One-of-a-kind, custom-designed
Japanese Bizen-style
wood-fired pottery

Meet John Ray, maker of wood-fired Japanese Bizen Pottery in Tennessee

When I was a junior at Earlham College, I was lucky enough to go to Japan and study under Kimura Sensei. I stayed for about six months, then returned to college.

I wrote an eighty-page thesis on the subject (which I recently embarrasedly re-read; I was full of myself, and of hot air), I filled and fired Earlham's kiln a couple of times and did a one-man art show, and thus I avoided "comps"!

A couple of weeks after I graduated in 1988, I returned to Japan to continue my apprenticeship, this time under Mitsuke Sensei. I studied under him for close to a year, but about ten months into it, I was introduced to Sueishi Sensei. For a brief period, I worked 9 to 5 at Mitsuke Sensei's, then from 5 to "tired" at Sueishi Sensei's. It was clear from the start that Sueishi Sensei's logical, direct approach to every aspect of pottery was what I went to Japan to study.

I asked him to accept me as an apprentice, which he did on a temporary basis because he had accepted an almost impossibly large order (10,000 vases in addition to the things he was already committed to make). Mitsuke Sensei, recognizing my desire to work under Sueishi Sensei, graciously released me from our agreed apprenticeship before I had completed a year under him, but Sueishi Sensei had only agreed to allow me to study under him until the huge order was filled.

Then he kindly introduced me to Kobayashi San (who won't allow me to call him "Kobayashi Sensei"). Kobayashi San was just beginning his career as an independent potter when I showed up. For many years he had made pottery for other potters and affixed their marks to the pottery he made to their specifications. (Of course, the potters would always spare him a bit of kiln-space for his own stuff, in addition to the money he received). The standards were tough, though, and he had to be good or nobody would have hired him. At the same time, he also helped many potters fire their kilns. A typical fire might last more than a week, so it is very difficult to fire alone, and the results are not likely to be as good as if one had skilled help such as Kobayashi San, so his service was always in demand.

Kobayashi San got to see many different ways of making and firing pottery over ten years as a "hired gun". I learned very much studying under him as he built his place from scratch.

After I had been studying under Kobayashi San for about a year (while working at Sueishi Sensei at night), one of Sueishi Sensei's apprentices quit, and I quickly negotiated with both of my tutors to become Sueishi Sensei's apprentice full time.

Under Sueishi Sensei we often worked 7 days a week for protracted periods. We always worked at least six days a week.

We were assigned to make several hundred pots for each fire, which we made after our normal day's work was done, and to which we were allowed to affix Sensei's stamp upon his approval. That approval was not always forthcoming, though: once I made a little cup, and I left a little rock in it, as I had seen Sensei do many times. I thought it looked really cool, but when I came to work the next morning there was a big "X" scratched into the raw clay. Sensei is many things, but he's not subtle.

One day, I said I'd like to build a kiln myself. Sensei said words to the effect that he'd believe it when he saw it. He also allowed me to use some old bricks, and to build the kiln on his land. I had bitten off much more than I could chew, but fortunately my Elder apprentice Tomori agreed to be my partner in that project. Every day after work we essayed that task. Both of us got the chance to fire it before we had to destroy it because it was in the way of another of Sensei's projects. Building a kiln was a great learning experience.

Building a kiln is hot, sweaty, dirty work!
Building a kiln is hot, sweaty, dirty work!

Early in the process, we hit a rock (pictured at left) while digging. We thought we'd dig around it and roll it out of the way, but it was far too big. So we beat on it with a sledge, we attacked it with a pneumatic hammer-drill, we did everything short of dynamiting it. It was a very hard rock. Then on a Sunday, while we were PING-PING-PINGING on it with a 4-Kg sledge, Sensei came walking up the hill to us, and he was chuckling. "Oh no, here it comes", I thought, but he suggested that we light a fire beneath the rock to heat it, then dump cold water on it. If it didn't break, it was the same as a firebrick and could be incorporated into the kiln; if it did break, it was out of the way.

It shattered like a chewable vitamin. Working hard is good, working smart is better.

In 1993, I returned to America and set up shop in Sewanee, Tn. It's a bit far from my family in Florida, but it's beautiful and sparsely populated in the Tennessee mountains.

I am still building my place, as I'm sure I will be for the remainder of my days. Here are descriptions of a few of the things I've done:

The Gypsy Queen
The Gypsy Queen

I started waaay too big, and got part-way through building a 3,700 sq.ft. studio before I figured out that I didn't have the money to finish it. So I made a more modest (770 sq.ft.) cabin from the construction materials I had temporarily used in the larger project. Most of my guests ask if the unfinished building was there when I bought the place. I've named it "Dresden, 1945", and no, it wasn't here from the start- I just didn't do my arithmetic before I started. DOH! Being this dumb keeps a guy humble, anyway. God Willing, I'll finish it someday soon.

Then I built a kiln-shed, it's 40'x60'. I cut the pines from the site, skinned their bark, and used them as rafters. Under it, I have built several iterations of my "anagama" kiln, the "Gypsy Queen".

GQI was over 40' long. I made the arch out of clay, but the clay I used was prone to "spalling", which means that volleyball-size chunks come crashing down onto your pots during the fire. I was lucky the whole thing didn't collapse. I wasn't going to fire that one again, it was clear, so I "Jack-hammered" it: bottle of Jack in one hand, sledge hammer in the other. For that fire I made over twenty urns that were taller than waist-high. Their shards make good plinking targets! Let's just say that was not the apogee of my career.

I rebuilt, the Gypsy Queen II. I made the arch of bricks this time. I fired it once, and got modest success, but it was the back half of its predecessor, and there were things about it that made it hard to use.

So I destroyed that one too, and built GQIII in the same place, connected to the same chimney. GQIII was the same size as GQII, about 20'x 7' at the base, 5' high at the middle of the arch. I got a few decent fires from that one, but finally the arch started to collapse and I had to destroy it too.

Right now I'm building GQIV. It's gonna be sturdy as a bunker, and very easy to load and fire. Well, of course you give a little here to take a little there, and GQIII was wonderful to load: I'm 6' tall, and I made it almost tall enough that I could stand up inside. But it got smaller toward the rear, so 1) the air didn't flow as rapidly as I wanted in the front, and 2) the numbers were hard to add up when I was loading: I may have been able to fit 25 or 30 plates on a shelf in the back, but I had no idea how many would fit on the wider shelves in front. GQIV will be essentially a half-cylinder with a stepped floor. This time I'm orienting the bricks of the arch so that the smallest face of the brick is the "hot face". Thus the arch will be twice as thick as those I've made before.

I expect GQIV to last several years.

Update: This essay was written during construction of GQ IV, which is now complete.

A little about my style of pottery

I apply glaze to some of my pottery, it's fun. The ash from the wood fire reacts in unpredictable ways with the glaze. If I want to, I can just cover the glazed pot with a larger pot upside-down, and the glazed pot inside will be as clean as if it were fired in an electric kiln. I usually prefer to make my pots just a little bit dirty though.

Bizen-type, unglazed ware is very fun and challenging too. Plates can be stacked with lumps of fireclay between them, for instance.

The fireclay lumps cause ash to be deposited around them by redirecting the convection of the wood fire. Where the fireclay contacted the plate directly, one can see the vitrified clay itself, "buck naked", with ash deposited around the fireclay lumps in accordance with the laws of physics.