Above: One of two traditional Japanese kilns built in the heart of Oxford University’s Wytham Woods
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
This year we reported that the University was set to support the building of two anagama style Japanese kilns, at Wytham Woods – up a hill behind The White Hart pub at Wytham, a few ticks south from the village of Wolvercote.
Above: Takuma Takikawa, a sculptor and master kiln builder who is completing the second kiln with James Arimura, right, a translator for the project and SOAS student
Very early on a pristine Saturday morning in August, I walked up the hill to find out what was going on, having been tipped off about the firing of the first kiln. Easily found and very well sign-posted, for a public event later in the day, I see three volunteers already up and about, towards the end of the graveyard shift, from midnight to 8am.
Above: Unglazed tea ceremony ware usually made in Bizen, Japan, crafted in Oxfordshire
James Arimura explains that he is about to enter his fourth undergraduate year at SOAS, and is acting here as translator, being half-Japanese; Paul Rowbottom is a stone sculptor from St Albans, who had heard about the project via Facebook, and Katzuya Ishida is an accomplished potter from Bizen, the small town south-west of Kyoto. In fact it’s wrong to describe Ishida as a volunteer.
He’s an artist-in-residence with a base at Lincoln College, and one of Japan’s leading younger potters – a key person brought here to Oxford by the project leaders, to ensure that this is being done in the right way.
An anagama kiln is a long, slender, tunnel-like oven that extends up a hillside. Ishida consults a notebook full of temperature data and moves to pile more wood into the firebox, the chamber at the mouth of the kiln where temperatures are highest. As he pulls the door back, the glow inside is intensely, wonderfully orange, and I can see the faint outline of all sorts of different pots and ceramic wares. The heat is intense even in the cool dawn, and as he slides long logs of pine over the kiln mouth, they catch fire instantly. There is lots of loud crackling and the air is charged all around with pine pitch and hot, dry fire.
Above: The first kiln, fashioned from a woven willow mould covered in hessian and clay
The idea here is to recreate a craft practice that ultimately goes back to sixth century Korea, but which was adopted by Japan and came to define Bizen over several centuries.
The kiln is kept at between 1,100 and 1,200 degrees centigrade for an entire week, 24/7. The heat rushes up the kiln, firing 3-500 items at once. When the process ends and the kiln is left to cool, the contents remain there for a further week before being taken out and examined. Strange fusions and swirls of colour are achieved by the positioning of the ceramics relative to the direct of the heat, and that is where the potter comes in. But this is not highly finished glazeware of the sort you might have seen as a tourist in Kyoto. The items have a rougher, less finished aspect that is exactly what is being sought here, from an aesthetic viewpoint. Instead of the covering up the process of their coming to be, the pot flaunts it.
Above: It takes roughly three days to build up the heat, then five days of baking at temperatures of 1,150c
Heading the project are Dr Robin Wilson and Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley and Jim Keeling, founder of Hook Norton commercial pottery Whichford, guided to the site originally by Wytham Woods conservator Nigel Fisher. The blessing for the project comes from Isezaki Jun, one of Japan’s ‘national treasures’ and a revered potter. Wilson is an anthropologist who is carefully examining the entire process. How do you take a sixth century Korean craft to Oxford, via Japan? What does it mean? How is that meaning created?
On the other side, the several hundred items in the kiln belong to twenty-odd potters who have also acted as volunteers during the firing, and to Keeling. The idea is that later, when the firing process is proven, the kiln will produce Bizen-style ceramics that will be sold to offset the costs of the project.
Above: Experts from Bizen have travelled to Britain to help build the kilns, which are fuelled day and night
It all seemed improbably ambitious when I gazed at the completely empty, grassy, sloping site for the kilns at the start of the year. But here we are. Watch this space for images of the first ceramics to come out of Anagama Oxford.
Images © Richard Lofthouse