Playing with Fire

Raku potters play with fire in ways that the rest of us do not. The notion of opening a hot, burning kiln and reaching inside with long tongs to pluck out a pot, glaze still molten, and then dashing with that glowing pot to a bin of combustibles is very appealing. But I am a woman who makes sturdy, functional pots for the most part, so, though pyromaniac that I am, I do not do anything as dramatic as pull my pots glowing from the flames. Raku, often breathtakingly beautiful, is not meant for everyday use. Raku is meant to behold.

Once, in my younger, less careful days, the bricked up front of my catenary arch kiln blew out on the way to Cone 9 (I think it was around Cone 4 at the time), nearly causing dreadful havoc, such as my fiery death, an event that would indeed be dramatic – potter immolates self and surrounding countryside –but not welcome. No, I fire long and slow, though I do like it when the flames curl out of the spy holes. And every now and then, I do a pit firing.

But like most potters, I like seeing what others are doing and how they are doing it, even if, or perhaps especially if, it is very different from what I do. Looking through 500 Raku: Bold Explorations of a Dynamic Ceramics Technique juried by Jim Romberg (who studied with Paul Soldner) it is apparent that the process has expanded considerably in the hundred years since Bernard Leach famously attended a garden party in Japan and discovered raku for the west. The Japanese first made raku in the sixteenth century. Tea bowls fired this way, though not as sturdy as stoneware, were porous and cooled the tea quickly. Fragile, often asymmetrical, magically blessed by the fire, raku tea bowls became a celebrated element of the tea ceremony.

There are only four tea bowls shown in 500 Raku, two by the highly accomplished Steven Branfman (see pot above). Birds, fish, jars, bottles, bowls, horses, and women predominate. Colors range from smoked white crackle to iridescent purples, golds and blues. Pieces have been masked with tape, sprayed with oxides, fumed, covered in slip that cracks off to reveal a design, glazed, smoked in newspapers and sawdust, and plunged into cold water and painted with acrylics. The sculptures are humorous, political, and personal.

The variety is stunning. I couldn’t help but think that these ceramicists not only play with fire, they play with clay. And playing with clay is always a good thing. Even though I do not do raku myself, I found the book stimulating.