“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 amongst a group of people with a potpourri of health conditions and ailments that amounted to us being labeled 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 entertainment 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. Reasons for traveling 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, or so I thought at least, not until I helped unload that newly built wood kiln for 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 also glazes every surface inside the kiln, so 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 gives woodfired pieces their distinguishable aesthetic, and each piece that comes out of a wood kiln is truly one-of-a-kind.
Anagama is Japanese for cave kiln (穴窯), and these types of kilns 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 fashion 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 could produce.
Relocating to Colorado after I graduated from college, I sought out a recent NCECA Emerging Talent awardee whom I had seen give a presentation at the 1995 NCECA Annual Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was a little surprised and 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 that he had mentioned during his presentation. After showing me around and talking for awhile, he asked if I was hungry, so I had dinner that night with his parents, wife and kids. Afterwards, he invited me to share part of his studio with him and another young disciple, as well as share part of the heating bill. I only participated in two firings in his anagama kiln, and then I dropped out to pursue some of my other interests – 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 gotten 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.
Midway into 2021, our group was getting their nerve back to try and pick up where we had left off over a year before, and then the new Delta variant of the CoViD-19 virus 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 woodfiring that fall. I was thrilled to participate in my third woodfiring pilgrimage from San Francisco to the San Juan Islands in Washington.
A candle flame shape was the inspiration for the design of the anagama kiln I help fire. In addition to the firebox at the front of this kiln, it has a secondary firebox halfway back, which are both side stoked with Coast Douglas-Fir, Western Red Cedar, and Red Alder wood. About five cords of wood in total are burned to generate the heat (+2400˚F) and layers of wood ash necessary to create the surfaces on the ceramic work in the kiln. This kiln is preheated with a propane torch for about half a day and then gets fired continuously with wood for about two days; some people fire wood kilns for over a week. There are four to six hour shifts that groups of two to four people sign-up 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, transformed something impermanent into permanence, all by just firing it with wood. Woodfiring connects me to those people that came before me and fired wood kilns in the past. Woodfiring connects me to the present and a group of wonderful people marooned on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Woodfiring connects me to people in the future that will fire their work in a wood kiln long after I am dead and gone. Woodfiring is magic.