Susan Kotulak’s Oki Doki Anagama: The Mount Everest of Pottery Firing
A view into the belly of the anagama. Notice the drips on the bottom of the shelf. That's wood ash turned to liquid glass.
Susan Kotulak tends the kiln.Photo credit: Courtesy Susan Kotulak
Stunning work from the kiln, painted by heat.
Susan KotulakPhoto credit: Courtesy Susan Kotulak
A Kotulak vase.
The markings on this tea plate were created by the blazing winds in the kiln. If it looks like thermal imaging, that's because it is, just using ancient technology.
In her right hand, Kotulak holds pottery experiments made from local clay cooked at a lower temperature. In her left hand, she holds a piece from the anagama. The black lines of glaze are the same regional material structurally changed and completely melted by the extreme heat of the kiln.
A massive, traditional Japanese anagama kiln lies like a slumbering dragon under an enclosure in the backyard of Susan Kotulak’s beautiful Clermont estate. Its belly stoked with cord after cord of wood, it reaches unfathomable temperatures that turn ash to glass, paints with incendiary wind and produces fabulously elemental and viscerally beautiful pottery.
“There’s no other way to get these results,” she said of her kiln, the “Oki Doki Anagama.” “The work looks ancient. It has a history and a mystery to it. The thing about this work is the kiln holds 400 pieces but every piece doesn’t come out well. It’s the Mount Everest of pottery firing. It involves knowledge, experience and a team. You can’t do it alone.”
The kiln is currently in its cooldown process after a weeklong firing. The fruits of Kotulak and her team’s labors will soon be unveiled, just in time, serendipitously enough, for the Art Studio Views weekend September 1 and 2. Now in its 11th year, the event is a self-guided tour of active artist studios throughout Dutchess and southern Columbia Counties.
During the Labor Day weekend event, Kotulak will let visitors inspect the dormant anagama and open her studio, which is brimming over with her stunning work, much of which is for sale. She has three years of work from the anagama available, including this year’s firing. Kotulak’s work is not just a gorgeous expression of her personal artistry and deep institutional knowledge. It also reverently captures the rich, ancient cultural traditions of Japanese craftsmanship.
“It’s a primitive tool that requires more sophistication to fire,” Kotulak said. “It’s really a scientific thing. We went nowhere for the first few days because of all the rain. We couldn’t keep the temperature up with all the moisture in the air.”
The anagama routinely reaches temperatures approaching, or over, 2,300 degrees. The temperature is hard to wrap your mind around. For reference, fresh lava is between 1,300 and 2,200 degrees. Inside the kiln, the true measure of heat is based on ceramic cones that melt and bend, a reference point for the actual work the heat has done to the pottery. They routinely melt cone 12, and soften cone 13, the highest temperatures achieved in the art pottery world. Gas firings are usually to cone 9 or 10 and Raku tops out at the low, low temp of cone 012 (zero twelve).
Kotulak uses custom-made clay in her mighty kiln, which she gets from ceramics artist and expert Bruce Dehnert of the Peters Valley School of Craft in Layton, NJ. It would be impossible to use regional clay in the anagama. Kotulak has fired local clay in cooler kilns and it comes out looking like terracotta or brick, but it cracks and breaks because of other mineral deposits. At higher temperatures, regional clay melts into a dark glaze, which she has experimented with to decorate other work in the anagama.
Building an anagama in her backyard in 2009 was a huge commitment for Kotulak, then 59. It involved not just building the massive furnace, but also using the monster on a regular basis. Even firing once a year, as she does now, is not something you’d expect from a 68-year-old woman. This type of firing is a field dominated by men, usually young men, because of the incredible amount of labor entailed and a healthy dose of institutionalized sexism.
But Kotulak has always strived in fields overstuffed with masculine bravado. After being raised by a family of humble means, she worked a successful career in the NYC corporate world through the 1970s and 1980s, a time when there weren’t many women at the top, retiring as managing director at Verizon in 1994. While building her career successes in the business world, she found time to create and show her pottery in gallery exhibitions, which often sold out.
“I took my first pottery class at age 23, with a few periods of absence from the craft here and there,” she said. “Initially I did Raku firings, which are much lower temperature firings, yielding beautiful, but non-functional work,” she said. “Upon moving to Clermont, I built a large gas-fired kiln, which, unfortunately, has gotten very little use, since shortly thereafter I became aware of wood-firing in the Japanese style, and was smitten. I have traveled to Japan several times to fire, and have been fortunate to have studied with several masters of classic medieval Japanese pottery techniques.”
Kotulak named her kiln “Oki Doki” as a bit of a pun since she hoped that her firings would be "copacetic", but it also translates into Japanese as the "great spirit of earth and fire". She’s hosted potters from Japan, Australia, Canada and around the U.S. as part of her team of eight who stoke the kiln every ten minutes, in shifts, for five-and-a-half days.
“We live communally here at my home, with someone always waking up, sleeping or retiring to bed round the clock,” she said. “Happy hour and breakfast often overlap for different team members.”
It takes two days just to position the work in the kiln because the movement of the flame and ash is what creates the color and patterns on the pottery. After the firing, the kiln must cool for a week. Looking at the finished work, it’s almost hard to believe the designs have been created naturally by the heat of a wood fire.
“Opening and unloading is a source of intense emotions, somewhere between fear and elation," Kotulak said. "It's not for the faint of heart, and the results defy description, having its own lexicon in Japanese, for the drips, cracks, speckles, flashes of color, beads of glass and ancient-looking surfaces. A friend once said that after seeing anagama work, they have been spoiled for other types of pottery.”
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