Circle of fire: tending the anagama kiln

Inside the belly of the beast: 2,400 degrees of transformative heat in the East Creek Anagama Kiln. Photo: RICHARD YATESPhotos: Richard Yates

By Bob Hicks

The East Creek Anagama Kiln sits amid a forest tangle in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range, above East Creek, which feeds into Willamina Creek, which feeds into the Yamhill River, which feeds into the Willamette River, which feeds into the Columbia River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean, which crosses to Japan and Korea and China, where the anagama style of wood-fired kiln was born roughly two thousand years ago. “Theoretically,” says Nils Lou, pointing down to the rapid chuff of the creek below, “you could put a canoe in the water right there and go anywhere in the world.”

Through the front burner door, roughly 500 clay pieces are being transformed by the anagama's heat. Photo: RICHARD YATESTheoretically. Your canoe might get swamped, but the possibility of such a daring jaunt brings home the essential circularity of living with an anagama. (In Japanese, the word means simply “cave kiln,” so called because of its design that exploits the gravitational and structural advantages of burrowing into the side of a hill.)

Here we are, a decade into the 21st century, celebrating the contemporary possibilities of a troglodytic technology from the time of the first Roman emperor. And when I say contemporary, I mean it. The beauty of the anagama is that, no matter how rigorously you prepare the clay pieces being fired, what comes out of the crucible is largely a result of chance.

The East Creek kiln, designed by master Japanese designer Katsuyuki Sakazume and first fired on February 1, 1985, is modeled after an 8th century Korean design, making it not so ancient as the very first anagamas (which might very well have been constructed in actual caves) or as what might have been the first anagama in North America, built in 1980 at Peters Valley Craft Center in Layton, New Jersey — also a Sakazume project, that one structured after a third century design.

Nils Lou, longtime keeper of the East Creek kiln, checks the fire. Photo: RICHARD YATESBut it’s ancient enough, as you can tell when you open a side stoking port to feed faggots into the 2,400-degree Fahrenheit furnace below and realize that the forelocks of your hair have suddenly sizzled to the texture of a wire brush. I spent much of a blessedly dry Friday at the anagama firing — the 107th in the kiln’s 26-year existence — which had begun Wednesday evening and finally was allowed to burn out on Saturday. I wrote about the experience for Monday’s Oregonian: you can see the online version of that story here, along with terrific photographs and video by my friend Motoya Nakamura, the Oregonian photographer. (The photos you see with this post are courtesy of Richard Yates, another fine photographer, who was also on the scene Friday night.)

Wood-fired kilns, many of them in the anagama tradition, have enjoyed a renaissance across the United States in the past 30-odd years. Among many others, notable examples are at Albion College in Michigan and St. John’s University in Minnesota. In Oregon, Richard Rowland runs the Astoria Dragon Kiln, and Hiroshi Ogawa operates an anagama in the southern Oregon town of Elkton. Kilns like East Creek tend to run uphill, taking advantage of the natural slope to send their flames whooshing out of flues in the back. “These are what we call hill-climbing kilns,” Lou explains. “Eastern states, like Georgia and the Carolinas, have what we call groundhog kilns.”

When firings are about to happen, the excitement rises as word sweeps through the loose-knit potters’ community. Just why a person would want to put up with this searing, laborious, wood-guzzling and barely tamable ancient implement when vastly more precise methods of firing ceramics are available is a good question, and it has at least a couple of good answers. One is that the chance elements introduced into the process as the flames lick around the clay objects can produce uncommonly beautiful results. Another is that wrestling this fiery beast to the ground fits one of the dominant trends of contemporary creativity: it’s art as process.

The East Creek kiln came about after Lou, a ceramic artist and teacher, saw pictures in a 1983 edition of Craft Horizons magazine (now American Craft) of the new anagama in New Jersey. He was hooked. He and original partners Frank Boyden (who also founded the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in 1970 on the northern Oregon coast) and Tom Coleman set out to build one of their own. Largely through Boyden’s contacts, the trio and several other Northwest potters and artisans raised $40,000 in sponsorships from the Portland-based Art Advocates, on the promise that donors eventually would be repaid with finished works. A huge amount of sweat equity later — the dragon-shaped kiln, built over a wood-frame and bentwood skeleton, was covered by more than 5,000 individually shaped bricks and then burnt out, leaving the fluid brick form to stand on its own — the anagama was ready to roll.

As the sky grows dark, the anagama begins to glow like a fire-breathing dragon. Its tenders respect it but are not afraid. Photo: RICHARD YATES

Eventually Boyden and Coleman moved on, and Lou became the center of things. He still is.

Nils Lou is 79 years old, a big hale Scandinavian with an outdoor build and an unlined face who looks better than a lot of men 20 years younger. His father came to the United States from Denmark at the age of 18, and went to work as a tool-and-die maker. His advice to his son: “Do what you need to do and never be afraid of losing your job.” Maybe Lou doesn’t do all the heavy lifting he used t0 — on Friday he seems to be taking mostly an advisory, teaching and hosting role — but you get the feeling he could, in a pinch. He seems never to have been afraid of physical work. Years ago he poured a three-inch concrete slab over the dirt floor of an open-sided barn a few yards from the kiln site and used the structure as a sprawling studio. For a while a glass studio was set up in part of the space. The trials and errors of a lifetime of tinkering are in evidence. Near the front hangs a big chain hoist for removing an engine block: Lou is a man who knows a pickup truck from the inside out. A little farther up the slope, between the kiln and his hilltop house, is the new studio he put in a couple of years ago, which he shares with his second wife, writer and artist Diane Lou, who frequents Goodwill stores and turns her findings into assemblages. Her recycled discoveries are neatly sprawled near to hand: the spirits of Joseph Cornell and the hip contemporary goddess DIY frolic here. Behind the new studio is a trim greenhouse, and beside it, a raised-bed garden protected by a tall wired fence. “We need this to keep the deer out,” Lou says.

You need welders' gloves to handle the scorching heat of the iron doors that open to the furnace flames. Photo: RICHARD YATESTeaching and making art go together for Lou, a longtime professor of ceramic and sculpture at Linfield College in McMinnville. He’s gone periods without teaching and discovered himself becoming distant, isolated. And the physical processes of making art fascinate him. He learned the technique of glassblowing alongside a fellow student named Dale Chihuly. “We blew our first bubbles together,” Lou says wryly. “Now he’s famous.” Pots begin as clay, which the potter transforms. “I can’t not do it,” he says. “It’s just what I do.”

Along the way he wrote the book on kiln firing. It’s called The Art of Firing, and it’s in classrooms and on potters’ bookshelves around the world. He conducts classes three days a week at Linfield College in McMinnville, continuing a teaching career he began half a century ago, in 1961, at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Eventually he and his first wife, who died in 2000 from lymphoma, moved west to Oregon. He lives with Diane Lou on 22 acres near Willamina, heading up toward the snow zone in the foothills of the low range of mountains that separate the inland valleys from the Oregon Coast.

The property has a smaller wood-fired kiln built a few years ago by a former student, Don Busby. Nicknamed “The Caboose” for its square-cornered stairstep design, it’s smoking away during the firing, too. The Caboose is a perfect example of Lou’s belief that you try things, and retry them, and try them again. In the course of ten years Busby has built the kiln, torn it down, built it again, each time solving a problem, each time making it better. “This is the eleventh iteration,” Lou comments. “And it works pretty well now.” Trial and error applies to the pots and ceramic pieces that come out of the kilns, too. Sometimes you just toss ’em. Lou points to a ravine that plummets not much more than inches beyond the unpaved road that leads to the anagama. “Right there where that red truck is, that’s what we call ‘over the bank.’ It’s our midden,” he says. “Five thousand years from now people will excavate it and say, ‘What were they thinking?'”

Just one little piece of the six cords of wood that feed a typical firing. Photo: RICHARD YATESHang around the kiln for a few hours during a firing and you’ll see a cycle of people coming and going, shucking jackets as they approach the flames, donning leather welders’ gloves to open and close the scorching stoking-ports, grabbing a snack, meeting and greeting, just standing around and admiring the sheer contraption-ness of it all. Students and teachers are here. Lots of students, from Northwest colleges and high schools. Professional ceramic artists and amateurs and family members. Octogenarians and kids and everything in between. Mya Hoskisson, who is 16 and spends part of her day at the tough task of feeding and stoking the fire from the kiln’s front door, has been hanging around the kiln since she was in her mother’s womb.

The East Creek kiln crowd has a tribal feel, a close-knit camaraderie. It’s a little wild, unkempt, a place and a feeling blessedly removed from what’s normally considered normal. That is part of its energy, and much of its charm. Mya Hoskisson’s mother, Cindy, who for many years has been the organizing force that makes practical sense of the process, suggests the Lost Boys nature of the thing. “Nils invited us over years ago and we never left,” she says with a laugh.

Indeed, the firings have often had a freewheeling communal nature. For a few years, after the women complained that the men were running too much of the show, Lou arranged to have women-only firings. He discovered their approach was different, and maybe more congenial than the men’s rough-and-tumble style: more communal, more about food, dancing, music, fun. “Men couldn’t be there,” he recalls. “Even I had to wear a skirt to go to the kiln.”

Things seem free and easy, and in a way they are. But you also need to pay strict attention to business. Like people, clay is made up in large part of water. Unlike people, you want the clay to dry out. That’s where the fire comes in. But it has to be applied carefully. Even when it’s dry, clay lets out moisture. Clay is classified as either vitreous or impervious, but it’s never truly impervious. Before bringing their pieces to the big anagama firing, potters do what’s called a bisque firing in their own studios to begin the drying process, heating the clay to somewhere between 1,100 and 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It’s nice to have that water escape slowly,” Lou’s longtime friend Don Hoskisson says with a grin.

Take it too fast and things can go wham!

Lou: “That’s why clay explodes.”

As dusk arrives, the anagama assembly prepares for the big glow. Photo: RICHARD YATES

So you feed the beast relentlessly, but on a schedule. On a typical firing, which is round-the-clock for close to four days, the East Creek kiln burns through six cords of wood. Lou likes a mix of fir and alder, with some oak and a small amount of cherry after the softer wood’s got things roaring. He generally buys it from neighbors, who can use the cash. The process may be rudimentary, but it’s also meticulous. You need to balance the fuel to the oxygen inside the chamber to produce heat. You need air holes, and you need to brick up the kiln door. Each side of the kiln has two stoking-ports, and when you drop your split wood down them you have to make sure you don’t hit the pots. The pots are lined up on silicon carbide planks, but they can’t be too close: you need as much space as pot on the planks so the fire can lick around the surfaces and imbue the pieces with the evidence of their unpredictable path. A few days before the firing begins someone has to stoop down and crawl into the belly of the furnace to do the loading, and that person generally is Don Hoskisson, who is a retired art professor from Western Oregon University in Monmouth and is Cindy Hoskisson’s husband and Mya Hosskison’s dad. “Kneepads are an essential,” Don Hoskisson says. Measuring temperature can be dicey. Finger-length pyrometric cones placed inside the kiln are low-tech gauges; you figure the temperature inside the pots by observing how long it takes the cones to melt. The heat moves in waves, with different intensities at different times in different places. When loading the pots, you need a feel for which ones will like which kind of heat. “Because of the shape of the kiln the front’s going to hit 1650 before the middle does,” Lou says, “and the middle will hit it before the back does.” The instability of the heat creates accidental ebbs and flows that make their imprint on the glaze. A gas kiln is much more stable and predictable: It reaches a heat and stays there. But unpredictability, to Lou’s mind, is the chief joy of firing with wood. You never can tell what you’re going to get, and what you get might be remarkable, beyond anything you imagined.

What’s surprising, and in a way liberating, about all this activity is how much it flies in the face of contemporary theory and trends. For much of the art world, “craft” has become something of a dirty word. When you say “potter” you might as well be saying “hod carrier” or “dirt farmer”: to the avant garde following the seminal shifts of business-world adventurism and the pixel-derived abstractions of virtual reality, the hands-on process of craft lacks that requisite intellectual or conceptual heft. Most crafters carry the word, and their belief in the fashionings of the hand, proudly, shrugging off their second-hand status. “It’s historic,” Don Hoskisson says. “If you look at Greek pottery, if there’s a signature, that was the signature of the person who painted it. Not the person who made the pot.”

So maybe it’s just a pot. Maybe the Greek guys were right. Yet it strikes me, looking into the maw of this volatile and strangely comforting furnace, that our foolhardy canoe slipping downriver into the current of an unruly past is bringing back something that the future needs. A sense of the vitality of the frankly physical. The nitty-gritty joy of sheer cussedness. The primal and transformative power of clay and blood and bone and raw human doing-ness that can’t be conveniently abstracted away by the intellectual arbiters of an overcrowded lockstep world. The fugitive pleasures of fun. The potters, the weavers, the carvers, the hand people, are our wild children and our pioneers and our roots. Let them feed the fires. Let them float the canoes. Likely as not, we’ll be needing what they know.

Mya Hoskisson tending the furnace's front door. At 16, she's been hanging around the anagama kiln since she was in the womb. Photo: RICHARD YATES

All photos courtesy of Richard Yates. Nils Lou is pictured third from top. Mya Hoskisson is pictured stoking the furnace at bottom.