A few months ago, I was communicating with potter Shumpei Yamaki from Iowa about his forthcoming reception and show at Entoten’s Gallery in San Diego in late October. Amid our discussion, he cheerfully wrote: “Oh, by the way, I’m going to fire the kiln without using a thermometer or pyrometric cones this time!”
Thermometers and cones measure when the kiln reaches the desired temperature, and almost all potters use them to make sure that the firing is progressing as expected.
I did not say this to him, but my immediate response to Shumpei’s audacious decision was why not use the thermometer and cones as reassurance? Was it really necessary to not use them at all? Shumpei though has been firing with wood for the last decade, so there was little doubt that he knew what he was doing, so I kept quiet.
“I really want to be completely immersed in the firing and ‘be one’ with my kiln”, Shumpei answered when I called him after he had concluded the firing at the end of September. “It was amazing. I now know what it means to meet the ‘kiln god’!” Shumpei said excitedly about the experience.
Usually, between 60 and 70 percent of the pots get covered in ash deposits, glossiness and markings in a single firing, which are the desired effects of wood-fired pots. But this time, almost every piece had these effects. It was the most successful firing that Shumpei had in his entire potting career.
Shumpei is convinced that this success was due to not using the thermometer and cones. “I knew I was doing everything right, but when I was using the thermometer and the cones, it was difficult to focus. And when I am distracted, I do unnecessary things like opening the kiln door more often to check the surfaces of the pots or stoking for fear that the temperature is falling. It was like I wasn’t really trusting my kiln,” he mused.
Shumpei further explained that “usually at the climax of the firing, when the kiln reaches 2,300 degrees or more, things are crazy because we have to constantly stoke. If we space out even for 5 minutes, the temperature will drop. But this time, it was like the kiln fired itself and I just assisted it. It was so peaceful, and when I added wood, I saw the blue flame that indicates that the kiln is very hot. Usually there is a lot of smoke, this time there was hardly any. It was like the kiln took everything that the wood had to offer. It was the most magical experience!”
Now let me briefly offer some scientific perspectives. “Flow-state” was defined by Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his 1990 book as the “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” There is a BBC article on the physical and psychological benefits of getting into this state. Shumpei said he wanted to reach this state of mind during the firing and achieved it.
After talking to Shumpei, I also realized that I had experienced something very similar while preparing tea in chanoyu (also known as the tea ceremony – but I personally prefer this word). As I prepared the tea, my body moved exactly how it should, and I could make a bowl of tea without thinking. It took several years of learning chanoyu to experience it, but I felt ecstatic afterwards. This is one of the reasons why I am now completely hooked to tea.
Which brings me back to the earlier question: was it necessary for Shumpei to eliminate the thermometer and cones? Yes, absolutely.