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Totally Stoked

Tending the fires of creation at the Lubrecht anagama kiln


The division of labor is grueling but democratic: a ceramics student named Jason takes his turn calling out the orders to a pair of fellow students on either side of the blazing hump of stones, cement and firebrick. “Stoke three!” comes the command, and the stokers draw aside the heavy ceramic tiles covering the middle of the five-stoking ports on each side of the kiln to slide in sticks of kindling. The wood practically melts before it can burn.

Sunglasses are required. Peering into the kiln is like peering straight into creation, or the lungs of a wheezing carbon star being coaxed toward a 2,400-degree supernova before using up the last of its fuel and finally—after nine days of firing and almost as many cooling off—letting its tenders come inside to retrieve whatever might have survived. One after another, the graded pyrometric cones stuck like teeth in gray gums of high-temperature clay inside the kiln melt and fall away—now it’s 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, now it’s 2,350. The furnace is just a few stokings away from its peak temperature, and the ceramic pieces visible through the stoking portals glow like mother-of-pearl against the featureless unlookatableness of blaring white heat. Strangely enough, the kiln makes almost no sound at all.

Jason and his 16 fellow ceramists are taking part in a six-week summer class taught by visiting artist David Smith. Smith built the original anagama kiln—the first in Montana—on the Lubrecht Forest site in 1984 as his MFA thesis project in ceramics at UM, and oversaw the construction of an improved version on the same site during five weeks in the summer of 1999. He has been teaching the summer ceramics course, which includes two weeks devoted to firing work at the Lubrecht anagama, since 1995.

Smith's anagama—literally, “hole chamber”—is modeled after a Japanese design for using clay-firing technology originally developed in China some 2,500 years ago. To prepare it for firing, the central tube of the anagama is loaded stem to stern with greenware—unfired pottery—and bisque, or pottery that has been subjected to a low-temperature firing just hot enough to apply a glaze. Once properly loaded, the kiln is first heated with a wood fire in the front firebox and then gradually, progressively stoked through the side ports. The flatiron shape of the kiln draws the heat through the tubular firing chamber, some 15 feet in length, and brings it to a point on the end nearest the flue. At this point in the firing, the three ports closest to the flue on each side are fed wood every few minutes to move the heat through in a kind of peristaltic action.

For Smith, who teaches the rest of the year at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisc., learning to use the evergreen wood most readily available for feeding the Lubrecht kiln—which devours some five cords of wood at each firing—has added a different set of challenges. Some kinds of fuel have proven themselves wholly unsuitable for the anagama process; Smith admits he learned the hard way to avoid lodgepole pine, which burns too quickly and cleanly, producing relatively little ash. When in Montana, he goes for fir, larch and ponderosa pine; back in Wisconsin, he sticks to those deciduous woods which, he asserts, have more staying power in the kiln.

Ash matters. Perhaps the most important aspect of anagama firing—as against electrical kiln and other kinds of wood firing—is that the pieces inside are not protected from the swirling, settling clouds of wood ash, which alter the texture and color of the glazing surface in striking and unpredictable ways. As Smith explains it, Chinese ceramists pioneered the technology but eventually abandoned it in favor of improvements that kept the ware protected from the ash and, hence, made the results more predictable. It wasn't until several centuries later that the Japanese fell in love with the aesthetic and improved the process for streamlining all the myriad variables of unprotected wood firing into a practical system that still left plenty of room for the pleasantly unexpected.

The unpredictable results of the process, of course, are exactly what attract ceramic artists like Smith and his students to the anagama process. Between the basic variation in colors rendered from clays of slightly different mineral content, exponentially complicating factors in the form of glazes, slips and fluxes added to the process, the randomizing effect of sporadic human interaction and all the caprices of wood, ash, flame and draft in the blazing kiln, a chaotic infinity of variables is brought to bear on every piece stacked inside it. There’s also the matter of oxygen; in addition to the aforementioned factors, the clay and glaze are further buffeted by a variable oxygen level that vacillates between a reducing (oxygen-poor) environment and an oxidizing (oxygen-rich) one, both of which account for an entirely different range of glaze effects. The atmosphere within the firing tube is also highly localized, with the placement of each piece and its proximity to the kiln wall and other pieces resulting in yet another universe of only generally predictable effects.

The entire anagama aesthetic is predicated on a system of defects and accidents. Most are happy, some are unhappy, or at least temporarily worrisome—as with any anagama firing, things have already been lost in the inferno this time around. Jerry Baldwin, a fourth-year returning student of Smith’s, has already heard the pop, tinkle tinkle of ruptured clay that any ceramist dreads. He doesn’t seem particularly distraught.

“That's expected,” he shrugs. “It’s part of the firing. Our general rule is to leave expectations in the studio and just concentrate on the firing.”

At any rate, if the fissure he heard forming proves to be a minor one, the ash and glaze might even melt over it and seal it shut. If that happens, Baldwin says, fine. If not, also fine. The UM senior is firing 25 pieces this time—regardless of how many survive, he seems more content to be part of the communal experience and the collaboration with this glowing mystery than concerned about not having just the right piece to put flowers in.

“I’m not really worried about it. I'm more concerned with the sculptural and image aspects of it, not the functional.”

Beyond even the unpredictability of the various media in the crucible, the tan and genial Smith explains that one of the joys of discovery in an anagama firing comes from seeing how the anagama firing affects different sections of each individual piece—again, as opposed to carefully controlled and modulated electrical kiln firing and its generally more predictable and uniform effects on the piece as a whole. Hefting four vessels from last year’s firing, he points out different local “dramas” and explains what most likely caused them.

The first piece is a large piece of hollowware, perhaps a foot and a half tall, with a mantle of sugary green glaze dripping all around it like frosting on a bundt cake. The probing trickles—called “finger runs” in ceramics parlance—were caused by a buildup of ash mixed with the glaze and melting prettily down the sides of the piece. Beneath its smooth surface, tiny cracks in the glaze glisten as faintly as Martian canals. This effect, called “crazing,” was caused by a greater proportion of glass in the glaze. You might have noticed similar cracks—possibly with little pleasure—in old porcelain; for Smith, crazing is one of the desirable firing defects assured by his anagama.

The artist offers an informed guess concerning the position a second vessel occupied in the kiln based on its tortured surface—blasted a bare bone color on the side that faced the heat, a Jovian moonscape of reds, tans and so forth on the more sheltered leeward side. A third piece, a spongey-looking white bowl, bears the artfully asymmetric stamp of human manufacture, but also looks vaguely as though it was impact-molded out of a fresh loaf of tofu. Three pieces, three dramatically different textures— textures which, as Baldwin puts it, share a richness of descriptive terminology with the Eskimos and their famous forty or more words for naming different varieties of snow.

The fourth specimen, also a bowl, has what Baldwin calls “alligator skin”—irregular, interlocking pieces of a minimalist white puzzle separated by zigzagging valleys of red-orange glaze. This effect, caused by a greater proportion of clay in the glaze and properly called “crawling,” creates a texture best resembling the triangular jumble of a sun-baked mud flat.

“All that local drama,” Smith says admiringly, turning the bowl over in his hand. “That's what we're in this for.”

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