LOADING AND FIRING THE ANAGAMA
IN SHIGARAKI SPRING 1999


By KARL BEAMER




With enough works completed to do two firings, I was considering a short checklist of things that needed to be done this Friday April 2nd 1999. The weather was nice in the morning, but by afternoon it started to rain heavily. I was concerned because all the work had to be carried outside to the kiln. The works were unfired so a heavy rain could dampen the activities considerably. But for now, I asked if the wadding clay for stacking should be made-yes was the answer-but it's my decision as to which one. I made clay from the reclaim buckets. I hoped it would be good enough.

Saturday April 3rd.

At this point I'd like to address the design of Kanzaki San's anagama. When we were building the kiln in Bloomsburg, it was made clear that cones and pyrometers would not be used. Kanzaki San also said to me that the kiln would tell me everything. And he taught me to rely on the appearance and sound of the fire and smoke to make all the decisions during a firing. These concepts are basic to firing any kiln, but I felt very insecure in this situation. The management of wood fuel, airflow and stacking design to affect the wares were obviously new to me. The kiln design, with the lower and upper fireboxes, makes precise control rather simple. The beginning fire is started on the ground outside of the lower firebox. Almost immediately, the fire air bends toward the opening sending warm air though the kiln. Five silicon carbide bars span the roof of the lower firebox, so the warm air drawn into the kiln passes up through these grates and then throughout the chamber and out the chimney. The chimney, which is a foot high, has a silicon carbide slab on top for a damper. At the beginning of the firing, the chimney is completely open. The door and air control wall for the upper firebox are in front of the grates. During the first 24 hours(usually night)the fire is gradually increased and moved into the lower firebox. So by the end of the first day, a healthy fire is burning up through the grates and the lower firebox has a 4-inch layer of very hot coals on the floor. Working at 10-minute intervals, wood is put in the upper firebox through the door two or three times to start the fire in the upper firebox. When this is done, two silicon carbide slabs are placed standing vertically at the mouth of the lower firebox. There is about a three- quarter of an inch gap between the slabs in the center, with 7 bricks placed (horizontal position) in front of the slabs. The bricks hold the slabs in place and can also be moved a half inch or so away to allow air to flow in across the coals and up through the grates. The more bricks moved away, the stronger the flow of air and the fire travels straight up along the arch of the kiln. The two rows of bricks just below the door are also moveable. Usually the top row is kept solid, but the second row down is slid to make an opening up to 2 inches wide. With the bottom bricks closed and the top ones open, the air and fire pattern will be directed horizontally through the center of the kiln. One can use any combination of these two air controls in concert with the chimney damper to direct fire and ash to any part of the kiln. So if one has heavy pieces in the firebox, it's easy the direct the fire up along the roof of the kiln, without damaging the works. During firings, the air inlet opening at the fire mouth door can also be moved from the center to either side to direct energies in those specific areas. The direct flame and ash flow can be adjusted to travel through high, low, center, right or left areas of the kiln. Hiromi Matsukawa was my partner in loading and firing this kiln. We began loading about 1 p.m. Kanzaki San insisted that I not go in the kiln since I've had surgery on both of my knees, and I might break them. Matsukawa San was asking me to teach him to load the firebox, which I don't understand since he's been doing firings for 18 years, perhaps in innocence or ignorance I've done things in Bloomsburg that are of interest here. I'm thinking that my habit of loading the tallest thinnest pieces into the sides of the firebox might be the most different thing that I do in firings. All I know is that it's about 35 degrees F and I'm freezing from sitting still and directing the location of the works. This kiln hasn't been fired in a long time so it's cold and damp. But I stayed outside the fire mouth looking in, and tried to be directive. The works are constantly reviewed from the fire mouth opening to make sure the fire flow through the kiln would affect each piece. Works not visible from the front will not have many natural ash glazes on them. The location and position of each piece in relationship to all the other pieces is very important. Each piece was placed on a trivet of clay, which has wadding and a brick under it. The wadding is coated with hydrated aluminum. The trivets are made ahead of time using press molds. They're round discs of unfired clay with small cones attached with the pointed end up. This method allows the flow of melted ash deposit to run down the work and around the bottom, without fusing the artwork to the shelves or the wadding too securely. With the amount of glaze flow in Kanzaki's kilns, it's still about a week of labor to disengage and clean the bottoms of the works. Earlier in the day I loaded Shino bowls in the kerosene kiln to bisque. By 10 p.m. the firebox loading in the anagama was complete, and I turned my attention to working with the other kiln. Kanzaki San thought I was too slow with the controls on the kerosene, so I "hustled" the burners a little and finish about 12:30 a.m., and retired to bed.

Sunday April 4th

We (I'm now inside with Hiromi) continued loading using the procedure described above, finishing the firebox and the lower level of the first step by noon. All of the steps were loaded to the top of the kiln arch, because strong ash flow can be directed to the top areas of the kiln as well as the bottom. Kanzaki San remarked that we had gotten very many works in the kiln. After lunch we worked until 6 p.m. to finish the top half of the first step. At supper Kanzaki San suggested that I should glaze Shino bowls, while Hiromi worked on the bottom half of the second step. It was may be 36 degrees outside so I don't protest too much. I made a big mistake in not bringing enough layers of clothing. The Shino glaze was mixed in a five-gallon bucket. The iron oxide wash was ground from materials that Kanzaki San collected earlier from around Shigaraki and kept for many years. I felt very honored to be given the chance to use these materials! One detail I forgot to mention before was that when the bowls are in a dry green state, the outside surface is scrapped. This allows the glaze inside to mature to a smooth surface while the outside develops a pattern of small crawl textures. After an introduction to using the materials, I began applying iron wash bush decorations to half the bowls. I also finished Chuck Hines bowls he made in a previous visit. The glaze was applied by pouring the inside and dipping the outside. The dipping was timed to get the right thickness of glaze that would produce a combination of white and pinkish/orange colors. This day ended at 11:30p.m.

Monday April 5th day 1

Hiromi and I finished the second step. Some pieces were stacked for effect on their sides. Four 15 inch plates that were stretched into ovals were placed on pieces of shelves and leaned against the step in an almost vertical position. The third step was stacked with 48 saggers containing the Shino bowls. Three groups of four were placed across the step. Each group was four saggers high. We were concerned that the columns might shift at high heat, so each group had a shelf placed on top to tie the group together. A few pieces were placed on top of the shelves. We just managed to get two big pieces through the side door. They were positioned on the sand floor just inside the door on the fourth step. About 8p.m. the front surface of the kiln was repaired, and the side door bricked shut. We cleaned around the kiln and got some wood ready. At 9p.m. Kanzaki San said a short prayer and lit the fire. I thanked Kanzaki San and Hiromi San, feeling gratefulness and bewilderment of my good fortune to be here with these great people doing this wonderful thing. Hiromi had been here since Saturday, and now I realized he was staying the ten days of the firing! As we were all bowing in simple polite gestures to one another, softly illuminated by the fire, my emotions become too big for my body and exploded out of my eyes. Kanzaki, sensing that we all might be in an emotional zone here, announced that my time to work the kiln would be from 4p.m. to 4 a.m., so I should begin sorting wood and watching the temperature so my works don't blow up! The temperature would increase until red heat at a rate of 20 degrees C. per hour. Keiko San brought a box of Pepsi, Blendy, crackers and cups of noodles. The big bottles of Blendy are strong, sweetened coffee, my favorite. I was shown how to use the little kitchen by the kiln for early morning dining. Kanzaki San cautioned me to be careful because this kiln gets too hot easily and quickly. The large works in the back needed consideration for their thickness. By 11 p.m. the lower firebox was drawing nicely, and the kiln was drying. The routine of slowly building the fire as it is moved ever so slowly toward the front wall of the kiln was continued through the night. Off to bed at 4a.m.

Tuesday April 6th day 2

By 11 a.m. I awoke......kind of. Kanzaki San got up at noon. I began tending the fire about 3:30, and Hiromi rebuilt the top of the chimney. By 5p.m. the lower firebox was filled with wood, so the fire was now extending up through the grates about 12 inches. At 6p.m. Hiromi finished the chimney so the draft will be stronger now. Wood was put into the upper firebox at 7:30 p.m. Stoking was done every 1O minutes. Each stoke was three small piles of sorted sticks 18 inches in length. A pile is enough wood to be comfortably picked up with two hands. The wood is split down to about a 2-inch thickness so that the works are safe. Wood rolling off the fire mound can severely damage the green clay. The handle on the door was really small. I could get only three fingers in it, and probably only two with double gloves. But it's good enough to work with. Hiromi toke over at 4a.m. and I'm off to bed.

Wednesday April 7th day 3

At 11 a.m., I was back at the kiln. The side peeps were showing strong red-orange flames, stoking is now done according to the needs of the kiln. So now when wood is put into the kiln, the red and then orange flames appear just after stoking and usually dissipate in six to seven minutes. The bottom four bricks were a half-inch away from the slabs. The top air intake just below the door was one and three quarters of an inch open. The damper on the top of the chimney was 14 centimeters open. The works were looking a little shiny. The two big pieces in the back were intact and looking good. Stoking, stoking, stoking....... Hiromi brought four truck loads of wood up from the field about 4 p.m. Strong orange flames appeared at the peeps, and a dull red transparent flame appeared at the chimney by 11:30 p.m. The night was cool and crisp without clouds, and the sky full of stars. BUT, it's SNOWING! Kanzaki San says......Oh.. it's unusual. I think so. 4 a.m. good night.

Thursday April 8th day 4

The day is bright, sunny and windy. At 11 a.m. and the works are just beginning to show glaze. Stoking continued with the heat building at a consistent rate. At 4p.m. I began my shift as Hiromi brought up five loads of wood with the truck. The chimney was showing strong red flame with each stoke. By 6 p.m. the kiln reached the next level of heat, showing streaks of yellow at the chimney. Single occasional puffs of yellow are recorded as p's. Clusters of dancing yellow puffs are recorded as pp's. The chimney is the pyrometer, so dull red fire is low heat, giving way to bright red heat, then p's and PP's. The highest heat is shown as a large bright yellow burst of flame almost immediately after stoking. This is recorded as B. So on this, the fourth day of the firing, by evening and going into the night, the kiln was showing a mixture of p's and pp's. The stoking continued through the night.

Friday April 9th day 5

It's another bright sunny day, and all the works were looking great. There was a strong yellow white heat now. During each stoke there's time to look quickly around the firebox and the first step. The ash fusion into running glaze has been visible since very early this morning. Since then the chimney has been showing B's. Today We'll let the kiln go, but last night the damper on the chimney was moved to 12.5 from 13cm. to slow things down. Later, as the coals from the fire fall into the lower firebox, the fire can slow down and make it difficult to reach maximum heat. But, for now the kiln is almost running away, so the third brick from the top is put against the slabs in the lower firebox. This leaves the three top bricks in and the four bottom bricks out. By 5 p.m. We're trying to cool the kiln a little. Takahasi, an engineering student from the University of Kyoto, arrived to learn stoking so he can take Hiromi's place tomorrow. Through this night and into tomorrow morning, the kiln has settled down into a rhythm of mostly pp's.

Saturday April 1Oth day 6

The morning is just kind of gray. By afternoon the rain is fairly steady. The kiln is still holding next to high heat. There are lots of glazes on the works, with some dripping off the shelves. Looking great! A very strong storm moved in at 6 p.m., and by 1Op.m., the kiln was losing temperature. The hole under the door was opened 4cm., and the kiln came back strong. The sky cleared about 1 a.m. and the air got a lot better; cleaner and lighter, more vigorous.

Sunday April 11th day 7

The weather was warm and sunny. Many people are here to see the kiln. By afternoon, the weather the changed with the atmospheric pressure dropping. The fire was weakening some, and by 4 p.m. another brick was opened on the bottom. The kiln was still struggling at 7 p.m. with only weak pp's. Stoking continued leaving the door slightly tilted so some extra air could flow across the fire. Almost immediately, the chimney showed a strong pp. By the early morning hours, the fire came back to very strong bursts of yellow at the chimney. The kiln continued the accelerate, so the damper was closed 2 cm. and the hole under the door was closed. The weather was now bringing high pressure so the air was moving easily, making the fire hotter with less effort.

Monday April 12th day 8

The firing continued in fine condition. But once again, around 4 p.m. the air seemed to get heavy and lazy. The kiln was really slowing down. Now there is just an orange flame at the chimney. Another brick was opened at the lower firebox, and the damper on the chimney was opened to 12 cm. By 12:30 a.m. the kiln was roaring again, so a piece of brick was put in the door hole. The kiln didn't slowdown, so a bigger piece of brick that shut off all the air at the door was used. It seemed that late afternoon was the slowest time for firing and the hours from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. tended to be the strongest. At least during this firing that was a pattern. The works were staying in place. Glaze patterns were visible everywhere. The shelves were dripping glaze like water. For the last five days, about every third stoke, the coals in the firebox had been raked. Raking can be done with a small paddle end or a pointed tool. This action stirs the coals to enhance combustion, disperses ash and moves charcoal against the works in the firebox. The latter makes contrast textures and great pink and purple colors in the area around the charcoal layers.

Tuesday April 13th day 9

@The morning was bright and sunny with a substantial breeze. **The kiln was continuing to give strong B's and we let it go. By evening, Kanzaki San was now, for my amusement, speculating whether the kiln furniture might fail under the extreme heat. ‡T'm willing to go wherever the light of all this takes us. We spent the rest of the night discussing all kinds of catastrophic melt downs and strange new colors that might result. Once the cycle began, We both tried to outdo the other, describing the most extreme possibilities imaginable. At one point in the discussion, the shelves became perforated by the most heat ever attained in a kiln, leaving spot patterns all over the works. In reality, we were really tired. At 4 a.m. Hiromi took over, not believing any of the conditions we described to him.

Wednesday April 14th day 1O

Everybody was tired! The firing continued most of the day with the plug in the upper air hole to reduce the heat. About 5 p.m. Takigawa San and his son arrived to observe the firing. A little later, the members from his temple arrive also. The door plug was removed and the kiln returned to high heat producing large bursts of fire at the chimney every stoke. Everybody seemed mesmerized by the cycle of the fire. This was the sponsoring group for Dick Lehman and my exhibition in Tamba so they did have more than a passing interest in the process and the out come. Everybody from Tamba left about 9:30 p.m. We continued firing at high heat. About midnight Araya San arrived and I was surprised that anybody would be visiting at such an hour. But Kanzaki San explained that Araya loves being active at night, especially when he's photographing fireflies or a kiln is firing. Hiromi was summoned from his sleep at 1 a.m. and began preparing the clay slip that's used to seal the kiln at the end of the firing. At 2 I prepared to make the final adjustments to the works in the firebox. It's not so good to have anything touching the walls in the firebox for the obvious reason that they become fused in place upon cooling. My intentions of loading the works near the wall have now come back haunt me. So then, why would I load this way? Because in this type of kiln, the energy coming off the wall onto the works is as good as the fire side effects, and I wanted to achieve as much as possible. In the ten days of firing, four of the pieces in the front relaxed against the wall. So now with double layer gloves and triple shirts, I must use a long 1/2 inch thick rod with a hooked end to pull each piece away from the sticky wall. Hiromi did a heavy stoke and I waited for the fire to subside, then reached into the kiln with a rod trying to pull the first piece away from the wall. The piece won't budge and in less than 30 seconds the metal become a limp orange noodle and had to be withdrawn. The fire was stoked to bring the temperature back up so the glazes will be more fluid. Again the same procedure brought the same results. The third time a different tool was put between the wall and the work to pry the two apart. Again the glaze is too strong and the rod softened quickly. By now the tools were not cooling completely since a considerable amount of hot water was made in the tanks by the kilns. My gloves and sleeves were smoldering and retaining heat. On the fourth try the second piece on the right come lose. By now I was using ALL my weight in one quick and total effort each time. The fifth attempt pulled the second Piece on the left, from the wall and it was gently positioned at a 45 degree angle in the coals. At this time we all agreed that we had done as much as possible and the rest would have to stay where they were. The firebox was filled with wood on the final stoke. The wood pieces were smaller than usual, maybe an inch and a half square. It took, maybe, five minutes of very quick stoking to complete the task. The heat was intense and by the time three quarters of the door opening was filled; a back draft began to push fire back out of the opening. So, at that point wood was pushed into the kiln with other pieces of wood. With this work complete, the door, the lower air slots, and the side peeps were all closed and sealed with the clay slip. The chimney continued to bellow fire, but tapered off quickly. The damper was moved to close the chimney. Within five minutes, slivers of fire begin squirting out of the two areas where the damper didn't completely cover the chimney. The fire was a bright pink and purple color. I had never seen anything like it. After a 45-minute performance, the fire finally disappeared. The firing was completed at 4:30 a.m.

Sunday April 25th

KILN OPENING DAY

The page in my journal is blank except for a small simple note, which reads......no words can express. Although the last five years experience of firing based on Kanzaki,s teachings afforded me with an experiencial confidience, I was still full of screaming gremlins. I could see during stoking that very much natural glaze covered the work. But as more and more people arrived for the opening, I became more nervous. The group from Tamba alone numbered about ten. I was thinking this is too much! This is too public for my first firing in Japan. Everyone can see everything. The work is now the communicator of everything. I've had every advantage by being here working in this place with great people, so the result should be good. But, what if it isn't? It's too late now, as we all moved to the kiln it was time to crack open the fire mouth door I was feeling too much! I worked hard to maintain control, but opening the door didn't help. Kanzaki San and I looked in at the works, and without extra light, began acknowledging the colors and textures. Immediately we took a piece out in the day light. It was good. I'll refrain from any other comments on the work so that all can decide for them selves after looking at those pieces on this website. As we took more pieces from the firebox, some people moved to the side of the kiln to remove the door. Soon there was a line of people gently examining and passing works from inside the kiln to the flat area in front of the kiln. At this point, I just stood in amazement watching the special energy. The works had every color and texture the process has to offer, except for the new extreme texture. Even the works stuck to the walls had only minor beauty marks on them. I enjoyed looking at each piece again and again, just as I do at home, to envision what circumstances contributed to the outcome. To me this is all a very special process. It's just wonderful loading green ware, and working with the fire to finish the wares. This firing, like many others, was very satisfying.

In this experience, I represented the faith and confidence of Shiho Kanzaki, my wife Ginny, my family-both American and Japanese- the Town of Bloomsburg, Bloomsburg University, the Art Department, and all things American and Japanese, I speculated on what I should be and do. I could only be "myself". I suffered from the anxiety of whether "myself" was good enough. And so, I worked long hours in the comfort of Kanzaki's Studio. I stayed in Shigaraki at the Kanzaki house for three and a half months, nurtured by the Kanzaki family. I loaded and fired the kiln paired with Hiromi Matsukawa, a gentle giant of a man. The foundation of the total experience was afforded by Shiho Kanzaki's life. I made the works and fired the kiln according to my nature, but, just like all things in my life, the experience, skill, wisdom and support of others extended my capabilities.

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