2014 Noborigama Kiln Firing

Benjamin Hofvendahl, Student
Saturday, November 29, 2014

Friday, Nobember 14th, marked the 124th firing of the oldest noborigama kiln in the U.S., built on Woolman soil in 1971 by a large crew, including Dick Hotchkiss, who runs it currently. Woolman students, local potters, and some from as far off as North Carolina came to our campus for this three-day event.

A noborigama is a Japanese style of kiln dating back to the 17th century. It features a large clay structure with multiple connected chambers situated on a slope.

Day 1:

We split rounds of cedar into massive rows of kindling.

We glazed our pieces together, and stacked them on shelves next to the kiln.

It was strange to see over 2,000 ceramic pieces, each individually and carefully crafted by so many different potters and sculptors, all fit into a single kiln.

The kiln doors were sealed shut late at night. A fire was built at the top to create suction, and another fire was built at the bottom. We stoked it until the fire glowed yellow-white and a searing kiln wind pulled from the bottom chamber out through the chimney.

Day 2:

We stoked the kiln all morning, all day, and into the night, in shifts.

One person pulls the stopper out, one throws the wood in, then shuts the stopper, all in one quick motion. It’s so hot that the wood explodes rather than burns.

The heat is intense, but it’s much more exciting than unpleasant. Except by the end of your shift, that is.

Day 3:

This is the time we'd been referring to as "Christmas morning."

We opened up the doors, and assembly-line passed thousands of hot ceramics into the open.

“No oggling. Keep the line moving.”

We oggled. I oggled quickly, caressed each piece with my hands as I passed it to the lady on my right, who was beaming back at me. Honestly, my heart was pounding with joy and excitement. I cannot overstate the emotional effect of watching all of these transformed pieces, hot out of the kiln and baked dark and smooth and vibrant, being passed out into the open. I saw each piece individually, and was briefly elated by its elegant form, its weight, the way its heat lingered on my hands, the rich dark interior or the the way the glazes interplay on the rim, before passing it to my right and taking the next on my left.

And finally, every piece was layed out together in the open, and all the artists walked among them, collecting their own, admiring others’, and talking.

There’s an element of unpredictability in the process that is fascinating. The upper chambers were hotter than the lower; the bottom one was more prone to scorching; reduction and oxidation work in mysterious ways, making the same glaze turn different colors on different pots, different colors on the same pot, or different colors on different sides of a pot; some unfortunate pieces (unless you’re into that) had pieces of the kiln roof fall into them. The number of variables that play into how a piece turns out is dizzying. It’s an exercise in acceptance.

 

I think I may be a little bit in love with ceramics. There were pieces so finely crafted that I could feel the sculptors hands poring over every curve and surface, and, though I’m blushing as I write this, there were pieces that were so beautiful, or so shapely that they made my heart flutter in a way that I can really only compare to meeting the gaze of someone I have a crush on.

 

One of the greatest things about ceramics, as Giovanna noted to me, is the community it creates. All these potters and sculptors rely on each other, and come together here for this kiln firing. Thank you all the people who built the dragon kiln, all the people who kept it running, the people who split the wood, the people who stacked, the people who stoked, the people who piled, the people who passed, the people who brought food, the people who explained to me the nuances of how the whole confounded thing works, the people who contributed works of ceramic to the kiln, the people who contributed their knowledge, the people who contributed their work and their love, and all the people who shared the joy of the whole process.

Thank you all,

Benjamin

(First photo by Maggie Jones. Subsequent photos by Gray and Nomi)

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