By Madelyn Alexander
After three years of dormancy, the anagama kiln at the University of Montevallo roared to life once again on April 12, 2022. This 40-foot-long, traditional Japanese wood-fired kiln is affectionately nicknamed “Fat Bastard.” The kiln glowed for four days under the care of Professor Scott Meyer, along with some of his undergraduate students, some former students and several guest artists from around the country.
This year’s firing was dedicated to Meyer’s mother, Poppy, who passed away in April 2021. Meyer says she was an integral part of the crew building the kiln.
“I have mental pictures of her, you know, with a wheelbarrow full of gravel,” said Meyer.
He spoke about his mother at the lighting ceremony, standing alongside photos of them together. One of the photos shows them laying the first brick of the kiln together.
Meyer began researching and building the kiln in 1999, and it fired for the first time in 2002. Part of his research included visiting other anagama kilns for guidance in building his own. He worked on the kiln while also trying to be a full time artist and professor.
The firing of the kiln required 14 cords of wood, a cord being about 128 cubic feet, or between 2000 and 3000 pounds. Meyer and his students began cutting wood in September 2021.
Meyer said, in regard to the hard work that goes into the firing process, “It’s a lot of faith that goes into something like this.”
The last firing
Prior to this year’s firing, the anagama kiln had not been used since 2018 due to a fire in 2019 that destroyed the canopy over the kiln site. Before the fire, the kiln was used once or twice a year.
Meyer says the three years it went without being used provided a variable in this year’s firing. The kiln had been exposed to rain for the first time while it was uncovered, which Meyer says created questions about how the temperature and humidity of the kiln would affect the work inside.
The firing process
For 100 continuous hours, the kiln was not left unattended. Current students, traveling artists, former students and Meyer took shifts watching the kiln for four hours at a time. Over the course of the firing, the temperature inside the kiln climbed to over 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Each day, the shifts became more demanding, requiring more wood and more frequent stoking.
In the beginning, wood was loaded only into the front of the kiln, slowly heating up an area called the fire box. As that progressed, “side stoking” became necessary to move heat through the back of the kiln.
By the third day of the firing, the kiln was being loaded every three to five minutes from both sides and the front to maintain temperature. This required crews of four to six people to run smoothly.
The heat was not limited to the confines of the kiln. Every time the fire had to be stoked, the crew suited up to face the burning heat. Heat-resistant Kevlar gloves, leather welding jackets, face shields and, in some instances, even a second pair of gloves were necessary.
Committing time and effort to such a process might not be appealing to everyone, but to undergraduate student, Courtney Keeler, it was well worth it.
“Yes it was a lot of work, but it was a fun experience,” Keeler said. “We got to make new connections and new friends, and also the way the pieces are going to turn out is going to be really cool.”
At the end of the firing, the kiln was sealed up to prevent the inside from cooling too quickly, which could cause the work to crack. The kiln will stay that way for a week before being unloaded on Saturday, April 23 at 10 a.m.
See Josie Shaw’s video of the unloading here.