Like witnesses to the opening of an ancient, sacred tomb, the onlookers hold their breath as the first layer of protective sealing clay is chipped from the front of the large kiln. Expectant silence weights the clear stillness of the timbered hills, broken only by the chink, chink of the small mallet. Above the low, arched entrance sits a small Japanese figurine and, in front of it, an offering of rice and salt, enhancing the feeling that we are witnessing something terribly special.

His hands nearly trembling with anticipation, ceramist Rob Barnard finally exposes the firebrick beneath the clay and, very gently, prys one out. We lean down, craning our necks to see. With a look of concern on his face, Barnard puts his ear to the small opening to listen for that tragic, telltale ping! that signifies a pot cracking. For there is a curse hovering beyond this seal, prepared to pounce on the incautious or overeager: the crisp autumn air.

"The kiln has been cooling for over a week," explains Barnard, the 34-year-old master potter who works in the traditional technique of "Yakishime'," wood-firing without glaze, a 15th-century craft still practiced by patient artists both in Japan and in the United States. "The clay over the firebrick is to keep the cold air out. It should be cool enough by now, but . . ."

Gingerly, Barnard and an assistant begin removing more of the brick. Peering into the kiln with the aid of an electric light, we can see the pots, stacked on shelves, glistening in the darkness. Now, more than ever, the feeling is that we are looking into some Bronze Age burial mound. Several of the larger pots near the opening are cracked, but, Barnard explains, this is probably due to defects in the clay, an inconsistency in the throwing, or, perhaps, the result of the feldspar he had added for the first time to see what effect it would have on the firing process.

As the operation gets under way in earnest, and the ashes are shoveled from the floor, Barnard crawls inside the dark, hot kiln and begins withdrawing the vessels one by one, to set them in the bright, cold sun. Now the colors can be seen. Ranging from cool dove gray to deepest russets and ochre greens, they echo the fall hues bathing the surrounding hills.

Later, when most of the pots have been removed from the front of the kiln, where the fire is hottest, Barnard stands amid pieces of every conceivable size and shape, arrayed on wooden planks on the front porch of his studio. He surveys them critically as he attempts to explain the art to the uninitiated.

"The glaze is caused by the burning residue from the wood. You manipulate certain effects and colors by how you stack the pieces in the kiln. It takes probably between three and four cords of wood, generally hardwoods -- oak, locust or hickory. These burn slow and with a short flame. The Japanese only use the pine, which burns fast and hot with a long flame.

"I generally fire 200 to 300 pots at a time. The casualty rate is about 20 percent."

Barnard bends down and picks up a large, graceful jar. He taps it gently, producing a clear, bell-like tone, and turns it in his hands, discovering its secrets, determining its success.

"If I take a jar like this," he says, "this is as far as I can take it. But when someone buys it and gets it home, then things start to happen. When they put flowers in it, or just look at it, and suddenly see that there are more possibilities than just function, then is when it becomes successful. My most successful piece from this firing I probably won't recognize for a year. It takes time. But a successful piece is one that will move me to do more pieces.

"Pottery can be too pretty -- you've got all these curves, and the potential to be really pretty. The point is to make them not pretty. To make them real. I have the same concerns that a painter or a sculptor does. But I have the structural concerns, too. All pottery is based on form. But what I'm trying to elicit is by choice of certain forms. A bottle may be cracked, but if you find it interesting, it takes on another esthetic. When someone gets a piece home and begins thinking beyond the functional, everyday, 'Hey, you can eat your Wheaties out of this! ' -- then . . . An architect who builds a building nobody can live in may believe he's doing art, but, ultimately, he's failed at architecture."

After Barnard has lived with his new pots for a time, watching and touching them, considering which are the most perfect imperfections, he will select a precious few to make the long trip from his studio in Timberville, Va., to the wilds of Capitol Hill, home of the Anton Gallery. Some may go to New York, and some to Japan, where Barnard studied for four years under the master, Yagi. And, in time, he will begin throwing more pots, and stacking them to dry to greenware on the shelves in his quiet, roomy studio.

The firing process is a long and involved one, and Barnard generally does only two firings a year. In the interim the pots have work to do: They must evolve and develop under his gaze. Some will, most won't. Oh, the ones that have survived the firing, stacking and shipping are beautiful pots, all right. But it's those few that have the special something -- the way a color runs, or the way they stand not quite just so -- that Barnard watches for. These are the essence of his art.

"Now this is kind of nice," he says, running his thumb along a groove that mars the perfection of a rounded lip.