Anagama Wood-Fired Pottery


Firing an Anagama (ah-nah-gah-mah) kiln was an undertaking of epic proportions requiring a boot camp level of physical exertion. It was coupled with the emotional stress of having, quite literally, all of your eggs in one basket: The kiln contained almost a thousand pots. I was one of twenty people who, in four teams, worked round the clock for four days to constantly feed almost eight cords of wood into the 65-foot long kiln through a foot-square door into a huge firebox. Working at arms length from the blast-furnace level heat on a hot August day, ones clothes were soaked with sweat within minutes of beginning a six-hour tour. Long pants, long sleeves, heavy boots were required of all, to reduce the risk of fire injuries.

Led by a 74 year old Japanese Master, an Important Intangible Cultural Property in his own country, we executed the commands he called out: Feed the kiln, stir up the firebox full of ashes, open or close the damper, and always, incessantly, carry wood toward the voracious kiln mouth  now the pine, now the hardwood, now large chunks, now quick-burning small bundles. Then the command Kibutah would come, and a dozen pieces of split wood would be quickly balanced in a stack in the mouth of the firebox, so that the inside ends would burst into flame, and the space between them sucked extra oxygen into the kiln. Then came the dreaded command to side stoke: Along the top of the kiln were small openings that could be uncovered to permit long thin pieces of wood to be carefully inserted between rows of stacked ware, like threading a needle while two foot high tongues of flame licked up at your arms and face.

Side-stoking responsibility fell more heavily on some shifts than others, because the kiln dictated its needs in its own timeframe; those who bore the brunt of it, in the heat of day, could be seen wearing wet dishtowels or stray t-shirts like burkas or shrouds that left exposed only their goggled eyes. Any vestiges of vanity vaporized early on. At intervals between stoking, they could be seen, red-faced beside the ice cooler, soaking themselves as if it were a communal bath. Perhaps the most dramatic moments were when the kiln was put into what potters call reduction, which means when the kiln is intentionally starved for oxygen. When the Master called for reduction, the flames sought air outside the kiln, and every orifice and crack spouted fire, as in the eight-foot flames exiting the flue, captured in the photo above.

Day after day, night after night, for four days this continued relentlessly. Men, women, bleary-eyed from swing-shift induced sleep disorientation would awake in their beds with a start, feeling that they should be stoking. The Japanese typical Anagama firing lasts 7 days, and in Bizen, where the clay is the most demanding, they fire for 10 days straight.

In the 16th Century, this was the only way to make high-fired pottery and the much sought after porcelain. Now in the age of automation, synthetics and mass production, it is an act of conviction, of purism, of historical preservation, of submission and of honor  to have the elemental force of fire on this scale as a collaborator in coloring and altering both the surface and the shape of ones pots. The Anagama is the hotest of pottery firings, and can melt and distort the shape of the work, can bury it in cinders, can cause huge fissures to develop, can paint patterns in bright or dark colors, and can transform the work on more levels than can be named here. All the results are interesting as a lasting documentary of this epic event, and the best are transcendent.

The potter must ultimately acknowledge that it was only by ones humble grunting and sweating in submitting oneself to the dictates of the process, that one could, at most, enable rather than control, the outcome. Ultimately, these pots are gifts from the kiln.