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Into the fire

Heat and passion unite as potters from as far away as Texas travel to St. Petersburg to put their wares, and their faith, in a huge wood-burning kiln.

Published June 19, 2003

[Times photos: James Borchuck]
Flames erupt from the chimney of the anagama at the St. Pete Clay Company. One of the most ancient types of kilns, anagamas were first used in Japan in the fifth century.
Above, about 1,000 pieces await loading in the anagama before its firing. After unloading, below, the pieces cool off. Several large pieces were seriously cracked, but most of the work survived the firing.

Ceramist Chuck Owens loads the anagama by “tumble stacking” fragile bowls, plates and sculpture. He was one of several dozen people involved in the process, which took three days.
After the anagama cooled off for a week, members of the St. Pete Clay Company, including Joan Jacobs, right, formed a human chain to unload it.

ST. PETERSBURG - Hope burns bright in a potter's heart.

Other media might also partner human will with natural forces, but no other art is shaped by such large measures of optimism and fatality as that formed from clay by hands that then consign it to fire.

"We give it up to the gods," said Russ Gustafson-Hilton, a local ceramicist and partner in St. Pete Clay Company.

A lot of potters had a lot to give up during several recent weeks.

More than 40 from as far away as Texas brought about 1,000 vessels and statuary to St. Pete Clay for the first firing of the anagama, a mammoth, wood-burning kiln built on the grounds a year ago but never used.

"It took us that long to get that much ware," Gustafson-Hilton said.

In a multistep process that begins with a lump of earth and ends, at best, in fully realized craft, the final product can be affected by a number of variables: the kind of clay used; the glazes, if any; the type of kiln.

Implicit is the acceptance that some work will crack and explode.

If you're a potter, the adage goes, you have to love the color brown and you can't love your pots too much.

Anagamas require more than the usual dose of potterly faith, hope and charity because of the unusually long firing and cool-down times, its design as a long, single chamber, and the trust and cooperation required of those using it.

This kiln, probably the largest anagama in the Southeast, measures about 20 feet long and resembles Captain Nemo's submarine partially submerged in a bed of bricks.

One of the most ancient types of kilns, anagamas were first used in Japan in the fifth century. Before that, pottery was fired in pits or bonfires. The anagama was usually built in the slope of a mountain. Villages would grow up around one, with everyone involved in pottery-making.

"Everyone had to contribute," Gustafson-Hilton said. "If a firing went well, the village would benefit."

Anagamas still take a village, and the Clay Company has something of a village atmosphere to it. A group of ceramic artists, including Gustafson-Hilton, bought the historic Seaboard Coastline Railroad Station southwest of downtown St. Petersburg in 2000 and spent about $500,000 renovating it for studios, kiln and glaze rooms, gallery space and the partners' business selling clay and equipment. Four outdoor kilns, including the anagama, were built on adjacent land, making the Clay Company one of the most comprehensive ceramics workshops in the Southeast.

Several dozen artists rent space, and on most days the place bears witness to all phases of the potter's art, with clay being thrown on wheels or coiled into shape, glazed, and loaded or unloaded from indoor gas kilns.

But the normal routine pretty much stopped May 25 when several dozen people, including some out-of-towners lured by the anagama's reputation, assembled to help load it. They volunteered in shifts for the round-the-clock care and feeding the kiln needed while firing. They were there when the brick door was dismantled, and they formed a bucket-brigade line to hasten its unloading.

"I like the big community effort it takes to do this," said Brian Harper, a University of Iowa graduate student who helped build the Clay Company's anagama and returned to supervise this first firing. "You're making something together, and you have to trust other people."

The anagama takes about three days to load. The method, called tumble stacking, looks like a jumble of fragile bowls, plates and sculpture jostled together on jury-rigged shelving.

It's actually a precise, carefully planned process.

"There's an art to loading it," Harper said. "You have to think about how one piece will affect another, the patterns they'll make. You have to let your work be put in next to someone else's and hope it won't collapse on yours. It's a humbling experience."

Wood is banked inside the anagama's entrance, which is covered with more bricks, and then the fire is lit. The temperature slowly increases over several days, until it reaches its optimum firing level, 2,400 degrees. (In comparison, cremation requires a maximum of 1,800 degrees.) For a week, someone is always on duty to drop more wood - in this case about seven cords - through ports built along the kiln's side to keep the fire going with a glow so bright it can be seen a half-mile away.

A chimney flue at the far end of the kiln creates a draft that sweeps ash through the chamber, where it settles onto the clay as it bakes, creating the unusual, unpredictable finishes prized by collectors.

After a week, the fire is allowed to burn out. It can take weeks for the kiln to cool down. Open it up too soon and the pieces will probably crack from sudden exposure to cooler air.

"I know people who go away for a month while it's cooling off because they can't stand the anticipation," said Bjorn Strawbe, who came from Melbourne to help with the firing.

This cool-down needed only a week, so on June 11, about two dozen potters gathered at the Clay Company while Harper and several others opened the anagama. Coated in a thin layer of ash, the contents looked like something out of an archaeological dig.

Several large pieces were seriously cracked, but most of the work survived. An unknown was how well the kiln was loaded. Would all the pieces get enough exposure to those serendipitous ashes?

Yes, it turned out. As the potters took turns hauling out the wares, still so hot they had to wear fire mittens while passing them along a line to safe resting places, they ventured some proprietary comments.

"She's gorgeous," said Valerie Scott Knaust, hugging, as it passed through her hands, one of her clay torsos that had taken on deep swirls of blues and grays.

Another Scott Knaust piece had melded with a shelf and probably was irretrievable.

"It happens," she said.

"Sean," Beth Manning called to her husband down the line when she recognized one of his vases, which had acquired deeper brown tints with hints of amber. "It's great."

All the work needed scrubbing and a coating of mineral oil. The kiln had to be cleaned out and the silica carbide shelves scraped - at $50 each, they have to be reused - so it would be a long day and probably another long one after that.

The anagama, having spent itself, was at rest, like some mythological beast that goes into a deep slumber until its fire is resummoned to work an ancient alchemy. The Clay Company folks think that won't happen again until December or January, and the potters are already working on vessels to feed the kiln's great maw. They'll understand better how to exploit its ash. But they can never be sure what will happen when the mouth is sealed and the flames are stoked.

"And that's a lot of the fun of it," Harper said.

"But this one was," said Gustafson-Hilton, "an absolutely beautiful firing."

[Last modified June 18, 2003, 09:49:37]

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