Three days and two nights spent stoking the Japanese ceramics kiln
Editor's Note: Some of the artworks fired in the anagama kiln will be available to the public during the Art Department's Annual Holiday Ceramic and Art Sale, this Friday and Saturday.
First-semester ceramics student Andy Young stood in the rain, looking into the gaping mouth of the Department of Art's anagama kiln. He was sizing up the condition of his vase that had started the firing process more than a week earlier. The vessel looked rather dicey. It shifted during the firing, and Young feared that it may have cracked or gotten stuck to someone else's clay creation.
Unlike the department's gas-fired kilns which return comparatively quick and consistent results, wood-firing pottery like this is an arduous and inexact science. But it's one that ceramicists love for the earthy, unpredictable color and feel it lends their work—the finished product of feeding logs into the fire for three straight days and two nights.
This year's vigil by the kiln was organized by Ceramics major Emily Ellison '12. She scheduled teams of volunteers to watch the kiln around the clock from midnight Thursday morning until Saturday afternoon. For three days, she filled the anagama with hundreds of artworks from about 70 other ceramics students and members of the community. She bricked up the wall to close the 20-foot kiln's opening, leaving only a small stokehole to add logs. She sat through her share of four-hour shifts with other students, watching the pyrometer to monitor the kiln's interior temperatures. Finally, after the kiln has cooled down for more than a week over Thanksgiving break, it was Ellison's job to crawl back into the kiln and retrieve the finished pieces.
"I'm serious about being a ceramicist," said Ellison, "and the only way you can become good at it is by doing it." This is her second time organizing the once-a-semester anagama firing, and in her estimation this session went smoother than the last. In all, there were dozens of students of all experience levels and ceramicists from around the community who pitched in their time to keep the fire going. They toughed it out, enduring rain, wind, nighttime frosts, fatigue and many charred marshmallows to get the job done.
The role of leading these firings is assigned by Associate Professor of Art Megan Wolfe. She chooses one or two students who have a serious interest in wood-firing and enough experience to manage the labor-intensive process of wrangling volunteers and running the kiln.
Matt West is another faculty member with keen interest in the anagama. He and another student built the kiln as part of their undergraduate research project in 2000. "We wanted to build a wood-fired kiln on campus. So we visited about 20 different kilns to look at their designs, and we helped fire probably 15 of them."
West settled on a simplified version of the traditional Japanese anagama. About four feet tall inside, it looks like a 20-foot-deep parabolic curve. In the front, there's a four-foot-square firebox, then a flat floor where pots, vases, cups, and sculptures are stacked. The floor steps upward toward the back to funnel the flames toward the kiln's chimney. The construction took about a month.
"After we first built the anagama, I was very anxious about being in control of every firing," said West. "But I've become much more comfortable letting other people run it, and letting them learn how to do it on their own."
The process of running the anagama is a matter of patience and precision. To start, a small fire is built near the opening to warm the kiln and the ceramics. The heat is increased in the firebox by a few degrees every hour until three days later, fire shoots out the chimney. Once finished, the stokehole gets bricked up, and the kiln is left to cool for more than a week.
The randomness of the violent environment inside the kiln creates its own beauty within the pieces.
"As the flames work their way through the kiln and around the pieces, they melt the glaze and affect the color of the clay," says Ellison. "The ash settles on the pots and melts, and that also forms a glaze of its own." Depending on placement within the kiln and the flow of the fire, a single piece could become transformed to a brilliant orange, or take on a speckled pattern from the ash, or develop streaks of color from the fire. There's no way to completely predict how a piece will come out of the kiln. "That's what makes it so special when you give your work to the anagama."
For beginner ceramicist Andy Young, the vase that he worried about came out of the kiln intact and with no other pieces sticking to it. As Ellison passed it to him, still warm after nine days of cooling, Young brushed off the excess soot and admired the earthen brown-greens and rough surface of his finished piece. The anagama treated him well.