Willett is not content to teach wood firing as an archaic nod to the past. He encourages students to incorporate it with contemporary techniques and break new ground. “I am concerned about what we do with the process and want to add something to it,” the Department of Studio Arts professor says. “The students bring a lot to the experience because each has a different approach. They feed off one another.”
      Willett organizes the participants—primarily students in his Atmospheric Firing class and graduate ceramics majors—into groups of three or four. Crew chiefs are appointed to maintain a routine as participants take turns chopping wood, stoking the fire, and tending to the ash bed at the front of the kiln. For an entire weekend they continue in eight-hour shifts, burning two cords of wood in the process. “The physical effort involved is akin to keeping a small community going,” says Willett. “The communal aspect of the anagama gives each firing a unique character.”
      The first crews mix wadding compound (a combination of clay and sawdust used to gently affix pieces on the shelves), load the kiln, and ready it for firing. They also cut wood to allow later crews more time to focus on stoking the fire and maintaining the temperature.
      What may be most surprising about the anagama is not the process itself, but why it is still being done. There is nothing modern, technical, or commercially lucrative about this firing technique. Yet these factors clearly heighten Willett’s passion for wood firing, and the challenges of the technique spark student interest. “It is a most unpredictable form of ceramics because of the randomness of the flame and the ash, and the degree to which you let these variables dominate the work,” Willett says. “The finished work is always a collaboration between what the artist intended and what took place in the fire.”
      Anagama pottery is generally considered an acquired taste. Artists see the subtle hues created by the clay’s contact with flame and ash from the mineral-laden wood as a stark contrast to what Americans typically perceive as attractive. Variations depend on the kind of wood burned, the temperatures reached, the clay used, and the atmosphere in the kiln. A finished piece can reveal much about the movement of the flames as the heat gently scars the clay. “Today, artists have many options for firing their work,” Willett says. “We’re doing this because we know of no other way to get these results. When we open the kiln, there is an enormous element of surprise.”

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