October 28, 2015 | By Chuck Carlson; photos by Dave Lawrence
This week, a small group of friends will raise a glass in celebration and anticipation.
Then Ken Shenstone, '84, will take a wooden match from a 25-year-old box of matches and light a pile of wood that will bring a unique kiln to life.
"I make sure one match will be it," he said with a smile, recounting how the box of matches was given to him years ago by his mother.
And then the fiery beast, 960 cubic feet in all, made up of more than 7,000 bricks and fed for the next 10 days by a nonstop supply of wood, will heat to over 2,400 degrees and eventually create the kind of ceramics you just can't find anywhere.
But it all starts with the private ceremony that was held October 28.
"We toast the kiln with beverage and food," said Shenstone, who built the kiln with bricks recovered almost exclusively from the Albion Malleable Iron Company, which closed in 2002. "The ceremony is really important to me."
The process of creating the art is called anagama, Japanese for "cave kiln," and Shenstone and a close cadre of friends and helpers over the years have made it something special.
One of his closest aides is Anne Beyer, '10, who has worked with Shenstone for five years and always knows that when the weather cools and the leaves change, it's time to fire up what's come to be known as the Albion Anagama.
"This is the perfect time of year," she said. "The summer is too hot and in the winter it's cold and you might break the pottery. The spring is too wet."
Tucked in a clearing at 29005 Albion Road, barely a mile from campus, Shenstone over the past two decades has built a compound that includes a studio and workshop with shelves of the distinctive pottery he and other local artists have created.
Then there is the kiln itself, large enough for several people to step inside to place their work and, when it's snapping and crackling and raging, can look like a breathing, living entity.
The kiln can hold some 4,000 pieces of pottery, from artistic works to plates and mugs and more. Space in the kiln is also "rented out" for other artists to have their works fired.
Shenstone rattles off more numbers about the kiln, which he finished building in 1987 and has run ever since.
There are 20 tons of bricks and another two tons of steel. There are 10 tons of high-temperature insulating castable and 50 tons of cement and rock to hold the whole thing together. And don't forget the six tons of clay, six tons of shelving and what amounts to perhaps the most important item of all, the stacks of cord wood, which Shenstone estimates at another 50 tons.
And it's all to create this unique ceramic work.
"This is the fun part," he said. "It's hard work but a lot less like a job. This is more about the art."
There are a number of anagama kilns around the country, but Shenstone claims his as the largest single-chamber wood-burning kiln in the country.
The process of preparing for the anagama lighting takes four months, Beyer said, but it all starts with a single match that lights a fire that will eventually burn to 2,480 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The first few days you hardly know it's going," Shenstone said.
But over the next 10 days, the fire is manned 24 hours a day and constantly fed until it gradually reaches the final, critical temperature.
At the maximum temperature, wood becomes ash and it adheres to the pottery, providing it with a natural ash glaze that isn't easy to duplicate.
And the fire must stay constant—that's why the kiln must continue to be fed.
"At the beginning, it's every 15 minutes," said Brian Westrick, who earlier this year joined Shenstone, Beyer and Josh Ahearn as the keepers of the flame. "Then it's every minute."
"It just starts eating wood at 2,000 degrees," said Beyer, who earned her degree in fine arts after starting off as a psychology major. "Wood is a full-time job here."
But she was drawn to what Shenstone had created and knew she wanted to be part of it.
What's more, the yearly ritual lures back many people each year who simply want to be a part of something unique.
Indeed, after the private lighting ceremony, Shenstone and friends welcome the public to stop in any time of the day or night and visit.
"The project really becomes something else when you invite other people to work with you," Beyer said. "It becomes a whole new art experience. People keep coming back because it's so meaningful to them. It's a magical experience."
On November 22, the anagama will open to the public and it will be the first opportunity to see and purchase work from the latest firing. The cost to attend is $100 and will include a commemorative Albion Anagama tile fired this year.