I had the pleasure of taking part in a Raku workshop on the 8th of April 2017 at the fantastic Seymour Road Studios in Lady Bay, Nottingham. It was here that my passion for clay began several years ago under the watchful eye of Fran Bailey who is a great teacher! Learning about raku has been at the top of my to do list for a long time so this was the perfect opportunity.
I’ve been working to develop a style for my pottery forms and this workshop has allowed me to clarify my thinking on form and to consider how I transform the clay with surface decoration.
My main focus is on organic hand built forms that are reminiscent of geological formations, a key inspiration for my practice. A new strand to my making has been inspired by the temples at Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India which I visited in 2016. These led me to combine organic forms with a more structural appearance. Examples of my work can be found in the pottery forms section of my website.
Before the workshop I made several pieces that I would use as part of the raku firing process. Three of these are an evolution of my original hand built forms. I’m gradually reducing the more random forms and trying to add a subtle structure that adds a sense of calm to them; this centres around creating a balance and flow resulting in three evenly weighted views of the piece. The final piece I made was one of the Indian inspired forms.
The raku workshop was led by Andy Mason, a ceramicist and eco chef, whose enthusiasm for the process was evident from the very start. The introduction to the process was fascinating and it gelled with my recent thinking about the Japanese aesthetic and view of artistic practice – more about this in my recent blog post – Emerging themes, embracing shadows!
Two things struck me. The Japanese translation of raku is simply ‘enjoyment’, something that the workshop would ultimately deliver. The second is wabi sabi, an intriguing concept that mirrors the way my practice has developed, blending order and freedom, creating boundaries while embracing chance.
wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics constituting a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.1
Coincidentially, “Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence” by Andrew Juniper is currently on my bedside table.
The process of raku is similar to the usual way of working in clay in that there are two firings. The first bisque firing, using a specific stoneware that copes with thermal shock, takes place preparing the pots for the raku process. It is after this first firing that the process diverges and alchemy ardently takes over. After glazing, the pots are rapidly fired in a highly insulated dustbin kiln. Reaching the required 1060 degrees seemed to fly by in an instant! I loved the immediacy of this as well as the mild sense of peril!
After being held at this temperature for a short while the pots are removed and placed in another dustbin filled with straw. Once the lid is put on a process called reduction takes place whereby the flames remove all the oxygen from the air inside and the glazes. It is this process that is unpredictable and leads to the beautiful smoked marks, blending of the glazes and the colouring of the naked surface in a deep black. An hour later the pots are very carefully removed and immersed in cold water, rapidly cooling the form and setting the patterns on the surface.
Over the course of the day I was able to fire all four of my pots. The image here is just before firing and shows one pot from everyone involved. At each step along the way I was learning about the process and what, at this early stage in my raku journey, was achievable. I was completely beguiled by the glazing and how the application of them could have such a huge influence. I approached each of the pieces organically, and to an extent, without planning, however I found as the day progressed my need to control reasserted itself .
The glazing of the first piece is the most instinctual and, because of a lack of reference, free from any expectation. Seeing this piece finished was astounding as it far surpassed any expectations I had of it and to me demonstrated a level of freedom and spontaneity. It reminds me that sometimes I don’t need to think but simply to act!
It was difficult to plan a structure of how I worked as the pieces were in different stages all through the day so I wasn’t able to complete one before beginning another. This was quite freeing as I had to keep working and I feel that I’ve learnt a lot about how to approach the glazing process. On this second pot I began to think about how different layers of the glaze would interact, revealing different layers after firing.
As time passed during the day I began to use more layers of glaze, working into the surface and scratching away at various points. On the third pot, this has created a really deep intense surface that appears more metallic than clay, moving it around in the light changes its intensity.
On the last piece I experimented further with layering the glazes but feel that I pushed it too far. The finish is intense and dark, the glazes melding to create a rich surface, substantially different to my initial expectations. I’d been hoping for a different kind of surface and this pot is a great reminder that raku can’t be controlled. The surface density detracts in my mind from the pot because there is a lack of distinction between the outside and the obscured space inside, a good lesson in pushing things too far!
The workshop has opened my mind to a new realm of possibility, one that combines my love of creating reactions with the tactility of clay. I’ve begun the process of living with my current work, as I often do, and I have found that my relationship with each pot changes as I see it in a new way, either in the light or when I hold it, all the time thinking about what I will do next!
My aim is to keep making and to develop new forms that I can then take on to the firing process. The combination of the planning and order perfectly at odds with the freedom and chaos when firing is a good place for me to be in my practice with both sides working together. I hope to learn to replicate the forms and interactions that I strive for in my other work in clay, bringing the different strands of my practice closer together.
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