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Japanese Wood-Fired Ceramics, by Marc Lancet and Masakazu Kusakabe

Reviewed by Charles Moore

Elegantly written and presented, Japanese Wood-Fired Ceramics is much more than a book on building Japanese wood-fired kilns; it introduces us to the traditions, aesthetics, and technology involved in such kilns and their firing.

Written by Japanese potter Masakazu Kusakabe and by Marc Lancet, professor of ceramics at Solano College (Fairfield, CA), the book is replete with color photographs and line drawings that clearly show the methods for kiln building and the resultant firing effects. The two authors, whose range of artistic expression is exceptional, created all of the photographed artwork, showing the glaze effects created by the fire and the ash that settles on the ceramic pieces.

The book provides instructions for building two wood-fire kilns: the Dancing Fire Wood Kiln and the Sasukenei Smokeless Kiln. There are detailed materials lists and copious photo and line-drawings of the step-by-step building and firing instructions. Glaze recipes are also provided. This book is, in short, a complete guide to Japanese wood firing.

The book is divided into three major parts, each in turn divided into two or more chapters. First is an introduction to wood-fired ceramics, including a study of wood-fired effects. The second part gives instructions for building two wood-fired kilns. The final part deals with operating the kilns, with consideration of wood, clay, and glazes.

In the first chapter, we are introduced to many aesthetic principles that lie behind the Japanese appreciation for wood-fired clay. One of the most interesting concepts is that of Wabi and Sabi or “Walking in Beauty.” Sabi is “characterized by the absence of obvious beauty…the beauty of the colorless as opposed to the resplendent…the perishable as against the exuberantly active…” (Quoted from Horst Hammitzsch, “Zen in the Art of the Tea Ceremony,” p. 16). Wabi is seen as a “way of life or a spiritual path” (p. 17). Wabi/Sabi refers then to a beauty more subtle than is usually appreciated by the Western eye. Such beauty should seem effortless, perhaps even accidental. Certainly the artwork of Lancet and Kusakabe is rooted in an aesthetic that does not strive; it simply is.

Chapter 2: Yohen: Wood-Fire Effects: The authors say, “Yohen is the heart of this book…. Technically, yohen can be said to encompass the wide-ranging, subtle effects of wood-firing, including all that can be changed by fire in the kiln”(p. 25). That said, the book goes on to show special effects and to give the Japanese names for each of these yohen effects: fire color or flame marking, distance from flame source, natural ash glaze, and many others--fine distinctions of Japanese aesthetics in the yohen effects. Pictured are numerous fired art pieces and many close ups of color and texture, each pattern of surface and color bearing a Japanese epithet.

The authors note the placement of ware in relation to heat and flame for producing specific yohen effects. Both vertical and horizontal distance from an active flame will produce a variety of surface treatments.

Take, for example, the yohen characteristic Gomabai: “Characterized by small spots or freckles of ash deposit occurring most often on the horizontal surfaces of a piece, gomabai is translated literally as ‘sesame seed.’ Gomabai effects occur at a wide range of temperatures in areas where only a small amount of fly ash is deposited when the flame moves slowly, rising to the top of the kiln. Ki goma is yellow and occurs in oxidation. Aoo goma is blue or green and occurs in reduction. Kase goma is matte in texture” (p. 37). The description and the method of production are precisely detailed.

Chapter 3: Building the Dancing Fire Kiln (pp. 80-124). First, the kiln description: “The Dancing Fire Wood Kikln has two chambers. The front chamber is based on a traditional anagama kiln (hole kiln) in which there is no barrier between the firebox and the pieces. This design places ceramic pieces in direct contact with embers during firing and creates highly cherised yohen effects.”

“The back chamber is modeled after an individual chamber of a noborigama (multiple-chambered climbing kiln). Having two separate chambers increases flexibility in firing and provides a wider range of fire effects (yohen). Since you can fire one or both chambers, you have the equivalent of [one] two-chambered kiln and two single-chamber kilns” (p. 85).

In the front chamber, the ceramic pieces are in direct contact with the wood fire. Because this chamber is low and long, the flame moves horizontally from the front to the back of the kiln. Temperature, ash deposit and reducing atmosphere “diminish in influence as distance from the fire increases…. The front chamber features the Dancing Fire ceiling arch with its unique checkerboard pattern.” (p. 85)

So what makes the flame dance? “The bricks of the ceiling [in the front chamber] are laid in an alternating pattern with one brick forward [i.e., hanging down below the rest] followed by two recessed bricks; the pattern, offset, repeats in the next row of bricks. The resulting checkerboard pattern creates the dancing flame effect” (p. 84) by agitating the passing flame. In addition, the “elephant teeth” (i.e., grooves ground into each brick) function to collect ash which randomly drips down on the pieces below.

From this point forward, the chapter deals with numerous small details that may, in fact, produce large results. For example, the kiln builder needs to keep in mind the prevailing wind upon the mouth of the kiln. The amount of wind determines the slope of the kiln: a weak draft requires a slope (low in front, higher in back) of perhaps only 10 degrees; a very strong draft may allow a much sharper slope, perhaps as much as 30 or 40 degrees.

The fire pit is carefully planned, even allowing for the seating of visitors and crew to sit between stokes. The catenary arch is carefully illustrated. Again actual photographs of the building of the Solano Community College kiln and the line drawings make quite clear each step in the building process.

Of particular value is the section listing the tools and materials needed to build the two kilns presented in the text (pp. 94-95). This useful and complete section lists, for example, “Tools and Materials”, by category, for excavating the foundation, measuring & layout, laying the floor, bricklaying, mortal & insulating capping mix, wooden arch support, etc.

Chapter 4: Building the Sasukenei Smokeless Kiln (pp. 125-140). Kusakabe was commissioned to build a kiln in Barnaby City, British Columbia. Because of the very urban setting, the kiln had to be smokeless. To achieve that end, Kusakabe built an Umbu or piggyback, double-chambered kiln, with a large bourry box and a very tall chimney usually built in larger kilns.

“The large bourry box is a double-chambered downdraft fire box that burns very efficiently. Wood is stoked in the top chamber and rests upon a grate above the second chamber, which catches the ash and embers from the firing. Air drawn down through the burning wood results in a fire that burns upside down” (p. 126).

The ware chamber is compressed to about a cubic meter. The smaller chamber and the concentrated ash produce dramatic wood-fired results. The ash is so concentrated that the ware appears to have been fired over a number of days, rather than only a day and a half.

Why is the Sasukenei Kiln smokeless? “The rapid, smokeless firing of the…kiln results from the proportionally large fire box and chimney…. The bourry box design promotes efficient burning of wood, and the tall chimney increases draft and chimney afterburning, which, in turn, decreases smoke. If some smoke is produced when first firing the Sasukenei Smokeless Kiln, simply add height to the chimney until smoke no longer is emitted” (p. 137).

Part 3: Working the Kiln (pp. 141-305). This vast chapter covers, as one would expect, the process of “working” a wood-fired kiln. But this section does a great deal more than that. There is consideration for the clays and the wood to be used, training and scheduling the workers, loading the kiln, and more, including glaze recipes suitable for wood firing (pp. 163-171).

Of particular interest is the decision to meet environmental concerns. At Solano Community College, no trees are felled to fire the kiln; instead, “The Dancing Fire Wood Kiln is fired with mixed woods obtained from trees that already were felled for other purposes. The mixed-wood firing provides a wide spectrum of color response in the finished ceramics” (pp. 143-44).

“The Wood-Fire Community” (pp. 294-305) explores ways in which kiln workers develop communal attitudes, for example, “Sasukenei Spirit”—“Please be free from worry” and the “Gambaro Spirit”--“Let’s persevere and do our best.”

In Japanese Wood-Fired Ceramics, Masakazu Kusakabe and Marc Lancet have together created a truly complete work on wood firing. They have greatly enriched the world of ceramics literature. I heartily recommend this fine work as inspiration and knowledge to any clay person. Of a possible five, I vote five thumbs up.

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