In the fateful year of 1993, Tony and Trew Bennett had already put 21 years of sweat, tears and living into their Nelson County property. They’d bought it in 1972, two young potters from Northern Virginia, and they’d built a yurt for housing, as well as a two-story building with a studio and an efficiency apartment. And they’d built an anagama—an ancient technology, a Southeast Asian-style ceramics kiln, its round form molded over the Virginia hillside, looking like a living, fire-breathing creature. And indeed, when the kiln is firing, temperatures inside reach 2,360 degrees.
Crouched inside her hand-built anagama kiln is Nelson County potter Trew Bennett. The kiln is built to follow the slope of the hill where she lives.
It’s ironic, then, that when a fire leveled the buildings in that fateful year, it most likely didn’t start with the kiln at all, but in the yurt. The anagama, and part of the pavilion-like structure that covers it, survived. So did the Bennetts and their young son. But little else. “It was an apocalypse,” Trew says.
They eventually converted a large shed up the hill into their new house and continued with their work—she as a potter, he as the owner of Buck Creek Nursery. And the periodic firings of the anagama—altogether, 16 since it was built—connected the new way of life to the old.
The anagama posts impressive stats: 10 cords of salvaged wood, burned continuously over four days and four nights, fire 400 to 500 pots at once and create a 12’ flame from the top of the kiln chimney. It takes a small army of students, working with the Bennetts in six-hour shifts, to keep the fires stoked, not to mention loading and unloading the kiln. “It’s like sailing a boat,” says Tony. “There’s a lot of camaraderie. You have this goal: to make heat.”
Trew: “I keep Buck Creek Pottery going as a teaching facility. Right now I have four wonderful fourth-year UVA students. Some of these people who have come through our life are still in touch 30 years later. It’s been a very lively resting place for me as a potter.
“The wood-fired work is really inspired by having worked with two Japanese potters. [One of them,] Nakazato Takashi, was a 13th-generation potter. This is the tradition of my teachers—to fire with wood. We preheat [the anagama] with a small propane burner for 24 hours to dry it out and get it warmed up. You start with a little fire; it looks like a campfire. You add and add. [When it really gets going] we’re all wearing head and face bandannas; nobody would let us into an airport!
“As the wood goes into the firebox, it roils, smokes, and the temperature actually falls a little bit before combustion begins again….It takes [the students] a day and a night to get used to the fire. The ash is drifting and being pulled through the kiln. As this happens, it melts. It looks like the pots are covered in honey when you look in there.
“We charge the kiln with a lot of wood at the end to get that smoky, carbon surface and soft grey tones [on the pots’ surfaces]. The unloading takes about four hours with all the students; we make a chain line to get the pots in and out.
“As corny as it sounds, every civilization has gotten some clay in a fireplace and found that it got hard. When you’re working with clay, you’re working with something that has a vital force in it. It’s a wonderful connection to all time.
“[Before the fire], the studio was right by the house. Now there’s a longer walk down to the kiln. One of the things the fire taught us was that the land was still here. We’re an adaptable species."