Anagama: Madrid wood fire days 6-7

I got home after 1 a.m. having completed my second 6-hr shift. The kiln reached temperature (cone 11-12 in most areas, about 2300 F) throughout most of the chambers and so, for the first time ever, we ended the firing on Saturday night instead of Sunday. Here is a slide show of last night’s events. (Some of the pictures are low-light blurry because my firing mates just wouldn’t sit still but I included them anyway.) And if these aren’t enough, click here to check out the live-action video that Jesse compiled from the day before… informative and entertaining!

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What the pictures don’t capture, besides the incredible thigh- and face-burning heat coming off the kiln, is the relationships: between ourselves and the fire, the kiln, one another. There’s something really special about a group of people coming together for a common purpose around a fire, as people have done for thousands of years whether for food, protection, comfort, ritual, or the creation of art. Fires of destruction and fires of purification. Just like water. Or tears. I’ve learned a lot about the nature of fire through working with clay: the colors of heat: red, light red, dark yellow, light yellow and finally white, not so unlike the colors of the sky at certain times.

But even after the thousands of hours our group have collectively invested in the study of fire through this kiln, we still find it mysterious and unpredictable and prone to moments of utter disaster or devastating beauty. Which, of course, is probably why we continue the journey. What the pictures don’t show is the way the kiln “breathes” fire back and forth through the chambers, the way it tells us where the heat is when flames peek out of the cracks, the way it sometimes won’t gain heat no matter how much wood we throw in the firebox or how tired we are.

Poet and mortician, Thomas Lynch, presents an interesting exploration of our relationship with, and attitude toward, fire with regards to burial practices in his book The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade. Why do we burn trash and bury treasure? Why are we allowed to watch burials but not cremations, like in Eastern cultures where funeral pyres are common? This and other contemplations, including his proposal about the practicality and potential profitability of combining golf courses and cemetaries, make a compelling read — equal parts humor, education, and astute observation.

What I’ve learned about fire is what I’ve learned about everything: if you study it long enough to learn it, I mean really learn it, you can begin to understand and respect, rather than fear, all that is Not You, whether mice or a kiln or people. Maybe fire fighters should be called fire understanders, or fire controllers. How can you “fight” something that doesn’t fight back? (Maybe this fits in somewhere with MLK’s 5 Principles of Non-Violence, but that’s a different discussion.) When a genuine connection through understanding and openness is made, invariably the black and white world of I vs. The Other dissolves and becomes a beautiful, mysterious, breathing world of I and Thou. The fire is in between.

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