Painting with Fire

Lets talk about art.

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I am a potter-both as a part-time sort of profession, but also at heart. I want to share one of the biggest reasons ceramic art captured my attention as thoroughly as it did. I am talking about woodfires.

Woodfiring is an ancient method of glazing and firing pottery. It is often a time and labor intensive process, because the kiln requires constant stoking, often for days, sometimes weeks before the fire is done. The results can be extraordinary. One consequence of firing with wood is that the wood ash flies through the kiln. Some of this ash lands on the pots. Then, it melts, creating an unpredictable glaze the likes of which cannot be fully replicated in other kinds of kilns. Here are a few examples:

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There is a mystical quality to these pieces, don’t you think? It is hard to tell in the pictures, but the glaze is very three-dimensional. In good light, you can see where ash crystals have started to grow in the midst of the glassy surface. It is truly mesmerizing.

The atmosphere of a woodfire, though, is the real reason I love it so much. Don’t get me wrong, I love the pots we get out of the kiln, but I love the experience of sitting around a hot kiln with a bunch of friends, decked out in our flannels, knit hats, and Carhartts. One unspoken rule of the fire is that anyone who visits contributes something for the table, so there is always good food. It is an experience like no other: people bring instruments to play music, fire wood needs chopping, kindling needs splitting. And through it all, the kiln breathes like a dragon wreathed in smoke. Inside, magic is happening.

The kiln I have the most experience with is Mark Terry’s Anigama in Forest Grove (an Anigama kiln is an ancient Korean design, built into the side of a hill). It is small, by Anigama standards, and looks a little like a turtle, or a cartoon whale. It takes a minimum of three people stoking about three days to fire it up to temperature, which is about 2450 degrees Fahrenheit. Here is what it looks like:

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My favorite stoking shift is from 4AM to 8 AM. As the sun slowly rises, the mist coming off the trees creates a hauntingly beautiful panorama. It truly is unlike any other experience I have ever had.


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