According to the Schedule of Classes, ART 291 was over July 25, 1997. But students who had signed up for Ceramics Workshop: Wood-Fired Kiln Construction that summer at the UWM at Waukesha had an opportunity to be a part of history. Marnie Elbaum, the former owner of Marnie's Pottery on the East Side of Milwaukee, joined the class "for my heart and soul. It is an inspirational experience." Andy Torzala, who graduated from UW-Milwaukee with a degree in photography, "jumped at the chance" to participate. He has photographically documented its progress.
"This is really kind of historical. It is hard labor — really intense, but there is a lot of information invested in the work," says Deborah Rael-Buckley, a graduate student in art history.
The project was conceived, designed, and spearheaded by Christopher Davis-Benavides with details and modifications worked out in the field (literally, since the kiln was built at the UWM at Waukesha Field Station, a 98-acre outdoor resource). He and Jeff Noska, owner of Composite Clay Studio, Dousman, oversaw the project.
It was modeled after the ancient Japanese Anagama kiln, which went out of fashion in the early 17th century after several centuries of service in such places as Korea and Japan. Replacing it, the Noborigama kiln provided the predictability and consistency needed for success in a production environment. But in the 1960s, the Anagama experienced a revival. Its low-tech process glazed more ash into the pottery, creating different but pleasing effects. Much was lost, however, in the years that the Anagama had been out of use, so that potters firing up this kind of kiln now must relearn how best to do it. Each kiln is unique and requires the development of individual techniques for using it.
"Ninety percent of the glazing comes from the wood fire on clay," explained Jeff Noska, who is both a professional potter and a volunteer for the kiln project. During construction, he likened the unadorned wood frame to a boat. According to the tradition of the Anagama, it has to be built into a hill. That way, steps within the kiln, pottery is placed in different relationships to the fire and is exposed to varying amounts of ash. Temperatures inside reach approximately 2300 degrees Fahrenheit.
All involved appreciate how rarely kilns of this nature are constructed and wanted to learn by doing. Battling bugs, they built concrete footings and wood frames, cleaned and laid bricks (a total of eight thousand), dug tunnel vents, and covered the structure, which looks like a sleeping mastodon, with a special kind of cement. Sara Saporito, an art therapy student, found her own therapy in cleaning bricks and cutting them with diamond edges. By the end of summer, she could perform like a professional.
Above the monster, they erected a metal canopy to protect their work. With dedicated commitment, the students donated their weekends and off hours to the project as well.
Students' work — bowls, vases, sculptures, and relief pieces — had patiently waited much of the summer in the Field Station barn. The firing lasted five days and used over four cords of wood to reach cone 10. The kiln was held between 2350 and 2470 degrees for a period of nine hours. The kiln was held between 2350 and 2470 degrees for a period of 9 hours. It took several days for the kiln to cool down. Over 700 clay pieces were fired with very few casualties. The work was a success!