If you head down a path in the Experimental Forest near the civil engineering research facility, you’ll begin to see seemingly random pieces of ceramic art perched on stumps and nestled beside trees.
Follow that path a bit farther, and you catch a glimpse of a metal roof. Under that metal roof, you’ll find an Anagama kiln, a Japanese-inspired wood-fired kiln that has a firebox at one end and a chimney flue on the other. On the far end of the Anagama, you’ll see what’s called a Catenary kiln, somewhat smaller and sporting an arched opening, from which it gets its name.
If you happen out there during a firing of either kiln, you’ll find yourself amid a community of Clemson students and faculty, local potters and guests from nearby universities all taking part in a centuries-old tradition rooted in Japan.
“It’s a group effort,” said Valerie Zimany, chair of the Department of Art, who did her training in Japan in contemporary art and stayed there another three years to help rebuild an Anagama kiln back to its original state. “It’s team based, with collective problem-solving — a firing of this scale is not a single individual’s endeavor.”
Zimany said the kiln gives students “a way to meet other faculty and alumni, to have conversations about artwork and interests, and to meet members of a committed community who have kept this kiln going for almost 20 years. It’s a great network; we host participants from ceramics programs in the region and invite a guest artist annually for firings.”
A chart documents the temperature in the kiln rising every hour — from zero to nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit — then cools down slowly. Between glazing, loading, firing and cooling, it’s a process that can last up to 12 days.
The kiln was originally conceived and built by then-chair of the Department of Art, Mike Vatalaro, who had returned from an International Workshop for Ceramic Arts in Tokoname, Japan, in 1998. Participants had spent three weeks creating ceramic pieces and firing them in traditional Anagama and Noborigama kilns.
“I realized that we had all the resources here that would allow such a unique type of firing to be part of the Clemson Art Department,” Vatalaro said. What followed was a proposal for a Provost Research Grant for $20,000 to design and build an Anagama kiln for Clemson. A 99-year lease for a tract of land in the Experimental Forest provided the location. Faculty and students worked together to build the kiln, affectionally nicknamed the “Vata-gama,” through volunteer labor over multiple years. On November 14, 2004, the kiln was loaded and fired for the first time.
“It was the first to be built in South Carolina,” said faculty member Daniel Bare, who has fired and assisted with maintaining it since 2010 with Zimany and Vatalaro, “and after almost 20 years, the kiln needs some support as it’s now showing its age.” Zimany adds, “We still have at least 80 years left on that land lease, so we will work to make necessary repairs to keep the ‘Vata-gama’ going for many more generations of Clemson student and faculty research.”