One clear night a few months ago, fire roared out of the chimney of an ancient kiln in Juliette, Georgia, the flames drawn lengthwise along the furnace’s huge belly until they burst into the air. Opening the small metal doors to add wood was blinding. Sixteen potters, often wearing sunglasses or welder’s goggles, were rotating shifts, feeding the fire, 24 hours a day for five days straight, until the temperature in front reached 2,400 degrees.
The anagama-style kiln originated in East Asia in the fifth century. The technique has never changed: Extraordinary heat, smoke, and ash act on mostly unglazed clay creations within, melting into a glaze crafted by the elements themselves. That means the burnished hues and ripples produced by the fire are unique to each individual piece. Anagama kilns are a lot of work, but they have a devoted following around the world. This past March, the artists gathered at the Juliette home of ceramist Roger Jamison had trekked not only from across Georgia, but from Kentucky and the Carolinas as well. Many have made the journey every year since 2001 to participate in this rite of spring, occasionally staying as houseguests or camping in tents on Jamison’s property. This year, about 600 pieces from 17 artists and writers were stacked inside the kiln, which is shaped like a gourd laid on its side and, at its tallest, rises just over five feet.
Jamison named the kiln Juliette, after the town, but sometimes calls her Giulietta, referring to the late Italian actress Giulietta Masina. “Before we start firing, I give her a Shinto-style votive offering, an arrangement of flowers, sake, fruit, water, and rice,” he said. “Potters are a superstitious lot.”
Jamison shares his midcentury-modern home with wife, Sherrie, and their two dogs. The house, with soaring picture windows, is perched over a burbling creek on 12 acres, a 20-minute drive from Mercer University in Macon, where Jamison taught art, ceramics, drawing, design, and crafts until his retirement. He moved from a historic home in town to the countryside in 1988, precisely to build this and two smaller kilns. When I visited, endless pallets of wood were stacked in high piles—hewn from dead or storm-damaged trees with Jamison’s chainsaw and a hydraulic wood splitter. “He spends all year preparing the wood,” a bit at a time, said Sherrie, who’s also an artist. I watched as they stacked pots on shelves rising from bottom to top, and stretching from front to back. When I visited again a week later, the kiln had reached 2,100 degrees. One of the artists sat me in a director’s chair—wearing a leather apron that had been a prop on The Walking Dead—and, with a flourish, opened the door. It was like looking into the sun.
One more week passed, and the kiln cooled down. It was time to see what the fire had wrought. Crouching inside, artists tenderly lifted each piece and handed it down the line. Soon pots, vases, urns, casserole dishes, plates, cups, even clay tablets had found their way to long tables. The day was balmy and clear. Smoked salmon, bagels, and cream cheese were laid out. Murmurs of delight filled the air. Each pot and cup was beautiful, each in its own surprising way. “A village potter,” Jamison said, looking at the fruits of all this labor. “That is all I ever wanted to be.”
This article appears in our June 2023 issue.