There’s also suspense because each stage of the process holds the potential for disaster. Shelves can collapse during loading; rain can render piles of wood useless. Inevitably, someone misses a shift. A December firing in Syracuse poses further challenges. As participants begin their kiln vigil, conditions are difficult. Willett’s wish for “no rain” goes unheeded, slowing the loading and frustrating the early crews that start and maintain the fire. Four students spend eight drizzle-soaked hours coaxing the fire along. The entire first night’s firing is spent drying the bricks and the air inside the kiln.|
By 8 a.m., when the second crew arrives, the sight of thick smoke coming from the chimney offers reassurance. Examining the scene, Willett says the first eight hours had little effect on the pottery. The temperature is now above 800 degrees in the front, but only about 500 in the back—a long way from the desired destination of 2,500 degrees. “Our job today will be to get a nice hot coal bed going,” Willett says.
Participants stoke the fire by feeding small pieces of wood through portholes on both sides of the kiln. They monitor the temperature by watching the heat’s effect on a series of clay cones placed at key points within the kiln. “Generally, the more wood you burn, the more ash you get,” Willett explains. “The more ash there is, the more glaze you get on the pieces. The trick is to get the kiln hot and keep it hot.”
At 11 a.m. the rain resumes, and the crew scrambles to erect a makeshift shelter for the wood. By day’s end, a methodical routine has been established. Three people—one at the front and two at the portholes—feed the flames, while others fetch or cut wood. Ceramics graduate student Mary Cloonan G’00 is a crew chief for two shifts, having participated in several previous anagama firings. When she is at the kiln, her concentration is infectious. “Good food and good music make it much more tolerable,” she says.
Each crew documents the progress of its shift in the kiln log. For all of its informative qualities, the log is actually less about the kiln and more about the community that nurtures it through a firing. Song lyrics, diagrams, recipes, and some harmless venting often accompany brief comments about what was done during a shift and how the next crew should proceed. “A shift before yours can mess you up, or it can really set you up,” Willett says. “You want to leave the kiln hotter than it was the shift before.”
Willett, who has worked with some of the country’s best wood-fired kilns, tries to keep his distance from the site when he is not scheduled for a shift. “If the students know I’m there, they tend not to be as engaged,” he says. “The point is to get them to read the kiln themselves and make decisions.”
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