Roll up your sleeves and get out your smock! Teachers and students can use this summer as an opportunity to learn a new skill. For those of you who enjoy hand-made pottery and ceramics, you may be curious as to how such beautiful pieces are made. There are different firing processes you can use depending upon the results you desire. From rolling out the clay to placing it into a fire pit, it takes a steady hand and a lot of practice to bring ceramics artwork to life, particularly using the fine art of Raku.
The Art League of Long Island in Dix Hills, NY, offers classes in Raku. They cater to all levels, from beginner to professional. They take you step by step to create each piece. Gina Mars, the instructor for the class, enjoys her work and guides each student through the process. “I’ve been doing Raku for 30 years,” she says. “Raku is a real communal activity. Everyone works together to get the results, and the results are different every time. It’s a lot of fun.”
Raku is a special process where the oxygen is removed from the clay and glaze by putting it into a fire immediately after it is removed from a kiln. Be careful not to burn your hands! This is a tricky process that is done outside. Make sure to wear long sleeves. It is helpful to wear a protective mask to cover your nose and mouth, since this is an extremely smoky process. You will need to use a long pair of tongs to remove the ceramics pieces and put them into pits that have been previously dug into the ground. Once the pieces are in the pit, quickly cover them with a combustible material, such as strips of newspaper about two inches wide. A fire is created, and then a large, metal pail is thrown over it to keep the flames inside. Make sure to seal around the edges of the pail with dirt so that oxygen does not escape.
Once the pieces are ready to be removed from the pit, do so with tongs and place them on the ground, away from everything else. Hose them down with water to remove any combustible material that may be clinging to it. Once it has been washed, dip each piece into a large bucket of water and use a little steel wool to remove any black spots that may be leftover from the fire. Lay your pieces out in the sun to dry. Once your pieces are ready to be taken back into the studio, you can use a little high gloss finish to cover the back (which will remain black if no glaze was used on it.) The gloss gives the unglazed portions a nice sheen and a finished, professional look.
Each piece comes out differently, depending upon the glaze you use. Glazes come in a multitude of colors, with unusual names to match. This includes Dragon Fly, Reynolds Wrap and Copper Kettle. White Crackle is another popular glaze. If you are looking for the “Wow” factor, use a little gold. It adds a nice contrast against the rest of your piece and your eye is drawn directly to it. The glazes are what make the Raku process so unique. Depending upon how much glaze you use, the color, and how long it was left in the fire, these factors all help to produce different results. It is an exciting process and interesting to compare from piece to piece. You may have a bowl or vase that you created years ago, were not happy with the results, so you put it back into the pit for firing – even as much as five years later. The results can be phenomenal! What may have looked lackluster in the first round of firing may come out shiny and brand new in the second round.
Raku firing is an all day process, but well worth the results. Once your pieces are done, you can proudly display them. You may be able to showcase them at a local art gallery or sell them at an arts-and-crafts fair. Raku draws upon a level of skill and talent that requires hard work and patience. A beginner can achieve nice results. Professionals can achieve outstanding results. It is an activity that is therapeutic, educational and fun. From the creative aspect to the bonding element of working as a team, it is an art form that engages the body, mind and soul.