Side-Firing: Where the Life Is

by Dick Lehman

Reprinted with permission
from the June/July/August 1997 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine,
PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA;
www.ceramicsmonthly.org




Having just spent two days in Hiroshima may be the explanation for it all-seeing the still-skeletal remains of buildings at the Peace Park; the two angels, peasant women who appeared out of nowhere and asked in English if I wanted to pray; the hope-filled mountain of folded paper cranes; the human shadows on rock; piles of coins fused solid; bottles melted as if fired in my kiln; and hearing the stories from the Hibakusha (those who were within meters of the coins and bottles and shadowed rock and yet somehow survived the nuclear blast). Perhaps this intensely emotional experience magnified the significance of what was to happen next.

I had come to Japan to visit potters working with wood-firing, and welcomed an invitation to visit a potter working in the Bizen tradition as a reprieve from the intensity of the previous days. But I discovered that emotions and cognition, so stretched, do not easily return to their previous condition. The rhythm of the train wheels, the slant and color of the sun across the rice paddies, the incessant pestering of insects in the stale, still, humid air, the ghosting swirl of dust behind his car as Kunihiko Takahara came into the train station to pick me up-all these insignificant details are indelibly printed on my memory of that day, just as permanently as the shadow on the rock.

The taste of the tea and sweets also remains with me. So, too, does Takahara's reticence and indecision and irritation. What to do with this Westerner? A friend of a friend had called in this favor. It was clear that he remained unconvinced that I even was a potter. Only when I fingered the clay, testing its plasticity, did I sense a spark jump the gap. Did I wish to throw some? Of course! Finally, as I brought up the cone of three-year-old Bizen clay, I heard the flick of the cigarette lighter, saw the swirl of smoke that covered the right side of his face, heard the exhalation of relief, noticed the acknowledging pout. His head nodded slowly. Later I learned that he had spoken softly to himself. "Oh, so he is a potter." With his relief came an invitation to extend my stay, and to visit the studio of his brother, Shoji Takahara, with whom he had apprenticed for ten years. There was a casual, direct air about his brother's place. More tea and sweets. A chance to look at finished pots, exhibition catalogs, the kiln. Conversation about the pottery of Native Americans ensued. More tea. My legs fell asleep, sitting as we were at a low table.

Then came the conversation that may have changed forever the way I think about vision, passion and limitations. Given an opportunity to show the elder Takahara my work, I brought out some pieces and some photographs. He was surprisingly direct in his response, defying the polite, noncommittal responses that convention would have required. He voiced his appreciation for my wood-fired pots-not so for my production ware. Despite the complexities of translated conversation, I understood him to say emphatically "These are nice. Why don't you make only this kind of work? Here is where the life is!" I offered the elder sensei my reasons, among which was the fact that "I love wood firing. If I could, I would only fire with wood. But I simply cannot live up to all the commitments that I have already made, and earn a living by making and selling only wood-fired pots in northern Indiana." His rebuttal was direct, but almost indifferent. "Well," he said, mentioning another American potter by name, "he lives in a place very much like you do, and he does it.

I don't remember much of anything else about the rest of that day. I recall little about how I got to the train station. (I know I did because I have a photograph of myself there.) I have no idea what time it was when I returned to Hiroshima.

My ruminations on Takahara-san's indictment were complex and consuming. I was partly flattered that a potter of his stature should show pleasure at some of my work. I felt a little indignant that he might suggest what I should do. And I was hooked, or at least baited by the idea that it might be possible to spend more time doing what I really wanted to do. Of course, I was doing what I wanted, for the most part. But the conversation helped me, in a way that none other had, identify the false or imagined limitations within which I operate, and consider how to more fully pursue my dreams and passion within the limitations that really do exist. Was it my Hiroshima-induced receptivity that allowed me to hear these questions, which for most of us are within easy reach at any time? I expect so. I believe this experience encouraged me to think about what is important, what is worthwhile, what is "where the life is." I am grateful that these experiences were so closely tethered in time, and pleased that the questions have remained, incessant and pestering, but in a friendly sort of way. To more fully pursue my dreams and passion implies that I know what they are -- no small task since these are the very elements that are at the heart of evolution and change. As I began to more seriously contemplate Takahara's query, I first thought that full-time wood-firing was the answer. My little crossdraft, wood-burning kiln produced pots, in 24-hour firings, that were kissed by the flow of ash, expressing drama and surprise. These pieces also had, due to the brevity of the firing, a toasty warm quality that was restful, soothing and quiet.

However, very soon someone "upped the ante" in my quest: at Pennsylvania potter Jack Troy's invitation, I had the first of several experiences wood firing anagama-style kilns. The exuberance of the four-day firings; the altered shapes propelled by the pyroplasticity of the clay; the expressions of kinetic energy exuded by the ash runs, drips and pools -- all these new experiences convinced me that pursuit of my dream would inescapably lead to my own anagama-style kiln.

The apex of this new experience came in two stages. The first arrived one afternoon when Troy directed me to a cabinet where he stored his "keepers" -- pots that, as he says, "have not yet become a commodity." There I found a small bottle that had been wood-fired on its side. It had likely been placed far forward in the kiln, but behind a larger piece. The flame eddy from the larger piece had deposited huge amounts of ash on the bottle, which had melted sufficiently to send countless intermingling rivulets of ash-glass cascading to the bottom side, there meeting and forming a huge glass-drip that hung down like a cluster of ripe grapes. After the firing, when the pot was righted, this "dragonfly eye" drip of glass, protruded horizontally into space, seeming to defy gravity.

The second stage arrived with my introduction to the work of Shigaraki potter Shiho Kanzaki, who works with a significantly shorter version of an anagama, which might be described as one giant firebox. Nearly all his pots exhibit that two-sidedness that we often associate with "firebox -pots." Ten days of firing with pine produces pots with amazing complexity of surface. But sadly, as I gained my own insight into the qualities and methodology of "where the life is," my own personal limitations became more focused. I found myself doubting that my neighbors would join me in a quest to make ours the first subdivision in America to boast an anagama. As I considered the commitments I had made to my customers of 20 years, I had to acknowledge the fact that -- in spite of my changing aesthetic vision -- they were still going to be counting on me for some continuity in style. Also, I had made (and wanted to keep) commitments to my spouse and her career, our children and extended family, my employees -- not to mention to the mortgage and the bank. It soon became clear that buying land, moving, building an anagama, and generally uprooting all we had worked toward during the last 20 years would present real obstacles, and were indeed real limitations.

But it got worse (my vision, that is). As I examined a wonderful catalog that my friend Jyotaro Inoue sent to me from the exhibition commemorating the full opening of the Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum, I found myself for months returning again and again to the photos of magnificent wood-fired pots that had fallen over during their firings. Not only did they have the passionate flame patterns and misshapen pyroplastic bulges, but they had a curvilinear ash drip documenting the fall of the piece, and the scars and attachments recording their final resting places.

I was near despair. My aesthetic vision was becoming increasingly more specific and rarefied, and I had begun to wonder if it bordered on the tenuous and out-of-touch. And irrespective of how out-of-touch it was or wasn't, the means to get there seemed out of reach.

Fortunately, it was about this time that I came across an article written by Kota Shino; it told the story of Shiro Otani, another potter from Shigaraki, who could not afford to own and operate his own kiln, and was forced to make do with third-rate locations in other people's kilns. Those locations were far behind the coveted spots in the firebox that produced the thick coating of unmelted wood ash, or greenish glaze formed from melting ash, which had come to characterize Shigaraki ware. Undaunted, Otani determined to work within his limitations. The result of his efforts was, as Shino puts it, pots that "captured popular attention and started a new trend. This was the debut of flame-color Shigaraki with its underfired rosy flush."

Taking heart from this example, I set out to ask myself how I might work within my own limitations (no anagama, no ten-day firings, no firing accidents with pots plopping over onto their sides), to make pots that embodied some of the qualities and characteristics of the pots I most admired. I had no aspiration to become a trendsetter, but I wondered aloud, "Is it possible to work within the constraints of my production pottery setting, firing mainly Cone 9 reduction-glazed ware, to make pots that are empowered by the characteristics of those that have nourished and invigorated me and that still have an integrity all their own?"

It was a challenging and complex question. Working within my limitations had to do with more than just money, location, job security and Cone 9 glaze firings. It meant first taking stock of some of the ways I have tended to approach the clay. One of the things I "discovered" was that I have for years been firing pots on their sides in a variety of settings: almost all my pit, saggar and raku firings have had pots on their sides. Additionally, for all the crystalline glazes that I have done over the years, I have gotten used to the necessity of making a separare, one-time-use pedestal or tripod to facilitate the firing.

With these things in mind, it seemed a natural progression to attempt to address Takahara's challenge by side-firing Cone 9 glazed ware. The pots are dipped in a single carbon-trapping glaze:

Carbon-Trap Glaze
(Cone 9, reduction)
Soda Ash: 16%
Kona F-4 Feldspar: 9%
Nepheline Syenite: 39%
Cedar Heights Redart: 6%
Edgar Plastic Kaolin: 17%
Kentucky Ball Clay (OM 4): 13%
total: 100%

They are then set on their sides on one-time-use tripods. Sieved additions of ashes, fluxes and/or colorants complete the preparation for firing. As temperatures escalate, the added fluxes cause rivulets of glaze to move from the "top" side, surrounding the pot with "fingers" of glass that may meet as a dragonfly eye at the "bottom" side. In addition to using only one glaze for this side-firing process, I have further attempted to work within limitations by moving, more recently, to the use of only one clay body (porcelain). These "sideways" pots are usually fired right alongside the usual casseroles, pitchers and pie plates in regular Cone 9 glaze firings, which allows me to continue to explore the concept's potential in every firing.

The results achieved by side-firing may be process-driven, but they are always just a little out of control-and often just a little more intoxicating than they would be if all the variables were to be under my control. I consider the process of producing this side-fired ware to be as much an act of receiving, as an act of making-as well as a partial answer to Takahara's challenge.

Yes, I have found myself wondering how these pots and this process will "wear" over the course of time. How will they be received by others? How will I feel about them as time passes? I also wonder where the path may lead. What might other facets of discovery look like? What will these pots look like, to me, in 5 or 10 or 20 years?

One of the wonders and delights of this medium is that continuing discoveries are awaiting all who approach it with curiosity and integrity. I hope that for me, in 20 years, the questions remain as interesting, the discoveries at least as occasional, and the answers just as elusive as they are now. And I hope that I will still be on the quest for "where the life is".


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