by Cori Hilsgen
The Johanna Kiln, which can “fire” thousands of works of pottery, was recently fired up for the 12th time in its 18-year history at St. John’s University.
The kiln was designed and built by master potter and artist-in-residence Richard Bresnahan, with the assistance of apprentices and volunteers.
This firing honors Sister Johanna Becker, OSB, Mary Griggs Burke and Akiko Sako, all Japanese art scholars and supporters of SJU pottery. The kiln is named after Becker, who was Bresnahan’s instructor and arranged for his apprenticeship in Japan. All three women died in different months in 2012.
The kiln is usually fired in the fall. Once the doors are closed, the lighting ceremony begins. After a prayer and a Japanese traditional ritual purification with rice, salt and sake, the kiln is lit with a handmade torch.
The brick kiln has three chambers and is fueled with Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood from the St. John’s Abbey forest.
Many volunteers are involved with the firing process. The kiln takes at least six weeks to load, and the firing continues for 10 days.
The 87-foot-long, brick kiln is the largest one in North America and was first fired in 1995. It can hold almost 12,000 works of pottery and sculpture.
Using local clay, Bresnahan created 9,000 of the pieces of pottery being fired. His pieces include cups, bowls, teapots and other items. Bresnahan also invited more than 30 other artists to contribute to the firing, for a total of more than 12,000 pieces.
Bresnahan is an SJU graduate who apprenticed in Karatsu, Japan with a 13th-generation national-living-treasure potter’s family. That experience and the knowledge gained earned him the title of “Master Potter. ” He has served as the director of the St. John’s Pottery program since 1980 and lives with his wife, Colette, and family in Avon.