Potter Pettyjohn and the magic kiln
- Elvira Mata () - November 5, 2001 - 12:00am
Potter Jon Pettyjohn is an artist who works with the elements of fire and clay. He is mad about pots.

So much so, Jon with the help of potters from Japan, spent six weeks in his workshop in Pansol, Laguna, building a kiln.

It is no ordinary kiln, it is an anagama.

Anagama is the Japanese name for an ancient type of high temperature wood-burning furnace. These kilns originated in China and Korea as far back as 1,500 years ago and produced the first stoneware and porcelain pottery.

Modern glazes, which contain a multitude of chemicals, are not required when you fire pottery in an anagama. The burning wood produces an ash which melts and forms its own glaze on the pottery.

The Japanese potters who came in March to build the kiln are Shozo Michikawa, an internationally known clay artist, Yuji Fujiwara, an award-winning clay sculptor and potter, Kouji Kondo, another well-known potter, and Ganji Ishida, an expert in kiln construction. They worked with Jon and his wife Tessy, Adee Mondoza, a young potter who studied in the US, Sammy Kilat, long-time assistant potter of the Pettyjohns, and a dozen of Jon’s students.

The kiln, baptized Musang Gama, is named after a family of civets that live nearby at the foothill of Mount Makiling.

Musang Gama has two chambers, each about the size of a 10-cu. ft. refrigerator and can hold 200 pots. To date, it has been fired seven times using mostly aguho wood, although the Pettyjohns have started experimenting with coconut wood and coconut shells.

The whole process – shaping the pots by hand, gathering and drying wood, loading pots in the oven, bricking up the kiln, firing and stoking, cooling down and unloading the pots – is not only labor-intensive, it takes a whole month.

During the firing itself, which lasts between two to seven days, teams of four people work on six-hour shifts, with two people tending to the stoking, and two more keeping plenty of wood stacked close to the kiln for the stokers. To check the temperature, a pyrometer is used to maintain a constant 2400° F in the kiln.

During the vigil, participants cook, eat, make coffee, sing and dance. It’s like a camping around a bonfire, minus roasting marshmallows. Tessy Pettyjohn tried baking sweet potatoes above the kiln. They were delicious. She’s thinking of baking pizza next.

When firing ends, the kiln is closed and left to cool for two or three days. Then the kiln is unbricked and the unloading of pottery begins.

Jon shares his thoughts on wood-fired stoneware.

"Firing can produce unusual results which can either transform pottery into priceless art or a big mistake. This is not by accident. This has been brought about by the laws of nature. This is part of the excitement and fulfillment of firing pottery in an anagama," he says.

He clarifies: "What’s more important is the cooperation of people from all walks of life who bring with them the willingness to share their experience, knowledge and creativity. A wood-fired kiln is not a one-person operation. It requires the cooperation of many people working in shifts. You have to depend on and trust your co-workers during the entire firing. Unity is important."

The fascination with wood-fired pottery may come, at least in part, from its simplicity. It is essentially just clay shaped by hands. Add the magic of wood fire and the clay is turned to stone. But the nature of that stone, its surface and color, is affected by the nature of the fire which either transforms or warps it.

A mug which is wood-fired, is not "just a mug." It is, by its very nature, earth, wind and fire.

It is magic.
* * *
The Philippine Anagama Project, an exhibition of wood-fired stoneware, features works by Jon and Tessy Pettyjohn, Adee Mendoza and Sammy Kilat. Participants, many of whom are students or alumnae of the Pettyjohn-Mendoza Pottery Workshops, whose works will be exhibited include: Pete Cortes, June Teehankee, Boboy Roxas, Juliet Lao, Ritsuko Kikuchi, Gina Consunji, Arlene Ledesma, Popi Laudico, Dedette Bautista, Denise Zayco, Kiko Demetillo, Lorna Belen, Arthur Dizon, Tensie Bello, Setsuko Maeda, Jon Lee, Daniel Viloria, Winnie Go, Yukie Sato Nesbit and Freddie Elizalde Jr.

The exhibit runs until Nov. 15 at Glorietta Art Space, Gallery Lane (near the cinemas) level 3, Glorietta 4, Ayala Center, Makati. It is produced by the Pansol Studio Pottery. For information call 729-29-80.

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