MAILED: Aug. 2, 2000
Several ceramics students from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire have had the opportunity to immerse themselves even deeper into the earthly experience of making pottery, thanks to Mike Weber, an assistant professor of art at UW-Eau Claire, who shares with his students the unique and unpredictable method of firing pottery using an anagama kiln.
Weber offers an independent summer workshop that he holds at a site in Bayfield County, where he has built three wood-fired kilns two anagamas and one noborigama. His students are joined by graduate students from across the country and visiting artists from places like Japan, Spain and Canada to learn the history and thrill of firing with an anagama.
Anagama (meaning "cave kiln") is an ancient method of firing pottery that the Chinese discovered a thousand years ago and spread to medieval Korea and Japan. Unlike the streamlined electric- or gas-fueled kilns of the contemporary potter's studio, an anagama kiln is fueled by wood.
The three-week workshop is more like a retreat, according to Weber. "Things happen when you have time to relax and get in touch with your creative energies. I see their work change and get better when they have time to get everything flowing."
The students, approximately 15 in each workshop, get to work with an old Japanese kiln design as well as meet artists from all over the world with similar interests and some with 40 to 50 years of experience. "I see them catch their energy," Weber said.
Japanese artist Mitso Kakutani, who was a visiting artist at Weber's workshop this June, will come to UW-Eau Claire this fall to do a ceramics workshop.
The participants, who camp, cook over an open fire and use outdoor facilities during their stay, are set up with potter's wheels in small work stations overlooking the Cranberry River.
After the students fill the kiln with about 1,000 pieces of their work, they begin the round-the-clock firing process. "I enjoy learning a whole new way of firing. It's not completely clean and controlled like gas or electric kilns," said Brad Reiter, a junior ceramics major at UW-Eau Claire who attended the workshop this June. "There's a lot to figure out how much air, how much wood, how much stoking."
Weber agrees. "No two firings are ever exactly alike," he said. "I've been doing this for 28 years and I'm still trying to figure it out."
Weber, who has studied with Japanese master Shiro Tsujimora and Barcelona's Joanet Artigas, will exhibit his work at the Ippodo Gallery in Tokyo this November.
Over several days the students stoke the firebox with red pine and other scraps of wood. Burning of the wood not only gives off a lot of heat up to 2,500 degrees but it also produces fly ash, which settles on the pieces, melts and creates a glaze. Often with some really brilliant colors, Reiter said. "I enjoy letting the process do some of the art."
Even placement of pieces within the anagama kiln affects how the pottery will look. Pieces closer to the fire source may get more glazing, while others may only get a sprinkling.
"The flame paints the work," Weber said. "Real wood flame on clay gives it a warmth and texture that you can't get with any other type of firing. You can see evidence of wood and flame interacting with clay, giving each piece a special feeling."
Weber uses the larger of his two anagama kilns for his workshops, which he started in 1988 for anyone with clay experience. His anagama consists of a 24-foot-long firing chamber with a firebox at one end and a flue at the other. It is built on a slope so that a better updraft can be achieved. About eight cords of wood are used for a typical firing, which in this kiln can vary from four to six days and take just as long to cool down.
The beauty of anagama-style firing lies in the natural ash glazes that can be achieved, and in the excitement of the long firing itself, Weber said. "The students learn firsthand why all the work of continuously stoking the fire and even an occasional burn are all worth the effort."
Unloading the kiln after all that hard work and anticipation is like Christmas morning, Weber said. "It's like opening the big package."
Reiter, who lost only one pot this year, because it melted to the shelf, said it's great to see the variety of pieces and level of talent.
The firing creates a sense of community, Weber said. "From loading the kiln to keeping the fire continually burning everyone is focusing on a common goal. There's a lot of energy from everyone in each piece.
"This experience takes a potter far past the wheel in his studio," Weber said. "Students can't advance with an hour here and an hour there. When they can couple their creative work with some focused time, things really start to happen."
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: Aug. 4, 2000