Visiting The Masters of Philippine Pottery: “The Fiery Furnace” (Part 6 of 8)

Potters who are working with clay have the fascination for playing with fire. Different kinds of kilns are used in pottery studios. From digging the ground and using wood as fuel, more advanced techniques in firing are available today. Electric kilns are computerized these days. They shut down automatically depending on the desired temperature it needs to reach. This gives the artist, flexibility in doing other tasks in the studio. Since electricity in The Philippines can be very expensive, most of the Potters use a gas kiln. Some are very lucky for having an Anagama or wood-firing kiln. Ancient Anagama kilns can be found in China, Japan, and Korea. “Anagama” is a Japanese word, which means, “cave kiln”.

Gas kilns are mostly used and results can be fascinating if the right glazes are well-mixed. A firing schedule is very important to keep track of the increasing temperature inside the kiln. Pyrometric cones are a must-have as well. These are thin cones shaped like a pyramid with a triangular base.  The cones usually come in sets of three. Each cone has its melting point. They serve as guide/gauge in knowing whether we are close to the temperature we want to reach in the kiln.

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 Wood–fired Ceramics are famous around the world. Not only because of its results, but the fun in firing the kiln.

 Jon and Tessy Pettyjohn fired their Anagama kiln in the same week we visited them. They fired the kiln for almost three days. The sound of wood being eaten by the flames brings music to the Potter’s ears. Contained flame is a sight to see. It dances along with the oxygen that goes around in the kiln and good rhythm follows from the sound of wood being stoked.

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Loading the kiln is a skill, as one has to think of the flow of fire in the kiln. Safety measures are practiced when firing an Anagama kiln: wearing the right clothing to prevent the skin from being burnt, gloves, and eye protection. A good amount of drinking water is good to have around as well.

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Wood ash settles on the pots during the firing process.  The complex interaction between flame, ash, and the minerals of the clay body forms a natural ash glaze. There are fake wood ash recipes, but there is nothing like getting the real deal from firing a roaring Anagama kiln!

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 These are some of Jon’s favorite pots that he has created. He gladly shows them to us and proudly says, “These are for my daughters!” The first second I’ve seen this pot (below), I almost lost my breath. I think no one noticed it but I almost lost my mind.  I normally feel this way when an amazing piece of pottery is right before my very eyes. What is beautiful about this piece?Everything!  The ash from all the wood fell on the right spot and pooled right in the center of this piece. Perfection is what this piece is made of.

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 Next stop, Jon tours us to their house. He said, “This is where we hang out when we are not firing the kiln.” He opens the door to his private space where a billiard table stands right in the middle of the room. It seems like a private showroom of his works from decades ago. It was a great opportunity to see and feel them between our hands.

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 In the same room, he shows us pieces he has created from his first one-man show, where he met his wife, Tessy. I opened my eyes so wide and said out loud, “Aha! Now I can’t wait to have my first one-woman show. Someone might just step right into the gallery as my future husband!” Everyone laughed and I wanted to kick myself for saying it! Well, good things happen to everyone at the right time ; ) For Jon and Tessy, who would have thought that two strangers will meet in an exhibition and fall in love with each other and share the same passion? Pretty cool story to me!

The position of being the “Master” in someone’s craft isn’t gained by one person only. It is shared by husband and wife, Jon and Tessy Pettyjohn. They have taught a lot of students in their pottery schools in the past (Alabang and Makati City). They have shared a good amount of time in teaching and sharing a great skill to so many people who have pursued pottery and have taken classes to learn something new. They continue to create new pieces they show in Art galleries around Manila. They have collectors that have followed their work from day one.

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After seeing the workshop area, the kilns, and Jon’s private space, we’re all starting to get hungry! The wives are starting to prepare our lunch as we tour around The Pettyjohn’s property. See what we’ve eaten and what Jon shows us after lunch!

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