The cries of herring gulls greeted my arrival at the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth. I was here to join the Anagama building workshop led by Gas Kimishima who is an expert on this type of kiln that developed in Japan more than a thousand years ago. The kiln building, loading and firing was to take place within two weeks, and the kiln unloading was to happen on the last day of the biennial International Ceramics Festival at the Arts Centre near the university. The two weeks proved to be a very memorable one, with a kiln unloading that produced some wonderful pots.
On the first evening, after meeting the other members of the workshop, a team that was later to be known as the ‘Dream Team’, we walked to the kiln site that was no more than a grassy slope. After hearing that Gas’ arrival was delayed due to traffic and Welsh witches, we headed into the seaside town for a Chinese dinner. Other demonstrators for the upcoming festival joined us, one group was from the Philippines, Rita and Pablo who were planning on building a ‘Birthing Kiln’.
The first few days of the workshop involved clearing the grass and laying foundations for the bricks, then we set about creating the former, a structure made of hazel and strips of ply wood that would hold the weight of the fire bricks as they were being laid. Most of the materials had been prepared but the hazel proved to be too thick, making it not very bendable, so we used double strips of ply to create the arches, this led to a moment of near disaster later when one side of the kiln almost collapsed. We had to hold the bricks back from falling on top of Gas who was inside the kiln!
After relaying the bricks and making stronger supports, we completed the ‘candle flame’ shape of the kiln, the smoke channel and a slightly twisting chimney. Now I had been given the task of crawling into kiln to remove the wooden arches and posts. There was a element of fear due to the possibility of the kiln collapsing but it proved to be very enjoyable as the last pieces of ply wood were taken out.
The next day we made a mortar of fire clay and silica sand to seal and insulate the anagama which we named ‘Draig Oriog’, (Moody Dragon). With only a day or two to go before firing the kiln we made a few pots at a studio, then we loaded the pots into the kiln and had a gentle pre-firing to dry out both the pots and the kiln, keeping the temperature at 100 celcius.
The anagama firing was planned to last four days, the ‘Dream Team’, with the assistance of two guest potters Charles Bound and Pablo Capati, divided into pairs and worked two four hour shifts a day. My firing shift was from 4-8 am and pm. After slowly raising the temperature to 1000 celcius we started a stronger stoking rhythm using a combination of ash, fir and larch. Despite its name the kiln fired beautifully with no sign of moodiness. We reached the top temperature of around 1200 and had a bank of glowing embers building up in the firebox. During stokes we watched the pots glowing pink hot from the heat as the flames danced over them. A special event was arranged on the last night of the firing, something that we called ‘Hoikidashi’, hoiking out red hots pots from the kiln with an iron bar. An audience of festival goers gathered around the kiln at dusk and it started to rain; peering into the kiln I pulled out a few sake flasks and finally a flower vase. The vase was quite large and it was a struggle to pull it through the upper fire-mouth, but after removing some embers from the lower fire-mouth, it was out.
The next morning the firing was over and the fire mouth was sealed up with bricks and mortar, we planned to cool the kiln for twenty-four hours. On Sunday we opened up the kiln and unloaded the pots. All of the team were pleased with the results, except for some pots placed too close to the embers that had suffered ‘punishment’ from an excess build-up of ash. Dameon Lynn had a fine Hans Coper-esque flower vase, Gas’ large vat had survived the firing. Guests were served matcha tea from a beautifully fired chawan and I served Dragon sake from some ram’s head sake cups that I had made. The festival goers enjoyed the pots despite the intermittent rain, the ‘Dream Team’ had done well!