Woodfire and Clay
Japanese Pottery and Community in Georgia
by Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting
Originally published at www.gpb.org on April 16, 2015
On a recent night, Roger Jamison pushed back the dark behind his home in the woods near Juliette.
He tended a fire in the mouth of a large brick and stucco cave under the shed out back. He pointed out what looked like a small flower arrangement above the firebox.
“This is a Japanese style kiln. So we’ve always done a little Japanese offering. Flowers, sake, rice and salt.Flowers are for nature, rice is for nourishment, salt is for purification,” he said.
And the sake?
“And the sake is for sake,” he said with a chuckle.
Jamison was just starting the Spring firing of the anagama, the traditional Japanese pottery kiln, he built back in 2000, back when he was still teaching in the art department of Mercer University. The anagama tradition is thousands of years old but enjoyed a revival sometime around the 1960s.
Jamison’s anagama looks kind of like a fish, maybe around 20 feet long. Smoke streamed out of side stoke holes. Jamison was alone at the start, but this will become a communal experience.
“There’s a core group of about ten that come every time,” he said.
Jamison needs a community for this work. They come from around Georgia and sometimes even beyond. The anagama requires around the clock supervision over the five day firing. Temperatures have to hit the right highs and lows at the right time.
The payoff comes when the anagama will literally liquify the wood ash and turn it into a glaze that makes pots look more earthy even than raw clay.
Over a week later the anagama is opened. The potters come together to unpack the kiln. Jamison says final products are more guessed at than planned. Henry Hibbert sounds like he made the right guess.
“This is the one I was dreaming about. See? It didn’t do, it didn’t run,” Hibbert said as he picked up a cup.
Other potters laughed and enjoyed the moment with him. He looked like he couldn’t believe his luck as he caressed the glossy blue pieces.
He best guess was that shoving the work to the very back of the kiln, where heat was less intense, kept the blue glaze from melting away.
“Praise God. It did exactly what I wanted,” he said.
Roger Jamison knows how Henry felt.
“I think they’re the best posts I’ve ever made, some of the wood fired pots” he said. And I usually only think that for a few minutes then I think, oh, I could have done better. It doesn’t last long,” he said.
Robbie Teasdale spent the firing week at the Jamison’s home. He had a lot of large, ambitious work in the kiln. He rolled the dice with a piece that looked like an amphora by firing it at the hottest and most dangerous spot, the front of the firebox. He posed for a photo with it before it came out the anagama’s mouth.
He already knows there’s a crack in it.
“Roger was out here when it happened. He heard it go ‘ting!’” he said.
Teasdale gave the pot a knock after it emerged from the kiln. The ring it made suggested all was well.
He got to work cutting it from the base where it fired. He went a little too fast and broke a six inch piece from the base. It’s a loss you could read in his eyes. Somehow he managed to be cool about, even as he held the broken hunk, itself now in pieces.
“It was already cracked around the bottom rim. That’s the way she goes,” he said.
Roger Jamison says he doesn’t know why he still works this way, where so much work could end in disappointment. In the end he says its about working with friends he rarely sees but who share his passion. That connection trumps throwing a switch on an electric kiln.
“You know, I’m not a very social person. So if I didn’t have this, I’d probably lose my ability to speak,” he said.
There’s plenty of wood left over and Jamison says he still loves the work. If all goes well, this community will come together again for the Fall firing.