Cambodian “Smokeless” Woodfire Kiln Project

On this blog one can follow events at Yary’s Kiln, 220 Aiken St. Lowell, MA, with photos and interviews; find out when the kiln will be fired; learn how to sign up for workshops, to visit, view exhibits or find sales of traditional Cambodian woodfire pottery.

Master ceramist Yary Livan, expert in Cambodian traditional pottery, embodies the tradition with artistry and excellence. He lives and works in Lowell, MA.

Yary is one of only four master ceramists to survive the Khmer Rouge Genocide, one of only two still actively creating pottery.  People and institutions in Lowell came together to build a Cambodian style wood fire kiln to help insure that this art form, which dates back to the Angkor Kingdom, can continue and flourish.

Proeung Kang, master ceramist and professor at the Secondary School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh Cambodia, joins us in Lowell summer 2012 to build the kiln with Yary Livan.

The Lowell National Historical Park hosts the kiln on park land. The Parker Foundation granted funds to build the kiln. Middlesex Community College built the shelter and administers the care and use of the kiln through the Art Department.

The kiln enables Yary to pass on his skills to younger generations and also to engage adults in art and craft enterprises.  

Come visit, watch a firing, take a workshop, view an exhibit or shop for Cambodian pottery.

Wood fire kiln blessing ceremony

On Thursday, June 28, 2012, the blessing ceremony for the new Cambodian wood fire  kiln took place in Lowell. In order to ensure a successful project, the potters Yary Livan and Proeung Kang made offerings and prayed to the designer of Angkor Wat, King Suryavarman II, whom Yari calls “the hero of construction.” Proeung just arrived from Cambodia where he teaches at the Secondary School of Fine Arts. Yary and Proeung had not seen each other for a long time, although they both grew up in the same village along the Mekong Delta and studied pottery together.

Two Buddhist monks in bright orange robes from the Vatt Khmer temple in Lowell came for the occasion. On the altar, Yary prepared offering of grapes, apples, cherries, and a whole roast chicken (complete with dipping sauces!), next to a vase of white daises and purple chrysanthemum.

Cambodian customs are a mix of animism, Hinduism, Buddhism. The altar incorporated the symbolically important Hindu number of seven. Yary said traditionally the altar holds seven different kinds of food and seven kinds of fruit, what he called “seven times seven.”

Marge Rack, professor of art at Middlesex Community College (MCC), gave a welcoming address, translated by Tooch Van, International Student Advisor at MCC, to the approximately fifteen people attending. She said that this project was “a dream come true,” and it was her vision to build a ceramics community that not only included Lowell but Cambodia as well.

An achar, or master of ceremonies, lit three tall white candles placed on an orange brick and recited a blessing in Pali, the liturgical language of Buddhism.

The two monks chanted a Sanskrit sutra while dipping flowers into pottery bowls of water and sprinkling water over the kiln’s foundation.

At the altar, Yary lit a candle next to the chicken while Proeung poured pinot grigio over the chicken. Holding a bundle of incense sticks, Yary prayed and chanted over the offerings, then placed one burning incense stick each into an apple, a grape, a cherry, and the chicken.

Earlier, Celeste Bernardo, the new Superintendent of Lowell National Park, said that “heritage is made strong by the many cultures in our community,” and that the Lowell community helps spread and continue the traditions of the Cambodian people.

Laying the bricks

Masking tape marks out the floor plan. This is the chimney end.

In Cambodia the kiln would be built on compacted sand. Care is taken to choose a site that will not flood.  In the Massachusetts the preference is to build on a concrete pad reinforced with steel. Water is also a challenge. Crushed stone and a vapor barrier beneath the concrete help keep the pad from absorbing water.  During firing any water in the pad would form steam and cause the concrete to spall. Our kiln floor will have three layers of brick, including an insulating brick layer, to prevent the concrete from getting too hot.

The floor is complete and Proeung begins to raise the perimeter walls.

The bricks can be stacked dry, but since the bricks can vary slightly in size, a mortar of fireclay and grog helps to keep the walls perfectly level.

Proeung is laying out the ware chamber door opening. The door will be loose bricks that are stacked dry for each firing. He is determining the space to allow for the door.

These columns will support the upper fire box. Proeung is in the ware chamber checking for level.

This view looks across the length of the kiln from the firebox in the foreground to the chimney beyond.

Oversize bricks span the fire box creating a grate. Embers and ash will fall through the spaces into the bourry box below.

The walls are 9 inches thick, two layers of brick. The light color brick is insulating brick, and will help prevent heat loss making the kiln more efficient.

Making progress building the kiln

A thin piece of plywood is bent as a guide for building a sturdy wooden arch form that will support the bricks temporarily during construction.

One course of arch bricks are laid up dry on the arch form to verify the layout. 

This is a sprung arch, held in place by tension.

A feather edge brick supports the arch on either end.

Every other brick rests on the arch form. The botton corners of the raised bricks rest against the bricks to either side. Wood spacers are placed under the raised bricks during construction to keep the spaces uniform. Thin wedges of mortar and tiny pieces of broken bricks will be wedges between each brick to bond them and maintain the tension.

The kiln is nearly complete

The kiln is complete except for the chimney which isn’t quite at 6 meters, its full height. Plus, the fire box door is being welded off site. 

The artists have been at work creating pottery and sculpture for the first firing. 

Mr. Proeung is carving this pedestal jar to resemble an owl. It is based on a jar dating to the 12th century. Vessels carved in bird and animal shapes were widely produced during the Angkor period in Cambodia.

First Firing

Coals glow in the primary fire box as the temperature rises.

Kang Proeung rakes the coals in the primary fire box.

Yary Livan clears some coals.

Yary loading wood. We will use about one cord.

Students from several colleges came to observe, including Middlesex, UMass Lowell and UMass Boston.

The visitors expressing fascination at the process included three members of the Lowell fire department. After the kiln reached 300 degrees no more smoke rose out of the chimney. Plus, the insulating brick kept the outside surface comfortable to touch with a bare hand.

The mood is relaxed and joyful as Prof. ShirleyTang’s UMB students pose for a photo with Mr. Proeung, Mr. Yary and MCC Prof. Marge Rack.

It’s back to work, and Proeung moves the fire up to the main fire box.

Many hours of stoking later, the crowd has thinned.  Maggie Holtzberg carefully watches the pyrometer to judge when to stoke the next load.

Nary Tith takes a turn at stoking.

Proeung operates the door as Nary steps up to load.

The kiln seems to be in a stall at 1500 degrees farenheit. Mr. Yary is consulting by phone with Mr. Kusakabe, innovator of smokeless kilns, who happens to be in the U.S. building a kiln in Tennessee. Luck for us, thank you Kusakabe for your words of encouragement!  Small diameter pieces of wood, stoking just a few at a time will help keep the fire oxiding and the temperature climbing steadily.

Mr. Proeung employs an “old school” method, reading the reflection the polished end of the steel rod makes as it nears a pot. If the reflection is glossy, the glaze is melting.

The evidence suggests our pyrometer is not working. The good news is the temperature is much higher!

The cones are falling at last.

Nary records this moment; the crew has been laboring to reach cone 8 for 17 hours. The first fire was lit at 4:30 a.m., the kiln reached cone 11 a little before midnight.

Unpacking the kiln

After waiting a day and a half for the kiln to cool down,

 the artists were anxious to dismantle the door and see the results.

Yary Livan unloading the wares which are still warm to touch.

Pottery in the ware chamber.

Kang Proeung taking inventory after unloading.

David Blackburn of the Lowell National Historical Park, left, with Yary Livan.

The unusual colors on the tea pot in the foreground are a result of the ash glaze.

The owl jar by Kang Proeung is a combination of porcelain clay on the bird’s breast and darker sculpture clay.

 The glaze is clear. The combination of clay and porcelain is a technical tour de force.

This pedastal jar by Kang Proeung is also a combination of porcelain on the top and sculpture clay on the body, with clear glaze.

Yary Livan created this piece in homage to his mother; it represents the work women do to raise their children well.

Celebrating the successful test fire, in which 90% of the wares fired flawlessly, are Yary Livan, MCC Adjunct Professor and kiln master on the left, MCC Prof. Margaret Rack, 2010 Fulbright Hayes to Cambodia scholar and founder of the smokeless Cambodian kiln project, center, with Kru (Professor) Kang Proeung, visiting scholar/artist from Cambodia on right.