The Wellington Potters Association’s Te Haunui Anagama kiln sprang into life again for its 12th firing and bestowed some excellent results on those who entrusted their pots to it and, of course, the conscientious team of loaders and firers. The kiln was fired for the customary 100 hours from Wednesday 14 – Sunday 18 September 2016. Dry firewood was a major contributing factor to the success of the firing.
Preparatory Work: Shige Ohashi & Peter Rumble Replacing an Errant Brick.
Hail, rain and mist damped the ardour of those involved in the process at times but they persevered.
The firing was notable for the absence of Shige Ohashi. Many people have contributed to the Anagama project since its inception but no-one more so than Shige who returned to Japan in July to be close to his aged parents.
Shige had lived in New Zealand for some 15 years having escaped the clutches of IBM, Japan. He worked for that company as a software engineer for 21 years. In his spare time he developed a passion for working with clay and firing anagama kilns. He joined the club in May 2001 and gave freely of his time, running classes and sharing his knowledge and experience with other members of the club. However, he will probably best be remembered for his immense contribution to the creation and operation of the Anagama kiln. Richard Stratton kicked the idea off and Shige produced a detailed set of plans for the kiln and provided technical oversight for the project. He worked tirelessly for 2 years as part of the team that built the kiln on a site in Horokiwi provided by June and Graeme Houston. Once the kiln was operational Shige, was the principal firing master for most of the previous 11 firings.
If Shige had a fault it was that he was loath to disappoint people who had submitted pots for firings. He would go to great lengths in trying to include everyone’s pots in the kiln. This challenge meant that he would often dream overnight about how pots already loaded and shelves might be rearranged to accommodate more pots. Armed with this vision he would often arrive at the kiln in the early hours of the morning to start work - well before his helpers arrived.
His departure was marked by a function at the club rooms. Appropriately it was preceded by Anagama presentations by Kelvin Bradford and Peter Rumble which provided an excellent backdrop for the evening. Kelvin talked about the history and evolution of Anagama and related kilns in China, Korea and Japan, while Peter talked about our local Te Haunui Anagama kiln.
Shige received a gift from the club chosen by Vivian Rodriguez. It featured a framed, decorative fish hook pendant, “hei matau” in Maori, created by Mike Carlton. The Maori hook is appropriately associated with, among other things, safe passage over water, prosperity, peace and good luck. According to Maori legend, if you travel over water from one place to New Zealand and then travel back again (like Shige from Japan to New Zealand and now back to Japan), you leave behind part of your soul and if you have a hei matau it will always bring you back to New Zealand in this life or the next. He reciprocated by presenting a beautiful bowl he had made for the club’s collection. Shige's bowl was one of a series called from "From the Deep" meaning, depending on the viewer's perspective, from the earth or the sea. Its yellow, shining glaze was inspired by a fallen ginkgo tree leaf covered with rain drops.
The Pot Extraction Chain Gang
Fewer pots or pieces were received this year than last year which made the task of loading the kiln more manageable. Some 380 pots from 64 potters were included in the firing in marked contrast to the 500 plus pots received from 60 people in 2015; not all of which were included.
One of the challenges that last year’s firing presented was being able to readily identify who had submitted pots and how many pots each individual had submitted. Because kiln space was at a premium, strenuous efforts were made to ensure everyone was treated equitably. This year people were asked to include on their firing slips and pots, in addition to potters’ marks, the number of each pot, for example: 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, 4/5 and 5/5. The first number indicates the priority. The second indicates the total number of pots submitted. This information was written in pencil so it would burn off and not deface the pot. This certainly helped the loaders. Next year people will be asked to include on their pots their names as well because deciphering potters marks is not always easy.
Anagama firings are always a team effort. The firing was planned by a team comprising: Mal Sole, Peter Rumble, Andy Rattenbury, Roger Pearce, Megumi Ogo, me and, having recently escaped from the burdens of the Presidency of the NZ Potters (Inc), Kelvin Bradford. Underpinning the team’s work was the enduring support, encouragement and practical assistance of June and Graeme Houston on whose property, as mentioned above, the kiln is located.
Loading took place over a period of 7 days. Next year the process will start a day earlier to allow the loading team members more time to reflect on how best to load the kiln.
This year the number of firing shifts was increased from 15 to 16 (the first 2 being 8 hour shifts and the balance 6 hour shifts). This was done to make the task of driving home after completing some early morning shifts (starting at midnight) a little easier by not being confronted by early morning commuters.
For a variety of reasons the task of filling the shift leaders’ positions proved challenging and one of the tasks confronting the firing team is to identify people who have the expertise, physical capability and temperament to fill these roles in the future. For the record there were 9 shift leaders this year compared with 6 the previous year. Some 37 people were “officially” recorded as participating as shift members, however the actual number was greater than that. The firings act as a beacon for friends, acquaintances and family members!
One of the shift members was George Andrews, a potter and bronze caster, from Rotorua. George had conducted a Water Etching workshop for the club in 2007 and a Fetching Etching workshop in 2008. He participated in the third Anagama firing in 2007. Two of his pots from the 2007 workshop were languishing in the club rooms so, at the suggestion of his son a club member, he decided it would be timely to have them fired. An even greater incentive was the prospect of retrieving his overalls which had been hanging from a rafter in the kiln shelter since the third firing!
The still warm kiln was opened on Sunday 25 September, the wicket being removed at 10:30 am. At 11:00am, following a speech, a sermon and some presentations, a chain of volunteers, led by pot extraction specialists Mal Sole and Peter Rumble, passed the pots through to an adjacent greenhouse where they were photographed by Roger Smith. They were then laid out for viewing on sheets of plywood each accompanied by a sign indicating the position from whence they came in the kiln.
The “Anagama Sermon”, delivered from the kiln firing pit by Mal Sole, encapsulated the efforts of those who contributed to the whole process:
“Blessed are the tree deliverers for they shall be given forests in heaven plus one or two quarries.
Blessed are the chainsawers who reduce the trees to manageable lengths for they shall be given peace and quiet and a back that does not ache.
Blessed are the wood splitters for they shall form a splinter group on entering heaven.
Blessed are the wood stackers for they shall be entertained and never allowed to be bored to death again.
Blessed are the prop and shelf cleaners for they shall forever more breathe air that does not smell of China Clay, Alumina Hydrate and Carborundum, and have hair that is unmatted and non- gritty.
Blessed are the loaders for they shall receive approbation and brickbats and inherit the wadding.
Blessed are the pyromaniacs who transform the bland into the grand for they shall witness the collapse of the cones and be glazed for eternity.
Blessed are the unloaders for they shall form links in an eternal chain.
Blessed is the scone and soup maker that unfreezes and nourishes the great unwashed.
Here endeth the lesson.”
Footnote: For the uninitiated, the references to “quarries” and “the scone and soup maker” are allusions to the activities of Graeme and June Houston, respectively.
The kiln opening and the accompanying BBQ attracted some 70 to 80 people on a sunless, mud underfoot day. The occasion was enhanced by the presence of two minstrels.
The Anagama team has met to dissect the 12th firing and start planning the 13th. Apart from some of the proposed changes mentioned above, other ideas and proposals to emerge include:
- Trying to communicate more effectively with new and often younger club members about preparing for Anagama firings. While extensive use is made of the internet and the club’s monthly newsletter, there is still an information gap to be bridged.
- Holding an “Anagama Pot Making Weekend” workshop 2 – 3 months before the next firing to provide help and advice to Anagama novices about shapes; suitable types of clay; and throwing and slab working techniques. Examples of Anagama pots would be displayed and books on the subject provided. For some years annual “Introduction to Anagama” presentations have been conducted. However, while they attract a few Anagama novices, increasingly they are attracting mainly supportive Anagama stalwarts. Hopefully this change in tack will be more productive.
- Encourage greater observance of the firing plan by shift leaders some of whom may have fed the kiln with more gusto than required on their particular shifts. However, reading the kiln is an inexact science!
- Hold the firings later in the year, possibly in late October, in an attempt to avoid the bad weather that has dogged the last two firings in particular.
- Improve the drainage systems to reduce the amount of water flowing into the kiln shelter.
- After a full assessment, possibly undertake repairs to the front of the kiln and on one side where some movement has occurred in the bricks.
- Buy some more kiln shelves to replace those suffering wear and tear.
Enough of such task focussed thoughts. The full splendour of the firing can be enjoyed by clicking on these links and viewing photographs taken principally by Roger Smith and a few other enthusiastic photographers:
Work now starts on the 13th firing.