On a recent night, Roger Jamison pushed back the dark behind his home in the woods near Juliette.
He tended a fire in the mouth of a large brick and stucco cave under a shed out back. He pointed out what looked like a small flower arrangement above the firebox.
“This is a Japanese-style kiln,” he said. “So we’ve always done a little Japanese offering. Flowers, sake, rice and salt. Flowers are for nature, rice is for nourishment, salt is for purification.”
And the sake?
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“And the sake is for sake,” he said with a chuckle.
Jamison was just starting the spring firing of the anagama, a traditional Japanese pottery kiln. He built the kiln in 2000, back when he was still teaching in the art department at Mercer University. The anagama tradition is thousands of years old but enjoyed a revival sometime around the 1960s.
Jamison’s anagama looks kind of like a fish, maybe around 20 feet long. Smoke streamed out of side stokeholes. Jamison was alone at the start, but this would become a communal experience.
“There’s a core group of about 10 that come every time,” he said.
They come from around Georgia and sometimes even beyond.
Jamison needs a community for this work. The anagama requires around the clock supervision over the five-day firing. Temperatures have to hit the right highs and lows at the right times.
The payoff comes when the anagama will literally liquefy the wood ash and turn it into a glaze that makes pots look more earthy even than raw clay.
Over a week later the anagama is opened. The potters come together to unpack the kiln. Jamison says final products are more guessed at than planned. Henry Hibbert of Atlanta sounds like he made the right guess.
“This is the one I was dreaming about,” Hibbert said as he picked up a cup. “See? It didn’t dew. It didn’t run.”
Other potters laughed and enjoyed the moment with him. He looked like he couldn’t believe his luck as he caressed the glossy blue pieces.
His best guess was that shoving the work to the very back of the kiln, where heat was less intense, kept the blue glaze from melting away.
“Praise God. It did exactly what I wanted,” he said.
Jamison knows how Hibbert felt.
“I think they’re the best pots I’ve ever made, some of the wood fired pots” he said. “And I usually only think that for a few minutes, then I think, ‘Oh, I could have done better.’ It doesn’t last long.”
Robbie Teasdale of Kentucky spent the firing week at Jamison’s home. He had a lot of large, ambitious work in the kiln. He rolled the dice with a piece that looked like an amphora by firing it at the hottest and most dangerous spot, the front of the firebox. He posed for a photo with it before it came out the anagama’s mouth.
“There’s a crack across it here in the outside,” Teasdale said. “Roger was out here when it happened. He heard it go ‘ting!’ ”
Teasdale gave the pot a knock after it emerged from the kiln. The ringing sound it made suggested all was well.
He got to work cutting it from the base where it fired. He went a little too fast and broke a six inch piece from the base. It’s a loss you could read in his eyes. Somehow he managed to be cool about it.
“It was already cracked around the bottom rim,” he said as he held the hunk, itself in pieces. “That’s the way she goes.”
Jamison said he doesn’t know why he still works this way, when so much work could end in disappointment. In the end he says it’s about working with friends he rarely sees but who share his passion. That connection trumps throwing a switch on an electric kiln.
“You know, I’m not a very social person,” he said. “So if I didn’t have this, I’d probably lose my ability to speak.”
There’s plenty of wood left over, and Jamison said he still loves the work. If all goes well, this community will come together again for the fall firing.