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Excerpt from Firing, by David Jones, The Crowood Press, Wiltshire 2007, ISBN 978 861269 935 5

Owen Rye (pages 94 to 95)

Owen Rye is one of the world’s leading exponents and thinkers about the strange ‘art’ of woodfire. Not merely has he explored the nuances of technique and process over a long career but has also found time to eloquently express some of these discoveries in a quite other language – that of written and spoken language. It is profoundly informed by his work as an archaeologist in his desires to bring the past to light and to illuminate the present with his insights, his work still inspired by “the mystery of past civilizations”:

The art of the Anagama involves a continuous process of uncertainty. With only a medieval Japanese model to follow, which is seemingly almost irrelevant to the modern day art world and society, the Anagama is, I believe, the most currently viable of the ancient traditions and means more than the concession to tradition that we make by respectfully retaining the Japanese name of this wood fired tunnel kiln. To me, the art of the Anagama means a total aesthetic art form incorporating materials, fire and intuition. [He talks of]: the nexus between process and potential. [And asks that critics attempt to understand that] process determines what is possible and that no amount of inspiration will produce a work outside the limits of its technique.

The key to understanding process is integration: the way in which the selection of materials relates to the final texture and color, the influence of the clay on form, the interrelationship of forming technique with the type of clay, and the way in which firing time, temperature and atmosphere interrelate with the materials and the form according to the types of fuel used. These are all determinative and inseparable aspects of the final work. The particular choices made in all of these elements of process are major contributors to individual style.

My preference is for light-colored, open coarse clays which allow some eccentricity of form and the development of bright flashing color. High iron clays can give subtle color changes but, as in Iife, everything loses its color in the dark. My work is mainly vessels made on the potters’ wheel. The wheel-made vessel allows an interplay between the apparent familiarity of form and the unfamiliar and variable richness of surface. The best forms derive from a mixture of intent and accident. I look for qualities of form which proclaim the fluidity of clay, the softness derived from a somewhat erratic movement, slowed down and frozen. Subsequent processes influence form, particularly the method of packing the kiln where appropriately-shaped vessels are stacked on each other. Finer details of surface finish are used on small scale forms whereas unadorned form is more important at a larger scale where the viewer tends to stand at a distance.

The work is made in series, all related but each different, as a way of developing a particular form. Often the earlier, clumsier ones of the series, made before skills develop are the ones which ultimately are the best. These combine well with the crudeness of the firing process; pieces of wood are thrown near and on the pots, moving them or partly burying them in ash, creating surface variations. Many vessels distort from the heat and the weight of others placed on them.

The surfaces of the pots produced in the Anagama have a natural quality, evoking a feeling of an event beyond human control. It is the quality of the surface which above all gives this work its abstract character. Those potters who wish to emphasize applied marks on the surface of the clay will aim to achieve a thin layer of ash, and flashing colors. My aim is to emphasize the contrast between the man-made form and the natural surface, just as a Greek amphora raised from the depths of the Mediterranean is enhanced by an encrustation of layers of tiny skeletons. The endless complexity and layering of surface fascinates me. Shiny wet transparent glass, dry heat parched sand, soft grays and greens, glowing pinks and oranges, craters and scars, bristling fused ash. This variation is often further emphasized by re-firing and by applying a further coating of glaze or slip or modifying the surface in some other way to evoke a more elaborate suggestion of age and meaning.

After a piece has been removed from the kiln, decisions must be made as to how much evidence of the fire to leave, which areas to polish or to leave rough, feeling the difference between creating and destroying narrative, playing rough against smooth, wet against dry, dark against light and color against grey.

It is an easy task to analyse works from the Anagama in terms of colors, textures and forms and their interrelationship, but any art work is more than a collection of colors, textures and form. The nature of the Anagama medium is not about clarity and certainty; rather, it is about uncertainty and mysteries not easily understood….

As potters involved in the aesthetic of Anagama, we are absorbed in a process of a different kind, a process of constant revision of our work and ideas. As clarity emerges, the work shifts to take on a new sense of ambiguity in a continuing search for that vital uncertainty. Philip Guston advocated maintaining a condition of continuity when he said: ‘‘One is propelled to make what one has not yet made, nor seen made, what one does not yet know how to make”. The art of Anagama becomes truly the art of uncertainty.


Philip Guston, 1978. Edited by Renée Mckee. Catalog. Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-80. Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1982