Picture this: a mobile anagama; literally a wood-burning kiln specifically designed to fit into a custom trailer, allowing to to travel across the country teaching the wood-fired experience to new communities.
Ceramics Monthly: What is the Mobile Anagama?
Henry Crissman: The Mobile Anagama is a modular kiln that must be assembled to be fired and disassembled and packed back into itself for travel. With a team, the kiln can be assembled in 1½ hours, loaded in 3 hours, fired to temperatures in excess of cone 10 in as little as 3 hours using a half of a face cord of wood or less, cooled in 6–8 hours, and unloaded and packed up in another 2 hours. From arrival to departure the whole experience can occur in less than 24 hours.
CM: What was your original inspiration and how did the project come to be?
HC: My original interest in wood firing ceramics came out of an interest in processes that could help communicate the labor and value of the objects I was producing. As my personal art practice has developed to include more performative, participatory, and site-specific endeavors, I have become increasingly interested in how I can do this with ceramics. In the process, kilns have come to the forefront of my investigations, as phenomenal tools, social centers, and spectacularly abstract spaces.
Prior to building the Mobile Anagama, I was working on plans to build a stationary anagama at Alfred University. When it became apparent that there would be too much red tape to make it a reality, my advisor, Anne Currier, said something like, “If you can’t find the right place to build it, why don’t you just build one on a semi [trailer]?”
A few months later my dad offered me our old utility trailer. I knew right then exactly what I wanted to do with it. I wrote, and wound up receiving, an NCECA Graduate Student Fellowship to construct a mobile anagama kiln from recycled materials. The proposal detailed the construction of the kiln and a small-scale tour of site-specific projects that would follow its completion.
As construction began, it became evident the original design would not be able to endure the stress of travel and that a redesign was needed if the goal was to actually safely conduct site-specific firings. A total design overhaul meant an increased materials budget, a decreased time frame for the tour, and the reevaluation of the project’s value as an artistic gesture. When considering the value of the project by weighing the material investment against its potential social returns, the new kiln was harder to justify; however, I went forward with the project and organized a Kickstarter campaign both to help raise the additional funds needed and to build a community of supporters who would cheer me on and hold me accountable for my promises. As it came together and the first firing went so well, it became clear that the Mobile Anagama’s value could come from its visibility and potential as a model for similar projects. The tour became the parade and testament of the mobile wood-kiln format, a format that inherently lends itself to the types of actions I originally intended to conduct. In this way, the tour was highly successful as it was seen by so many and proved the kiln’s functionality and durability, but I’m still waiting to hear whether others are now constructing their own.
CM: Can you talk about the design of the kiln?
HC: My design goal was to construct a highly functional and visually striking mobile wood-fired kiln that could be efficiently assembled and disassembled in the shortest amount of time, and fired with the least amount of fuel, while maintaining a sizable but manageable firing chamber.
I had prior kiln design experience as an undergraduate student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. I designed and built a small noborigama kiln at an artists’ residency called Fortress Studios LLC; however, the Mobile Anagama built on what I had learned about the kiln as a social facilitator more so than it pulled from the actual design and construction of that kiln. I did my best to work out any variables with pen and paper before building it, and while there are many things that I would change about the design if I could do it all over again, I now have over 7000 miles on the kiln/trailer and have fired it twelve times with only minor issues.
CM: How long was the first tour you took with the kiln, and what kind of condition was it in when you arrived back to New York?
HC: The kiln made five stops on the tour in the summer of 2014, the first at Alfred University in Alfred, New York, the second in Indianapolis, Indiana, at the Fountain Square Clay Center with AMACO/Brent, the third in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the Northern Clay Center, the fourth in Bozeman, Montana, at Montana State University, and the fifth at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana.
For the tour we asked host institutions to gather the wood, ceramics, and participants that would be needed to put on the events. Participants were asked to make a donation of either ceramics, cash, or both to our ongoing Suggested Donation Pottery Sale. Some people gave a dollar, others gave more, everyone received great pots, and the money we raised paid for all the fuel and food on the three-week journey.
After those initial five firings and the 5000 miles we put on it in the process, the kiln arrived back in Alfred, New York, in great condition. In the 7 firings and 2000 miles I’ve put on it since, it has begun to show its age, but the issues that I have encountered have all been relatively minor with simple solutions. All of the little changes that I would now make if I could entirely rebuild would result in a kiln that is more even efficient, user friendly, and effective as a versatile firing tool.
CM: As part of your Kickstarter campaign you wrote about the kiln, saying “as an institution, it will explore challenges and interactions as educational opportunities. . .” Now that you completed one tour and multiple stops, can you talk about if and how the project did that?
HC: I hoped to emphasize my interest in the kiln not just as a tool for ceramics production, but as a tool for public education and arts advocacy. A high school art teacher came up to me at the Archie Bray Foundation and said that her program didn’t have the space or the budget to build a wood-fired kiln but that she was excited about the possibility of her district building a mobile anagama that could be shared by all of its schools. The type of engagement that wood firing requires is exactly what schools hope to cultivate, and whether or not students who encounter it would continue to work with clay, there are valuable lessons that could be applied to other experiences or provide a foundation for future arts appreciation and art patrons. When we talk about sustainability as artists we need to consider not only our ecological footprints but also what it is that allows us to continue creating, and it seems to me that the mobile wood-kiln format can help address both of those issues.
For rough plans to build your own Mobile Anagama along with the complete Mobile Anagama tour book that includes stories from the road, visit www.henrycrissman.com.