RIC ceramics students gain new experience in traditional ways

When most southern New Englanders were bracing for the imminent nor’easter on Saturday, Oct. 29, four Rhode Island College ceramics majors were taking their skills to a new level. Liana Greene, Sam Kashuk, Thailat Saengaloun and Lawrence Timmins were in South Dartmouth, Mass., helping unload the anagama kiln maintained by noted ceramicist Chris Gustin, which contained newly fired works by the four students.

The vase above was created by Lawrence Timmins. Below is a work by Sam Kashuk.

They were among some 20 artists participating in the event, which included a visit by pioneering kiln designer/builder Kusakabe Masakazu from Japan.

Typically, participants also help with the firing and loading of the kiln. The cycle is a lengthy one and firings at the Gustin kiln occur twice a year, in the fall and spring.

Lawrence Timmins, a junior at RIC, noted, “The kiln took about four days to load, one week to fire, two weeks to cool, and a day to unload. The cooling period is slow so that the pots won’t break.”

Timmins was particularly enthusiastic that day since three of his new pieces were selected to be part of an exhibition of U.S. and Canadian artists to benefit the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, Maine. Another RIC student, senior Sam Kashuk, also had several pieces chosen. The show is scheduled to take place Dec. 10-30 at the Gustin Gallery in South Dartmouth.

Timmins was pleased that his work was seen by a variety of people at the kiln unloading and that he got to talk with professional artists who not only shared knowledge of their methods but also provided information about important educational matters, such as graduate school.

The students’ involvement in the kiln firing was supported by the Mud Club, a RIC student organization.

The anagama is an ancient-style kiln that was brought to Japan from China via Korea in the fifth century.

Anagama essentially means “hole in the ground” in Japanese, and the traditional anagama kiln is dug into a bank of clay, with the front at the base and the back end slightly elevated.

RIC ceramics professor Bryan Steinberg likens the shape to a flame cut in half vertically, then laid on its side at about a 10-degree angle.

Anagama kilns are wood-fired, and a special effect of this style of kiln is that it produces fly ash that settles on the pieces during firing. The interaction of flame, ash and the minerals in the clay helps determine the character of the piece being created.

For instance, as Timmins noted, more ash yields a drier finish with more earth tones.

Gustin’s kiln is a hybrid anagama. While traditional anagama kilns usually have one tunnel-shaped chamber, Gustin’s has three types of chambers: a tube kiln of approximately 250-300 cubic feet, a large second chamber of approximately 90 cubic feet, and a small catenary chamber, approximately 25 cubic feet.

According to Timmins, temperatures in the large tunnel section of Gustin’s kiln reach up to 2,450 degrees Fahrenheit, while the smaller chambers heat to around 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit. It takes a five-person firing team to maintain those temperatures.

Loading the second tier of the anagama.

Unloading the anagama.
As a ceramicist Chris Gustin has work in numerous public and private collections, including the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in Japan.

He holds the rank of professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and now devotes his time to studio work and his ceramic tile company.

Besides having Rhode Island College students participate in kiln firings, Gustin has made another connection to the college. His apprentice Jason Pachico is both a RIC and RISD graduate.