Creating a Wood Firing Kiln

Recently I edited the following press release to publicize our new wood kiln and found it informative and interesting to share…

“On Saturday April 30, the firebox of ‘Wabisabigama’ will spark to life.  Artisans and friends of Clayworks Pottery recently completed the Anagama-style, 120-cubic foot, wood-fired kiln at their Wacousta Road site near Grand Ledge, Michigan.

Several hundred pieces of ceramic pottery and artwork will begin a three-day exposure to flames reaching temperatures in excess of 2300° (F).  Deposited wood ash will form the principal glaze on most pots. Thirty potters or more, working in teams over six-hour shifts, will add wood with increasing frequency in order to maintain the alternating process of oxidation and reduction. To complete the process, teams will slowly increase the temperature to a given maximum in the firing range. With skillful attention ~ and the blessing of kiln gods, ceramic ware will acquire the stunningly beautiful blushes, subtle shades, and shape variations produced by direct flame.  These special effects have been characteristic of wood firing for the past several thousand years.

This first firing will culminate a Clayworks dream to expand its member-focused activities.  By bringing together numerous mid-Michigan area potters with different artistic backgrounds and all experience levels, a broader talent pool will concentrate their creativity on this oldest and subtlest of firing methods.

Expansion efforts began three years ago, with the construction of a structural shed-and-pad housing for the planned kiln.  The professional hand of a famous Laingsburg potter guided the entire process.  Scores of community potters participated, as well as the Clayworks member and student body.

Coincidentally, the first firing will occur on Arbor Day. Despite that coincidence, firing teams gathered the wood from trees that are no longer living, then split the three or four cords of wood into the sizes needed for a successful firing.

Development of the Anagama Kiln and its above-described results was essentially a Japanese phenomenon. Ceramics played a central role in Japanese food presentation, flower arrangement and the tea ceremony.  All three were at the heart of the culture’s 16th century artistic renaissance. The Anagama Kiln and Raku process played a central role in element creation.

“Why, in the face of modern convenience,” ask potters Masakazu Kusakabe and Marc Lancet in their book Japanese Wood-Fired Ceramics,  “are ceramic artists internationally electing to wood fire ceramics?”  Then, in response to their question, replied, “Beauty offers the answer. It is not an ‘Oh, that’s lovely’ sort of beauty, but an extraordinary beauty – a heart-achingly, arresting beauty, a beauty of epic proportion, a beauty worth working for, a beauty only achievable by wood firing.”

The Wabisabigama Kiln is a 12-foot long cylinder, with a cross-section in roughly the shape of a 4- by 4-foot Catenary arch. “We chose a simple Catenary arch,” says the Laingsburg potter, “since it is a known kiln shape that fires very effectively. It is also relatively easy to build and is very stable.” He noted that the classic Anagama shape has structural problems when built with the ceramic materials available in this country.

The “wabi” and “sabi” portions of the kiln name refer to principals articulated in Japanese art, ideology by which Clayworks is hoping to inspire the formation and subsequent firing of pottery. Any attempt at precise definition of these terms is doomed to failure. Entire books have been written to describe the concepts. Kusakabe and Lancet referred to them as “tip-of-the-iceberg” words, with meanings that only hint at the expanse underneath.” They expressed an appreciation of natural occurrence, the understated and unplanned, and the art inherent in results that are too often assumed to be defects. Horst Hammitzsch, in his book Zen in the Art of the Tea Ceremony, refers to the “wabi’sabi” idea as “the beauty of a declining wise old age as against the beauty of an energetic yet immature youthfulness.”

 A second firing will probably occur in the late fall with a fee schedule to cover the costs of building and firing the kiln. Interested potters in the mid-Michigan area may contact Clayworks at (517) 626-1160 or www.clayworkspottery.net.

Copyright © 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved.

Birth of Wabisabigama

Those of you who know me may realize how much I love special effects.  This is the story about the birth of Wabisabigama, a newly built wood kiln that produces spectacular, unpredictable results that can rival even  happy accidents that occur in the parallel world of the watercolor palette.

This was our first firing. We felt our way as well as possible. For several reasons, I fired only a few DreamSculptr items created for the firing. Editing the press release took hours.  Quantity allocations up to sevcnteen items issued proportionally to those who worked longest on preparation and firing. On the other hand, recovering from surgical stitches and swelling ate much of my time. Firing projections changed frequently, making it hard to pin down a date on the schedule ahead of time. In the midst of all this, my children planned and prepaid a Florida trip to celebrate a milestone birthday the weekend of the firing.  No one wants to be a bad mommy. I love my children and want to ‘be there’ for them.  So I proposed tending the kiln on the day before our departure, but shifts were full. Yipes! Parents must honor their children first and those of us who are also grandparents are doubly parents, except with limited energy from a lifetime of parenting.

We fired a few of my smaller pieces placed on the firing shelf early.  Others languished. Except for ‘Ancient Mariner,’ a large fish platter. It lay under a shallow shelf where flames and ash did not circulate, making it paler than if it had been glazed!  Extreme heat caused small edge cracks; this evidently gave it personality, because it sold almost instantly.  Wood blush is primarily on the bottom.  A solidified glaze weakened the green-blue glaze I used to define his eye and fins, making the Mariner pale. My childhood was aglow with Michigan fisheries and I like to represent the great sport fisheries of the Great Lakes with glorious color.

After the firing, I brought my new ‘babies’ home and shortly after that relinquished two of the items to a family member for further embellishment since I had no others at the time.  If this makes this ceramic artist a bad pot person, at least I am a true friend, mommy, and g’ma.  Yay! The birthday girl is happy. too.  Love is really all there is, because in the end…things are only things.

I still enjoy making quirky pottery that incorporates a love of the natural world and mixed media techniques from other disciplines. Much of it is displayed on Facebook, under DreamSculptr Gallery Mixed Media Art of Carolyn Tody or on my personal page.

Beautiful Results

Here is the newspaper article, with names removed, and a video about the ceramic artwork and pottery revealed when we opened the new wood kiln.  Amazing success has taken place with this carefully engineered project, a journey filled with heartwarming discovery!

Video:  http://www.lansingstatejournal.com/videonetwork/937376143001/Kiln-brings-Mid-Michigan-potters-together

Article and more videos:   http://www.lansingstatejournal.com/article/20110510/NEWS01/105100314/First-firing-Lansing-area-kiln-produces-unique-pottery

Highlights

Recapping the event ~ The first firing of the Wabisabigama Wood Kiln produced beautiful results. Participants applauded amid a chorus of admiring ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as they peered into newly opened wood kiln.   Clayworks Pottery representatives passed unique pieces of pottery, one by one, into the hands of those waiting in lines to transport them to a grassy knoll. Approximately 300 pieces of artwork successfully faced the flames. 

Eventually, the sun-drenched lawn filled with five rows of blushing vases, plates, bowls, pitchers, teapots, and figurines, each representing a reenactment of its respective position in the middle, sides, front, and back of the kiln chamber to give a comprehensive picture of firing action.

‘Wabisabigama’ left a glaze on the surface of pottery, giving each fully vitrified piece sheen and unpredictable effects.  Wood resin frequently created a drippy glaze appearance, and a natural wood color not available by other firing means.

The wood kiln is the only one in the Lansing area.  Next closest wood kilns are in Kalamazoo and Dearborn in Greenfield Village.  Electricity and gas most commonly fuel kilns.

Over two years ago, two potters, one from Lansing and one from Laingsburg, approached the pottery co-op with the idea to build a wood-burning kiln that could also be used by the community.  The $10,000 estimated cost was raised by the co-op, primarily by member loans. 

Firing the kiln was their first concern. For three continuous days the kiln burned.  Shift partners took turns supplying it with wood. 

Refinements are the next project. Late summer is the next anticipated firing and such details as strength of the fire, firing time, and interior placement of the pieces for desired results are under scrutiny.    The community is welcome to use the kiln, for a small fee which will help defray the building cost. 


Update on October 16, 2011: 

Dreaming of a little Tranquility?

Ancient Japanese monks discovered that “wabi” – the way of tea – enriched their own faith by providing a concrete example of selfless attention to others.

Through wabi, learning to serve the way of tea so well that you no longer need to think about it, you are free to focus on your guests, the rustic pottery, natural elements used in making tea, the pleasures of drinking tea in a tranquil space, and appreciation of natural beauty.

Sabi is more of an autumn feeling, a somber longing for summer to last, a hopeful sadness, a melancholy ache because nothing lasts, nothing is completed, yet life is full of meaning.

Taken together, the words wabi and sabi describe a technique for living in the moment ~ by noticing and appreciating the significant moments in gentle, meaningful connection with nature and those in their environment, living each day and each season fully as changes occur.

“Wabi sabi” is an intuitive way of living that involves noticing moments that enrich life and paying attention to simple pleasures that can otherwise be overwhelmed by excesses in our consumer society.

Both Wabi Sabi and Feng Shui are Eastern ideas gaining popularity in the West.

Feng Shui, on the other hand, is a technique for increasing wealth or prosperity by tapping into unseen mystical power and arranging environmental elements to clear a channel and please the eye.

In October we held another wood kiln firing.  This time, I fired eight wonderful pieces including a treehouse and a figurative mask,  featured at: www.facebook.com/pages/Artist-DreamSculptr  and soon to be posted to the Flickr stream.  Our next wood firing will be during New Years Eve, 2011 into 2012!

Copyright © 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved.

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