“The first brick laid for any wood kiln signifies a particular conviction: a commitment to an ongoing labor-intensive process ultimately tied to a vision for personal work.“ – Jack Troy
The 2020 autumnal scheduled woodfiring was postponed because of the CoViD-19 pandemic; “Maybe in the spring, after there are vaccines, we can get together to fire the kiln.”, that was the thought amongst the group anyways. The vaccines came, but unnecessary social gatherings and travel seemed taboo, especially with a lot of the group being older and most likely they’re being a potpourri of health conditions and ailments present amounting to at risk. Everyone had just begun to reconnect to normal, and it felt unfamiliar. Besides many of us had not been making much work to put in the kiln for any number of reasons like: not having access to communal studio equipment and space for months, no inspiration or access to the parts of ourselves responsible for creative productivity, being fried from months of quasi-house arrest and work related video conference meetings, or we were just too busy burying our heads in the sand of streaming online video services. If we were going to gather or travel it would not be to fire a wood kiln; it would be to visit family and loved ones we hadn’t seen for well over a year. It would be to have self-serving fun. “Is that worth dying for?”, became the litmus test credo of the à la present. Firing pottery could wait. Five, six, seven months passed. The firing would be cancelled.
My interest in woodfiring spans back to college, where a top loading coffin wood kiln was built and fired on campus during my senior year. A couple of my professors had shown me work that they had done before that, and I would ask, “What glaze is that?”, to which they would reply, “It’s woodfired.”. This didn’t really answer my question, so I thought at least until I helped unload that wood kiln the first time.
In anagama kilns the wood is burned in the same chamber where the work is stacked. The wood ash becomes the glaze on the work and all over the inside the kiln, and wadding is used to keep the work from fusing to each other and the shelves. These wadding birthmarks and the variety of textures and colors are what give woodfired pieces their distinguishable aesthetic, and each piece that comes out of a wood kiln is truly one-of-a-kind.
It is thought that anagama kilns, which is Japanese 穴窯 for “cave kiln”, were first likely carved into and up through clay deposits as a way to fire pottery to higher stoneware temperatures. These types of kilns are original to China and made their way to Japan via Korea in the 5th century. Woodfiring has fallen in and out of vogue in the United States, being first a necessity in firing kilns as wood was the only readily available fuel, and later as a means to achieve a surface on work that only woodfiring can produce.
Relocating to Colorado after I graduated from college, I sought out a recent Emerging Talent awardee whom I had seen give a presentation while I was attending the 1995 NCECA Annual Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was a little puzzled when I showed up at his doorstep uninvited later that year. I had figured out where he and his kiln were located by putting a few pieces of information together he had mentioned during his presentation. He invited me to dinner that night at his parents’ and I met his entire family. I was invited to share part of his studio with him and another young disciple, and share part of the heating bill too. I only participated in two firings in his anagama kiln, and then I dropped out to pursue something new and shinny eventually taking a twenty-two year hiatus from woodfiring. Despite being very naive and not having a clue about how the real world worked, what I discovered then was that clay people are incredibly generous, and woodfiring was magic and a ton of hard work. I got a glimpse of the lengthy and difficult process involved in woodfiring, and I am hopelessly addicted to any protracted process. Woodfiring enchants me because the results are radically serendipitous, but not entirely random. There are gifts and surprises waiting for you every time you unbrick the door.
Just as we were getting the nerve up to try and pick up where we left off over a year ago, the new Delta virus variant arrived and shook everything up. There were breakthrough infections of the vaccinated. There was yet another summer of awful raging wildfires, and subsequent poor air quality. But yes, there would be a firing this fall. I was thrilled to participate in a woodfiring again in the San Juan Islands in Washington. This was the third time I got to be part of the firing of the anagama kiln up there. A candle flame shape was the inspiration for the design of this anagama kiln, and in addition to the firebox at the front it has a secondary firebox halfway back, which are both side stoked with coast Douglas-fir, western red cedar, and red alder. About five cords of wood in total are burned to create the heat (+2400˚F) and layers of wood ash necessary to create the surfaces on the ceramic work in the kiln. The kiln gets fired continuously for about two days. Some people fire wood kilns for over a week. There are four to six hour shifts groups people sign up for to stoke the kiln, sometimes they don’t even have work in the kiln. They just want to witness the slow heat and light that quietly builds up inside the kiln. For me I am humbled to participate in a process that has gone on before me for thousands of years; people all over the world have transformed clay into ceramics, something impermanent into permanence by firing it with wood. Woodfiring connects me to the past, and it connects me those in the future that will woodfire and come after me. Woodfiring is magic.
Stay tuned for more images…
Also, I hope to fire more new work in a few other wood kilns in Northern California in the coming year. No doubt I will return to the San Juan Islands next fall.