Monday, June 30, 2014

Arkansas Potter Joe Bruhin

  Joe Bruhin 
   creates beauty out of clay and fire and wood.
     If that sounds simple, it is not.  After the initial creation of clay pieces, a firing requires 10 days of continuous stoking of a cord of wood a day - with a mind to temperature, humidity, ash content, salts, placement of pottery in the kiln, the path of the flame and the process of cool down. 
     Only then do his amazing vases, plates, jars, tea bowls and saki cups emerge from the two wood-fired kilns Mr. Bruhin built on his property in Fox, Arkansas. 
     For 28 years, this art inspired by traditional Japanese forms has earned the appreciation and praise of museums and collectors across the nation.
    Joe's pottery may be seen in a number of collections, including the permanent collections of Historic 

Arkansas Museum and the Arkansas Arts Center, where he had a one person museum exhibition in 2007.  Two Little Rock galleries will have some of his pottery on display in June and July: The Edge Gallery, 301-B President Clinton Ave., and Gallery 360, 900 S. Rodney Parham Road.
      Joe's first kiln was built in 1986, and he still uses it.
     "I fired it last year.  I'm going to fire it once a year now."
      He recycled 4,000 bricks from the old Falstaff Brewing Corporation site in St. Louis, which had kilns used to roast barley, and these bricks eventually ended up in this first kiln in Fox.
      "The brick was in really good shape.  I was living in St. Louis then.  I took my Volkswagen van and got 120 bricks at a time.  I stored them in my basement in St. Louis."
     In 1985, Joe and his first wife, Terry, bought 40 undeveloped acres of land in Fox in the heart of the Ozarks and built a cabin with stone and wood from their land.
     The next project was the kiln.  "I rented a big Hertz truck and brought back the bricks in two trips.  After it was made, we called it Falstaff, since the bricks came from the brewery. Back then, there were not many wood-fired kilns in the country."
    The type of kiln he built is called a "noborigama," which is a three-chambered kiln in which he experimented with ash and salt finishes.  
    Joe sent out an invitation in June 2013 to his noborigama kiln opening and studio exhibit that pictured Criselda, whom he married that previous February, crouched in the kiln opening holding 
up an absolutely gorgeous vase from the latest firing.       
     In recent years, Joe has invited the public to be there when the kilns are opened and their contents revealed.  There's something special in seeing the finished vessels for the first time.
     The second kiln Joe built is an anagama-type structure that was first used in China circa 1,000 B.C.E. and then was brought to Japan via Korea about 500 years later.  "Anagama" is a Japanese term meaning "cave kiln."  Joe describes it as a long tube with no dividers and said the most
traditional ones are built partially underground, as is his.  He named this kiln "Cave Light."
      "Somebody called me from Louisiana.  They had an over amount of brick, had ordered too much.  They had 70 pallets of brick with 450 bricks to a pallet.  They said they thought about taking them to the dump, but they asked if I wanted them."
     He did.  And he set about building a 40-foot long anagama kiln with 4,000 new bricks he took from the Louisiana company.  
    "Mine is half under the ground.  Twenty foot of that is the flue, a horizontal flue on a 30 percent slope.  I fire for 10 days.  Basically, it's a cord of wood a day.  The wood is small, about two inches in diameter and 18 inches long.  You're putting in about 20 pieces every two or three minutes.  The
anagama is harder to fire.  It takes a month to load the kiln, fire the kiln and cool the kiln."
     Joe's advice if you want to operate a wood-fired kiln:  "Have lots of children,"  he said with
a chuckle. It's a labor-intensive occupation, and some of them might want to stick around and 

help, he said, adding that that is what some Japanese potters do, operate as a family enterprise.
     "What I am doing is kind of a Japanese thing.  It is not an easy thing to do."
     But Joe gets lots of help from volunteers, whom he hosts at his home for the once- or twice-a-year firings. 
     Jay King, owner of Gallery 360, has been friends with Joe for more than 15 years and has helped with firings twice.  
     "A firing with Joe is an exercise in reading signs. Fire, smoke, wind - all these play a role. Joe has the reading of the signs down, but his helpers have to learn them. It's intense at first, then it becomes a ritual and, for Joe especially, a deeply rewarding spiritual exercise," Mr. King said.
     Joe said a crew of at least four people is needed to fire the anagama.  We usually take an 8-hour shift."
     He said firing the kiln is his favorite part of the pottery process.  "I enjoy loading the kiln.  But, it's all good. It's my devotion.  I certainly don't do it for money."
     In 2003, Joe helped with a firing in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and that is where he met Japanese ceramic master Shiho Kanzaki of Shigaraki, a city heralded as one of the six oldest pottery centers in Japan.  At the time Joe met him, Mr. Kanzaki, a leading figure in the pottery world, was in the States for the 10th anniversary of the firing of an anagama kiln he'd built on the property of Karl Beamer, a ceramics and sculpture instructor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and a fine potter in his own right.
      "I just loved Shiho's work.  When I met him, he showed me and gave me 

dimensions for building this kiln," Joe said.
     Shiho is a Buddhist and his pottery, like Joe's, is a spiritual adventure.  
     Joe built and first fired this anagram kiln in 2006. 
     "I built it exactly the way Kanzaki said it was to be built."
      Joe sent the Japanese master photographs of the kiln and the pots that were coming  out of it.  That's when Kanzaki invited Joe to Japan.  "He said I needed no money, just a  plane ticket." 
     Joe's friends helped with the plane ticket, and he was in Little Rock ready for his  trip to Japan.  He was staying at Jay King's home in the Foxcroft subdivision of Little Rock when the tornado sirens began screaming. The lights went out, and Jay's cell phone had no juice.  They debated going directly to the airport, but decided that Joe needed some rest before his trip.  So Jay set a kitchen timer for an hour and woke up.  Set it for another hour and woke up, and so on through the night.  
    Jay drove Joe to the airport in time for his flight and was astonished the next day to see the swath of destruction that they had driven through only the night before.  But Joe  was on his way to Japan and one of the best adventures he'd ever embarked upon. 
    Japan was everything Joe ever wanted to experience and his host, Shiho, was most generous.
     "I lived in his house and he fed me.  He made available to me a tea ceremony.  We traveled.
I was there a month.  It was the second most wonderful experience of my life."
      Shigaraki had three to four hundred pottery galleries, Joe said.  It is a town where literally
millions of pots are on display daily.
    "I had so much fun.  Shiho makes bicycles as a hobby.  And we rode.  I've had some spiritual experiences.  I traveled in India.  But, Japan, there is such a wonderful feeling there.  It's just different.  You might as well be on another planet.  Mostly I was out in the small villages.  There is just something in those mountains there.  It was just a really strong feeling there.  I've seen the Himalayas.  I love India too, but Japan just had a real mystic-type feel to it.  I miss it.  If I were younger … ." 
     "And the food.  I loved all of it.  I was just really happy there.  My body felt good, my mind felt good."
      And he was pleased with the Japanese tradition of hospitality.
     "They take care of you.  Shiho really did take really good care of me."
      Shiho, who had taught himself English, helped Joe through his process of firing 
the kiln.
     "I watched.  I helped him load the kiln.  I fire my kiln exactly as he fires his kiln.  He'd have guests come over.  When the guests would come, I would bow and serve tea.  It was just a really good experience."
     At home in Arkansas, Joe burns yellow pine in his kilns, wood that he has cut from his land.
    "The next firing, I'm going to throw some ash in and try a little hickory and some oak too and see
how I like that."
     When Joe was in Japan, he said it took about $5,000 worth of wood to fire Shito's 
     Having your own source of wood on your own land definitely has its advantages.
     Joe is not always pleased with what comes out of his kiln.  In fact, he's downright picky. 
     "I might put 350 pots in there (the anagama) and get 30 that I like, that make
my standard," Joe said. 
    "The pots I like the best are in the fire box.  It's also the most dangerous place.  They
can fall over, get cracks.  When the wood is thrown in, you can hit a pot.  It's really close. It's a little dangerous.
     "The next pieces I like are on the top on the first step.  There's the firebox, and there
are four steps maybe 20 inches in diameter.  So there are four different levels in the kiln."
     The ancient process of firing an anagama kiln produces stunning surfaces through  natural ash deposits and manipulations of fire rather than the application of glazes.
     In recent years, Joe has been getting into a Buddha place.
     That place is the land and the beauty of nature and the enjoyment of small things that have no monetary value.
      "In the last few years, I've been trying to improve my environment. I've been gardening,
building rock walls.  I remodeled my porch and made a great big arch gate.  It's inspirational
to have your living environment nice as you can make it.  It doesn't matter if I am making 
clay pots, gardening or building a stone wall.  It's all the same.  My goal is for it to all have
the same importance.  I spend maybe less than ten percent of my time on the potter's
wheel.  The living environment is as important as the pottery,  Now, I get more joy
looking at the stone wall, listening to the cardinals chirp outside."
   "My whole reason to work is if I can inspire anyone.  An artist's responsibility is to
manifest inspiration for others."

This story was written by Bobbi Nesbitt and first appeared in the June/July issue of Shoppe Talk.