It was a gorgeous, sunny Mother’s Day morning when we gathered up all of the clay pots the students had been carefully creating over the past few weeks with me, loaded up into the Chewonki bus, and drove off to Newcastle, Maine. Today was the culminating event in a series of pottery steps: throwing the forms on the pottery wheels, trimming these when appropriately dry, firing in our electric kiln, and doing some painting with specially formulated glazes. The early hour could not quell the excitement that pervaded the air as we turned into the driveway leading to our destination. The final step in this pottery process would be a firing at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, where we would be participating in a raku workshop.
The raku technique today is a specialized process based off of an ancient Japanese tradition whereby pots are heated quickly in a kiln, then removed at peak temperature and transferred to a reduction chamber for cooling. What is so unique about this technique, as opposed to regular high or low fire ceramics, is that raku produces a look unlike anything else. The metals in raku glazes, when exposed to a reducing environment, become lustrous and shiny. Any unglazed, exposed raku clay turns a matte black when deprived of oxygen (including the fizzures in glazes—shiny white glaze with black cracks is a classic raku look). Results are unpredictable and dynamic; oftentimes pieces turn out with strange and beautiful color patterns caused by metal iridescence. All materials are crafted to withstand extreme thermal shock.
We met our leader, Reed, at the large ceramics workshop where Watershed summer residents set up their studios spaces. The raku kiln itself was nothing out of the ordinary, and as we put the finishing touches of glaze on our pieces, Reed went about dismantling it for loading. Everyone placed their pots on the kiln shelves and as soon as the lid was back in place we fired up the propane fuel; a resonant low gushing sound reminiscent of wind through a tunnel permeated the space. Reed explained a bit about Watershed’s history and gave us a tour of the impressive premises as the pottery warmed up. There was so much to learn about ceramics—the craft really requires in-depth knowledge of art, chemistry, and engineering to fully comprehend. We learned about brick making that occurred on the premises, about different types of clay and their properties, about glazes and about special firing techniques. We saw examples of Reed’s impressive work (ornate jugs and other vessels) and became inspired to delve further into the ceramic arts when back at campus. One of the students, Tucker, was really excited about a technique called salt firing, where salts of different chemicals are thrown into the kiln at roughly 2,000 degrees, instantly becoming volatile and adhering to the clay pieces. Reed told us that salt glazing of this sort creates one of the hardest enameling techniques on clay known to man!
It took a couple of hours for the kiln to heat up to peak temperature, in which time we lounged in the sunshine, visited Dandelion Spring Farm adjacent to Watershed’s property, or chatted with Reed. When we could see shiny, liquid hot glaze on some pots nearest a kiln “peep hole,” Reed told us it was time to do the transfer. Nick volunteered to assist in lifting off the heavy and extremely hot kiln lid, which was laid on the ground, and immediately we were immersed in the orange glow of the exposed pottery. It was a pretty amazing, and somewhat indescribable moment; the pots were emanating radiant heat and light as if made of lava! Acting quickly, Reed showed us how to grab the pieces with long metal tongs and carry them over to the reduction chambers, where Hanna and some other students were waiting to cover them up with woodchips and sawdust. We used aluminum trash cans as our chambers, leaving the pots to cool for 20 minutes before dousing them in water to stop any further reaction. The incredible heat from the pots began making the sawdust smolder in the trash cans, and soon we were all engulfed in foul-smelling smoke as students and faculty alike transferred each piece, one by one, into the chambers.
Reed demonstrated how to do the final transfer into a bucket of water with one of the three cans. Shortly after removing the lid to the chamber, the sawdust caught fire and we had to work with dexterity to avoid being singed by the flames. It was something akin to a treasure hunt, digging through the smoldering woodchips with the tongs, fishing for hot ceramic pieces. The water dousing caused a lot of steam to shoot up and a loud quenching sound to fill the air until the pieces were fully submerged. A few seconds under water and the pots were ready to lay out on the grass, newly iridescent metallic surfaces exposed and brilliant to see. In just a few minutes after that, they were cool enough to handle!
-Mattias Lanas, Chewonki Semester School Art Teacher, Semester 33 Alum