One of the World’s Only Tozan Anagama Kilns
With the advent of warmer weather and spring flowers comes an annual pottery event that is unique to Denman Island. Local artist Gordon Hutchens hosts a weekend of pottery firing utilizing one of the world’s only Tozan Anagama kilns. The potters of Denman gather at Gordon’s and bring with them a wealth of unfired pottery to be finished in this ancient process. The Tozan Anagama is a wood fired kiln designed to handle larger pots and sculptures. The colourful history of the Tozan Anagama, and the blazing process that occurs within its depths, both contribute to the creation of rare works of art.
History of the Tozan Anagama Kiln
Evidence suggests that the Tozan Anagama kiln was first developed in China in 200 BC, to fire sculptures for Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China. The Emperor commissioned the finest artists in his Empire to provide his tomb with guards to protect him in the afterlife. Recently, art historians discovered these 2200-year old examples of mass-production: 7,500 life-sized warriors and chariots, all identical. This task was made possible by the sheer size of the Tozan Anagama kiln. The Emperor then decreed that the artists and the kiln were to be destroyed. The Tozan Anagama began to fade out of existence, but not for long…
Some artists managed to escape the Emperor’s order and fled to Korea and Japan, where they quietly continued the tradition of wood fired pottery. The production of glazed pottery is likely to have gone on continuously between the 5th and 12th centuries, but once again the technique fell into disuse.
Denman’s Own Tozan Anagama Kiln
After a year and a half of development the world’s fourth Tozan Anagama kiln was finished in 1998. It is built into a gentle slope to help draw the heat and ash up through the 300 cu. ft. chamber towards the chimney, which rises up 8 ft. at the top of the hill. The walls of kiln are built with firebrick to a thickness of 9 inches and are covered with 4 inches of perlite and sandy clay. This ancient design ensures that the pottery in the chamber achieves maximum contact with the molten heat and wood ash, creating one-of-a-kind pieces. Gordon’s kiln has exceptionally even heat, therefore requiring only two and a half days to complete a firing rather than the average four to five.
Every year, Gordon and his peers gather in a community to fire the kiln and experience the transformation initiated by the ancient process. The potters fire several of their own creations. They take turns tending to the fire and the needs of this temporary work camp. Les and Bruce Beardsley are brought in to act as the Fire Masters, esteemed guides who feed the flames.
Due to the intensive nature of firing the kiln, only brave and spontaneous potters are usually attracted to the process. There is noticeably less focus upon the creation of commercial pieces and more emphasis on pure artistic expression.
The Tozan Anagama kiln represents a profound symbol of metamorphosis and the unpredictability of nature. Likened to a sleeping dragon, the kiln’s “belly” is ceremonially awakened, rumbling and roaring with blazing heat, as it transforms earth into stone. The lesson of the wood fired kiln is echoed abundantly in nature: cycles turn but never repeat themselves exactly. Dr.Yamamoto elaborates:
“A firing can often produce unusual results and these can be admired for their beauty– Yo-hen. Sometimes such variations are looked upon as expensive or even priceless. This is not by accident. This has been brought about by the laws of nature.”
Most potters would agree that unloading the kiln makes them feel like a kid at Christmas. Their anticipation is finally rewarded when the “sleeping dragon” gives birth to their finished pieces. The pottery has an unmistakably primitive and natural appearance, characterized by evocative flashes of colour and a warm texture.
The inspiration of the Tozan Anagama kiln cannot be quelled. Despite a history that almost led to its demise, it is the beautiful wood fired pottery and dedicated artists that continue to keep the spirit of the Tozan Anagama kiln alive today.