Journal Title George Fox Journal Online

River of Fire

Anagama kiln teaches lessons, both material and spiritual

Mark Terry sees beauty in imperfection. Uniformity, by contrast, became the ideal for pottery as a result of mass production - not the imaginations of artists, says Terry, George Fox associate professor of art. "Part of me likes how this stands in defiance of that," he says, looking toward a hillside inferno firing pots in the night at more than 2,000 degrees. A wood-fired kiln finishes the pots as it wills - individually. "You give up your work like a sacrifice and let the kiln play its part . "

In September,Mark Terry served as a panelist at the International Wood Firing Conference in Iowa. Several of his works, including this one, were displayed at a related exhibition where a prominent collector bought every piece. Terry holds out a pot, illuminated by flames surging through the kiln’s door as it is stoked. He notes the pot’s freckling from ashes, its rough texture, and the blush curling around its uneven form. "What’s attractive about this is it’s unique, and real, and beautiful," he says. Not unlike people and their imperfections, he notes.

Terry immerses George Fox students into this art form several times a year when they fire their unglazed pots in his wood-fired kiln, the Noble Hill Anagama. Terry built the kiln two years ago - fashioned after the medieval anagama kilns of Korea - on his parents’ 17-acre Christmas tree farm in Forest Grove, Ore.

He wants George Fox students to enjoy the ancient art form he and a few of his students have experienced yearly at the East Creek Anagama Kiln in Willamina, Ore., which was designed by master potter Katsuyuki Sakazume. Terry’s 125- cubic-foot kiln is modeled after this "hill-climbing" kiln and is one of only a handful of anagama kilns in Oregon. Terry says the wood-firings enable him to teach through a more holistic and engaged process. Most firings, which use electric or gas kilns with high-tech instrumentation, are easily controlled by one person, so the average student doesn’t experience the firing process. They create their pottery and set it on a shelf; they return later and see their fired pots on the "done" shelf.

"I think there’s something incredibly beautiful and harmonious about an anagama firing that gets lost by all the technology," Terry says. "This is so close to the roots of the medium. You have to read the kiln, the fire, smells, sound, and colors and take action. It’s all very interactive and physical. Most of this is a lost tradition."

On this night, George Fox students gather for the third and final night of the firing. The blaze is so bright the stokers must wear sunglasses to see inside, where pots glow as ghosts amid the fiery torrent. No one near the kiln wears a coat. They work to the sounds of crickets, the roar of the fire, and buzz of conversation. "It’s magic, the organic feeling of firing these pieces," says sophomore art major Patrick McKinney. "We rely on fundamental aspects of nature. We are involved in the metamorphosis that the pottery goes through. It’s communal - we all have a common goal."

Catie Hager, also a sophomore art major, stands between a woodpile and the kiln and studies its flue, her face flushed from the heat. She is one of two stokers working a four-hour shift during the nonstop three-day process. When the flames subside, she and her stoking partner open the side ports and release small logs from their welder’s gloves. The moment is executed in careful unison to prevent the fire’s back draft from hitting either student. The kiln hisses with the addition of new fuel.

"A river of flames goes through the kiln, and the pots are like rocks that the flames flow around," says Hager. The currents of flame, in fact, are carefully considered as pots are loaded before the firing. Certain areas of the kiln will be hottest, and the fire’s flow will impact one side of the pots more heavily than the other. Spacing and placement in the kiln affect the natural glazes created from the accumulation of ashes in the firing process.

It is only 10 p.m., so this firing crew will work another two hours before the next group takes over. There is ample time for community - close friendships born of chopping and gathering wood together, stoking the kiln, and keeping fellow workers awake through conversation in the lonely morning hours. "Artists tend to be loner types, but that’s not possible with this. It takes a community," Terry says.

"There is so much joy in getting together with people who love doing the same thing," says Elizabeth Voth, a junior art major. "There is so much energy and affirmation that people share. Everyone has sacrificed a lot to do this." Voth has decided the wood-firing process will become a lifelong pursuit for her. "Anagama has taught me a lot about perseverance. I’ve come to trust my creativity and resiliency more, no matter what happens. I would love the mentors in my life to be those who value the process and elements of anagama." Terry considers creativity a type of prayer language, making the arts all the more relevant in a Christian university. "We are all created in the image of God," he says. "The part of him most of us can most easily grasp is God as the creator. I think we are all innately creative.

Mark Terry's Pottery We are emulating him anytime we sit down to create." Creating is a worthy pursuit apart from any connection to marketability or job-training, he says. At the same time, creativity is a valued asset in the business world. He has learned that a master’s in fine arts is becoming one of the pursued degrees for top management positions, according to Michele Wayte, associate professor of marketing.

Terry compares anagama firing to the process of childbirth - preparation, followed by labor that intensifies until the process peaks with the delivery of new life. In this case, the kiln delivers its pots. "I think this is a powerful observation for the students," he says.

The last pyrometric cone melts, indicating the kiln has reached nearly 2,500 degrees. The weary artists will now go home and return a week later to see how the pots reflect the ashes and flames. Some pots will be cracked, slumped, or fallen over. Those that survive will be transmuted into something imperfect, individual - and beautiful.
Perhaps, too, some students will be changed.

More pictures of the Anagama kiln

By Tamara Cissna
tcissna@georgefox.edu

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