Above: Unloading the wood-fuelled anagama kiln, meaning ‘cave’ kiln, to find the baked pots
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
This was the moment that everyone had been waiting for. It was like the final episode of the Great British Bake Off, with everyone nervously awaiting the results of their cooking as the oven timers ping. Instead, Robin Wilson, a University anthropologist who heads the anagama project, an attempt to recreate a twelfth century Japanese kiln made of willow and brick and clay, had forewarned me that the process of unloading over 300 items from the kiln might take all day, in other words a slow, meandering process 'with a lot of swearing potters…'
I needn’t have worried. Puffing up the steep hill to Wytham Woods on my bicycle, I arrived with enough time in hand to watch the unloading of the kiln in all its slow intricacy. In the event, everything unfolded rapidly and without any audible swearing.
Above: Through the unbricked entrance, the pots were retrieved from the woven willow kiln covered in hessian and clay
First of all, Katzuya Ishida, one of the visiting potters from Bizen, Japan, dislodged the first fire brick from the kiln entrance and methodically unbricked the entrance.
In crawled Jim Keeling of Whichford Pottery, Hook Norton, one of the foremost potters in the UK and the major sponsor of this project.
Then, he began to hand out items one by one to a daisy chain of volunteers, who placed them on a huge trestle table that had been set up under a marquee. The crowd included several independent potters with their own material in the kiln, having helped with the firing, and there was palpable anticipation, though worn under the cuff in a very English sort of way.
I had been warned that the results might be middling to poor. This is because the first firing of any kiln is an experiment, not least a willow and clay construction to an ancient recipe, on English soil. But the earliest pieces to come out of the kiln showed many of the patterns of natural glaze and colouring that one expects from an anagama.
Above: Top Japanese potters from Bizen came to oversee that the pots were authentically made
James Arimaya, a fourth year SOAS student who has worked as translator for the project, explained, 'The role of the potter is to position all the items inside the kiln in such a way that the firing process has a magical effect, but the final results are uncertain.' Traditionally, even a master potter in Japan would only expect 20% of the firing to be top notch, in the art category, the rest going to the market place to be sold more cheaply as everyday wares.
The Japanese-style kiln in front of us had been cooling down for ten days, yet the first item that I pick up, a bowl, still has a wonderful warmth to it, very welcome on a grey English day threatening rain.
Above: Around 500 ceramic pots were created, from vases and sculptures to small sake and cream pourers
The bowl is followed by a sake vessel, and a beautiful little cream jug, and a bowl, but then a terrific, huge vase and a succession of more experimental, sculptural pieces and decorative objects and ‘test items’ that had been deliberately placed in funny places, in some cases fusing with an adjacent piece.
Before long, the atmosphere has relaxed somewhat and the amount of discussion has increased. This is the tradition of the unglazed ceramic, which hearkens to the tune of the folk revival and modernist ‘return to nature’ of Bernard Leach (1887-1979), who himself had set up an anagama in the UK and forged strong links to Japan in the early twentieth century. To even begin to appreciate this stuff, you have to put totally to one side what you buy in John Lewis.
Above: Most of the ceramics made at Wytham Woods would be used for Japanese tea ceremonies
The clay is foremost, and then the firing effects, which because of the 1200 degrees centigrade achieved in the kiln melt ash onto items, to create the effect of a glaze but without glaze. The wonderful palate of oranges and terracotta are the result of the fire rushing up the hillside inside the longitudinal kiln, as the fire greedily sucks in oxygen at the base, where the firebox is and where the fuel is added. The uneven path of the heat and its dissipation further up the kiln results in a wide variety of effects. The goal is heterogeneity rather than homogeneity, except insofar as every item wears its soul on its sleeve and is ‘true’ to the process of firing it has undergone.
Above: The collection of ceramics, each one uniquely coloured and shaped, inside the narrow dark kiln
We are giving away an item from the kiln: Tell us in less than 100 words what your favourite ceramic is and in what sense you believe it to have meaning [The entire experiment is partly to observe the process of meaning making across very different cultures, from the Japanese tea ceremony to the UK]. Contributions will be published here in the lead up to Christmas.‘Email your entry to Janet Avison, email@example.com’ by November 15th, 2015. Please write ‘ANAGAMA OT comp’ in the subject line.
There will be a sale of items from the Oxford Anagama on 14th-15th November, as part of the Oxfordshire Art Weeks 2015 Christmas exhibitions. For more detail see http://www.oxfordanagama.org/
Images © Richard Lofthouse/OU Images