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Gordon Hutchens and Fired Up!

By Robert Amos June 2, 2003

} Gordon Hutchens and Fired Up! Fired Up! is a venerable gathering of some of the finest ceramic artists of this region, held for 19 years at the Metchosin Community Hall (4401 William Head Rd. at the corner of Chosin and Happy Valley Roads). In 2003 it took place May 24 and 25, from 10 a. m. to 5 p. m. Eight of the Fired Up! potters met at Gordon Hutchen¹s place on Denman Island and over three or four days did a wood firing of his Japanese-style kiln. A few years back Gordon Hutchens helped construct a Japanese climbing kiln, or noborigama, a Malaspina University College in Nanaimo. It was a huge success and inspired Hutchens to build his own on Denman Island. Yukio Yamamoto, the designer of the Malaspina kiln, lived with Hutchens for some months while it was being constructed. Specifically, it's an anagama - a kiln built into a hill slope, angled up at about 22 degrees. This type of 'climbing kiln' was used in the Himeji area of Japan from about 1600 until the late 1700¹s. The Fired Up! potters brought pieces with them which were already bisque-fired and ready for loading. 'We spent all day Friday loading the kiln,' Hutchens informed me. In all there were about 350 items in this ensemble, and Hutchens spent much of the day inside the kiln, arranging them for the firing. The kiln itself is 4.5 feet high, 5 feet wide and 14 feet deep. 'It's like an upturned boat,' he commented. The arched top of brick is shiny with the glaze of previous firings. 'Starting at the back of the kiln, you have to arrange things according to how a flame will travel. There is a long finger of flame that travels right through, and you have to create paths around the pots, and consider their relationships to one another.' This is clearly a subject that fascinates Hutchens. 'It's critical, the heat flow, because the flame is laden with wood ash. It licks each piece, painting it with ash as it winds its way around.' The kiln is really an extensive chimney. There are air intakes at the mouth of the kiln, where the wood is piled on a grate to burn. But the ash never falls through this grate - it is sucked up by the hot air and follows the flame up through the kiln. Eventually some of it comes out the eight-foot chimney up the slope. Most of the ash stays in the kiln. In a three-day firing Hutchens used 4 to 5 cords of wood and the ash was largely distributed on the pots. It's a cumulative process with every stoking of the fire. 'Think of the ash as minerals,' Hutchens suggested. 'They don't burn, they melt. The calcium, potassium and sodium vaporize at high temperatures and waft with the flame through the kiln. Blushes and flashes result, including 'peach bloom' surfaces and a whole range of effects from light to dark, relative to the direction in which each piece faces. The more intense colours are shaded to leeward. Each piece tells the story of the flame.' The eight potters began with a smaller fire and slowly picked up the pace. Working in shifts, they tended the fire 24 hours a day, for 3 days, stoking every ten to fifteen minutes. With every load of wood, at first the fire choked: too rich! But soon the wood reached a critical temperature and exploded into flame. That sent a wave of heat to the back of the kiln. 'If you can catch that wave,' Hutchens mused, 'you can build on the peak, reaching temperatures higher and higher. It's an incredible rythmn, like a breathing animal.' Hutchens, unbidden, offered an imitation - 'woof...woof...woof!'. Eventually a temperature of 2400 degrees fahrenheit (1400 degress Celcius) was reached and was more or less maintained for the subsequent days. Hutchens knows firing - he has five gas-fired kilns for his pots and glass ware. But he says there's nothing like this wood-fired anagama. There is so much energy flowing through the kiln, it becomes what he calls 'the ultimate firing for any potter.' The artists left the kiln to cool down, and days later returned to see what the flames had wrought. You might wonder how anything can survive all this. There are always some casualties, some pieces that tipped over in the flow of heat and ash. But these are very skilled, professional potters and mistakes are few. The proof of the pieces will be seen at Fired Up!. For the potters, firing this kiln as a team joins them to an ancient tradition. Pottery used to be a communal activity, but this is 'not so common nowadays,' Hutchens said. 'We tend to work as individuals in isolation, and so it¹s a great treat to get back some of that community of artisans.' Potters in Fired Up! 2003: Alan Burgess Meg Burgess Louise Card Sue Hara Gordon Hutchens Denys James Cathi Jefferson Susan Lepoidevin Glenys Marshall-Inman Vincent Massey Pamela Nagley-Stevenson Laurie Rolland Kinichi Shigeno Pat Webber ___________________________________________ Copyright © 2003 Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B. C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at www.robertamos.com