renewable art materials. Time with scientists and local artists in Iceland offer a wholly different ecology and approach, which will aid my transition from metals into local found, clay bodies.

I thoroughly enjoy sharing my experiences with students and colleagues. I imagine documentation of my failed experiments along with perceived success will enable further growth, and experiments in the art and crafts community working with clay bodies, firing techniques and pushing boundaries there.
Currently, many colleagues here and in Iceland have never heard of or experienced Obvara. Yes, this method yields interesting and beautiful patterns/designs but it also seals the clay. I imagine this in itself will be put to great use within the local clay community.

Ceramic studio at Sím. This is where I will be working for the month of October.

The following images show my apartment and studio at Sím Korpúlfsstaðir. I arrived early morning October 2nd, booked a vehicle and headed over the mountains to Laugarvatn to pick up the Westfjords clay I’d left there in July.  

October 3rd and 4th I collected wildflowers, lichen and fungi growing around the studio, poured agar plates and commenced: YEAST EXPERIMENTATIONS!

After 1 day of sitting in a dark, warm spot GROWTH! Yeast has appeared, as well as some fungi and …. someone else. 😉 

The Arctic Thyme seems like the best candidate so far. I’ve since placed all of the cultures into the refrigerator here, to slow down their spreading.   In between time I have been creating small pod-like forms that will be dunked into the Obvara mixtures. Using a 30-40% grogged stoneware.

The Sím residency was one of the best yet! I met many Icelandic artists through an Open Studio event at Korpúlfsstaðir as well as Torg (1st annual Reykjavik art fair!) as well as our residency’s group exhibit in downtown Reykjavik.

Please feel free to download a copy of Obvara-Iceland. It is my hope that artists in Iceland will expand upon it!


I would like to thank the Ontario Arts Council for there generous support towards this research! 



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