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Dancing with Fire: Building an Anagama Kiln and an Artistic Community
Article by Patricia Pelehach — October 2005, Revised 2006
Note: This article first appeared in FUSE, a publication of the Catskill Arts Society, October 2005


Lookout Sculpture Park in Damascus, Pennsylvania, enthusiastically celebrated the first firing of its anagama kiln in July 2005. This firing was the culmination of a multi-year saga of petitioning for township permits, scrounging materials, acquiring essential expertise, and building a community of artists to make works, chop wood, and stoke the kiln. An anagama kiln is a wood-fueled kiln of a type used for centuries in Japan. Building and firing an anagama kiln is much more difficult than using commercially-available gas or electric kilns, so it takes real vision and commitment to do anagama firing. Proponents love the unpredictable and often very beautiful effects of fire and wood ash upon their works. Since the 1970s an increasing number of American and European artists have been drawn to anagama firing.

The building of the kiln at Lookout Sculpture Park was directed by Susanne Wibroe-Fost, Director of Lookout Sculpture Park, and her husband Laurent, with the assistance of Ryusei Arita, a ceramic artist and master kiln builder. A student and protégé of Peter Voulkos, Wibroe-Fost hoped to continue Voulkos’ legacy of openness, creativity and experimental energy at Lookout Sculpture Park. In pursuit of this vision, she purchased extensive acreage in northern Pennsylvania more than 20 years ago. In short order she built an enormous studio for herself and equipped it for making large-scale steel sculpture. She also carved out a warren of sleeping quarters to house visiting artists, and began to renovate the main house as her home. Organized as a not-for-profit institution, Lookout Sculpture Park has for many years offered summer residencies to sculptors, whose works in wood, metal and found and organic materials soon began to populate the rolling meadows and the banks of the shimmering pond. An impressive international roster of sculptors has participated in the summer residencies and Lookout has also offered programs to local schools and camps.

 

Wibroe-Fost had long hoped to add ceramics to the materials that she and visiting artists could explore. Despite severe financial constraints, she managed to scavenge or purchase at nominal cost a vast array of refractory bricks, potters wheels, assorted glaze chemicals and tools that she warehoused in the barn while she and Lookout’s volunteer legal counsel Curt Hemlepp sought township permission to build the kiln. Finally, she was able to pour the foundation of the kiln in 1997. In a stroke of good fortune, Wibroe-Fost also reconnected with Ryusei Arita, another Voulkos protégé, who had decades of experience in building and firing his own kiln in the mountains near San Francisco. Arita agreed to help design, build and supervise the firing of the Lookout kiln, and came to Pennsylvania in the summer of 2003 with his assistant Hitoshi Ito to begin the process. Over the course of 2003 and 2004 the kiln began to take shape, and in the summer of 2004, with the main vault in place, the kiln was dedicated to “the spirit of Peter Voulkos” and in memory of Curt Hemlepp. In Spring 2005, work on the kiln began again with renewed enthusiasm. The chimney was built, the vault was insulated, and a roof was built to offer protection from the weather. Arita arrived in July with ceramic artists Conrad Calimpong and his son, Granite, both experienced in wood firing at their own kiln in California, to help manage the firing.

Three tons of clay, mixed according to Peter Voulkos’ recipe, had been delivered and guest and local artists set about making vessels and sculptures to be fired. Watching other artists at work was inspiring and challenging. One artist, Volkan Otugen, said: “The expansiveness of the site, the capacity of the kiln, and the availability of tons of clay encouraged me to work much larger than had been my prior practice in the more cramped environs of Greenwich House Pottery in Manhattan. Once I saw what Ryusei and Conrad were doing, I thought to myself: ‘I’ve got to work a lot bigger.’ It was great, too, to have east coast and west coast artists working together.”

 

Once the new work had dried sufficiently, the vases and plates, teabowls and sculptures, were placed in the kiln and the firing commenced, initially at a low temperature to drive off any residual moisture, and then at increasingly high temperatures over the course of six days and nights up to 2300 degrees Fahrenheit. Crews were in charge of stoking the kiln every few minutes. After a three-day cooling period, the kiln was opened to reveal a pile of cinders and soot through which one could discern the forms of the vessels and sculptures. Carefully lifted from their ashy beds, the works were enthusiastically greeted by their makers and a number of interested onlookers, all mesmerized by the transformation that the raw clay had experienced. “I greatly enjoyed the spirit of community and cooperation that this woodfiring project engendered, as well as its novelty and unpredictability,” said Cecily Fortescue. She continued: “I had never been involved in a woodfiring before, and it would seem that even the experts never quite know what the results will be. Looking through the main stoke hole at that glowing inferno, it seemed to me a miracle that a pot could even survive such fiery treatment.” Naomi Teppich says, “My favorite part of doing anything in clay is creating the form rather than painting on glaze. So the anagama process afforded me this luxury of placing my piece in the kiln and having it come out with an interesting finish without the need for glaze or oxides.”

Neighbors Catherine and Travis Hemlepp, who are avid art collectors and supporters of Lookout Sculpture Park, were involved spectators in the firing from beginning to end. “We were very impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the artists who participated,” they said. “We deeply regret that Curt, who passed away two years ago, was not here physically to witness the dramatic result of his efforts to make the kiln a reality. We_re certain, however, that he was here in spirit.”
The works ranged from large vases and vessels to small sake cups; some had been decorated with stamped impressions, freehand drawings, shino glaze and slips, and rice straw, while others depended upon strength and purity of form for their appeal. The natural ash glaze created by the firing resulted in gritty black alternating with warm browns and tans, sharkskin grey, and flashes of gold, peach and even purple.

New York artist Risa Hirsch Ehrlich said: “The invitation to share in the firing was unexpected and the opportunity was unique. I have been working seriously in clay since 1997, doing electric and gas firing and some raku work as well, but an anagama wood firing was something unheard of among my fellow artists because it is almost impossible to pull together, unimaginably so if you are a city artist. I accepted the invitation to join the group with enthusiasm and gratitude, even if my only applicable skills were splitting and stacking wood and occasionally fetching water or lemonade. It was wonderful to meet and share with dedicated local artists, but I felt particularly privileged to spend time with the West Coast trio whose background and sensibilities brought a Japanese respect and flavor to their work-- for today it is as if Japanese ceramics is the mother to us all.”

 

Jim Raglione had about 40 “pinch pots” in the anagama firing. Raglione notes that the application of the insulation to the kiln was very labor intensive. “I’ve learned one thing for sure” he says, “and that is that you have to make sure all your firewood is well-stocked and well-stacked prior to the firing. In the week before we fired the kiln a lot of time and muscle was devoted to preparing the wood, and I was concerned that people would no longer have the enthusiasm and energy to continue.” Raglione’s discipline is to make one pinch pot a day and he has been doing it for more than 4 years. He now has well over 1,000 pots all marked with the date they were made. His works assert the primacy of human touch over the bland anonymity of mass production. “Each time I make a pot I think ‘this will be better than the last one,’” says Raglione. “It is interesting to see how my technique has changed over the years.”

Wibroe-Fost expects that the kiln will attract ceramic artists of international stature and hopes Lookout will eventually offer workshops and international residencies in ceramics, as it has in sculpture. Future plans call for the creation of a metal foundry at Lookout, offering new possibilities to established and emerging artists. She notes how important the help and support of the local community has been to her efforts. “I have so many people to thank,” she says. After 20 years, our work has only just begun. I thought I was building a kiln, but I found that I was actually building a community. The kiln brought together a group of artists, writers, gallery directors, and collectors who all have become committed to the success of Lookout Sculpture Park. I feel deeply grateful and very optimistic about our future.”

Her words are echoed by many of the participants. Tom and Jane Biron said, “The whole kiln experience was so much more than the firing of a few pots. Suzy’s sense of community inspired everyone who took part. We’ll never be able to look at fire and clay the same way again.” Kristin Muller, who fires her own anagama kiln near Dingman’s Ferry, came to offer her support during the firing and said: “Lookout Sculpture Park’s anagama is a magnificent kiln. Built in the Momoyama period style, it is elegant and powerful. Everyone involved in the firing was excited and enthusiastic about helping Ryusei Arita reach temperatures of over 2300 degrees Fahrenheit. The kiln is situated perfectly on a hill overlooking outdoor sculptures by different artists that span beyond your field of vision.

 

You simply cannot help feeling inspired by the Park and the people. Suzy has succeeded in creating a haven for artists, a community that is supportive of the creative spirit and that invites everyone to participate. Her visionary openness to art and the community and the scale of the project at Lookout Sculpture Park should be experienced by everyone.”

Ceramics from the first firing were exhibited in August 2005 in a group show at the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance gallery in Narrowsburg, New York, and subsequently some of the work was included in the Catskill Arts Society “Color and Craft” exhibition, October 2005, in Hurleyville, NY.

For more information about Lookout Sculpture Park CONTACT Susanne Wibroe-Fost at suzywibroe@freesurf.fr

Participants in the firing:
Susanne Wibroe-Fost, Director, Lookout Sculpture Park
Ryusei Arita, Master Kiln Builder and ceramic artist
Jane and Tom Biron
Conrad Calimpong
Granite Calimpong
Risa Hirsch Ehrlich
Cecily Fortescue
Hitoshi Ito
Noriko Itzuka
Kristin Muller
Volkan Otugen
Patricia Pelehach
Jim Raglione
Naomi Teppich


About the author: Patricia Pelehach is a ceramic sculptor and art critic whose reviews and artist profiles have appeared in Ceramics: Art and Perception and American Ceramics. She lives and works in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and Pleasant Mount, PA.


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