Group constructing Japanese-style kiln in Sevier Co.

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    Tucked along a quiet hillside in rural Sevier County, an element of medieval Japan is taking shape, and preparing to allow students of ceramics to be molded into shape as they mold their own works from clay.
    According to Texas Christian University professor Chris Powell, a three-year project is coming to a conclusion as a team of specialists from Japan are helping to construct a tsuchigama, a semi-underground earthen pottery kiln. The type of kiln, which fell out of use around 700 years ago, was the origin of the world famous Bizen ware produced in Feudal Japan.
    Tadashi Hirakawa, who is leading the project, began researching the archeological remains of this type of kiln in 1989, and actually coined the term tsuchigama to differentiate it from later forms of semi-underground kilns in the Bizen area, which were brick lined rather than earthen. He has constructed two working replicas of the ancient kilns in Japan, and is now working, along with his team, on building one in rural Arkanas.
    Hirakawa said that part of the goal was to see if the design of the tsuchigama could be used universally, or if the techniques dictated by the form of the kiln would produce differing effects in other places.
    Powell admits that the final result will be unknown until the kiln is used to produce pottery for the first time.
    “The Bizen kilns were famous for producing what was really some of the first non-porous, water-tight ceramics. The pieces were hard, and the surface would self-flux, getting these beautiful red, gray, black markings as ash from the wood fire would fall on the surface. We’re gathering a lot of woods that would be similar to what was used in Japan – but this isn’t Japan, and the wood isn’t exactly the same. The clay isn’t exactly the same. We’ll see what we get,” he said.
    The construction of the body of the kiln itself has been progressing for the past 65 days, with assistant director Yukiko Akai and Tomoko Sakamoto joining Hirakawa in much of the physical work of building the structure. The structure, angling up the hillside for more than 15 feet, is meticulously constructed by the master kilnmaker and the two young ladies assisting him.
    Sakamoto, who had worked in construction at one point, dug the trench at the center of the kiln with a rented excavator, she said. That was the only part of the project not done by hand, the group explained, displaying the wooden mallets and cane knives that they usually use. The kiln, in addition to the trench running down its center, is constructed of a thick, arched wall of clay native to the area, Powell said. He explained that the clay was meticulously mixed with sand to a 60/40 consistency, and then carefully mounded on a domed structure of river cane (the local analogue of bamboo), before being repeatedly compressed with wooden mallets and having cracks filled with replacement clay as it dries before the first firing.
    Hirakawa explained that the work is not only painstaking, but exacting as well: his first seven attempts to build this type of kiln failed.
    However, aside from the intensive labor, the construction has cost almost nothing. Powell noted that the river cane was harvested from nearby, the clay and sand for the walls were found on the property, the wood to fire the kiln is also on the property, and even the stones to buttress the bottom of the kiln were sourced from inside the county.
    Hirakawa stated that part of the reason that he was interested in constructing the kiln here was because the availability of the materials to build and operate it were already here, provided by nature. The location in nature was important to him, he said.
    Powell added that his son had performed geomapping of the area before they identified a hillside with the correct slope for constructing the kiln.
    There are obvious differences, though, and not just the differing consistency of soil, Hirakawa admitted. The storms that hit the area not long after his team arrived were shocking to him, he said, for though the area he resides in has frequent rain, they do not experience heavy storms like that. He admitted that those storms delayed the project by several days.
    Another difference between Japan and Arkansas that Powell noted is the differentiation we have here between crafts and high art. Powell explained that even simple jugs are considered artwork in Japan, whereas here utilitarian items are often disregarded.
    He said that he hoped that he could take the team around to local museums so that master kilnmaker Hirakawa, historian Akai and ceramicist Sakamoto can see locally produced ceramics and stoneware from our past.
    Powell said that he was very proud and happy about the new experiences and growth that Akai and Sakamoto have had during this summer. “This is a learning process, and the growth of these students is as important as my own students,” he explained.
    At the conclusion of the project, a delegation from Japan, including many high officials, is expected to visit the area and tour the site. They will be joined by local officials.
    He also said that he hopes, when the kiln is completed and test firing has been done, to make the site into a continuing summer workshop for TCU students, where they can learn a more nature-centered type of ceramics work.
    The three Japanese specialists all said that they will be taking a great deal from Arkansas with them when the project is completed and they return home.
    Sakamoto spoke about establishing a stronger connection to nature through her summer of working on the kiln, her first time to work on such a project.
    Akai stated that she is taking back an understanding of the interaction of earth, water and fire, and the universality of ceramics.
    Hirakawa waxed philosophical about the conclusion of the work here in Arkansas, and spoke about his desire to spread a love of ceramics making throughout the world. “Asia, Europe, North America… clay is the same,” he said, adding, “My work is clay. My work is process.”
    When asked for clarification, he nodded and said, “My work is people.”