Conversations with fire

Last night I helped to stoke the annual firing of the Oxford University Anagama Project.

This project was established to research and build ancient methods of Japanese wood firing kilns. The team at Oxford, led by Anthropologist Dr Robin Wilson and Jim Keeling at Whichford Pottery, invited support from Japan’s National Living Treasure Isezaki Jun and Bizen potters Ishida Kazuya and Takikawa Takuma.

Together, two Anagama kilns were made at the University’s research site at Wytham Woods and are now providing ceramic wares for projects and exhibitions in both the U.K. and Japan.

I arrived at 3.30pm yesterday afternoon as the rain fell steadily and spent the next 8 hours sheltering under the warm kiln roof taking part in what felt like a ritual going back many centuries. 

There were periods of intense activity when visitors arrived to moments of silence broken only by the sounds of birdsong and the splitting of pine in the fire box.

This project is helping me to develop my experiences in Japan - and in many ways sitting outdoors in England as the evening fell and turned toward night reminded me of the wood firings at Shigaraki - the heavy scent of the pine wood, the soft sounds of wood chippings under foot, bird song and running water.

However this time I learnt how to read the pyrometer and take responsibility for gauging the correct amount of wood needed to reach the desired temperature allocated for each hourly segment. This process of feeding the fire was balanced with watching, waiting and listening. In many ways it reminded me of conversations I had with the Japanese. - offering something up, maybe adding an extra gesture and then waiting for the response - always with a sense of excitement and joy!

It was particularly nice to meet Takuma san last night who helped to build the kiln. Together we shared many words, looked at photos, talked about food, found translations for kanji.

He reminded me that on the other side of the world in Japan, night was drawing to a close and a new day was about to begin.

Takuma san looks on as visitors arrive at the site.

Takuma san looks on as visitors arrive at the site.

Local school pupils watch Kazuya san stoke the kiln.

Local school pupils watch Kazuya san stoke the kiln.

Taking responsibility for the fire - wearing gloves bought in 'The Hardware Store' in Shigaraki!

Taking responsibility for the fire - wearing gloves bought in 'The Hardware Store' in Shigaraki!

The afternoon / evening shift! - a lovely group of ceramicists and kiln enthusiasts.

The afternoon / evening shift! - a lovely group of ceramicists and kiln enthusiasts.

Takuma san's first test pieces - beautiful lions inspired by the Shinto shrines of Japan.

Takuma san's first test pieces - beautiful lions inspired by the Shinto shrines of Japan.