Raku beckons


Clay calls to some of us. The allure is primal.  We squish clay between our figures, mold it until the earthy material yields something useful or artistic, and offer it up to the fire, which transforms it into a solid, enduring figure. It is creationary.

Compared to most pottery techniques, raku is immediate, expressive, and raw. Red-hot objects are removed from a kiln with tongs and plunged into a container of combustibles—burnable material such as wood chips, straw, or paper. Fire erupts then frantically steals oxygen from the glaze and the clay. Shocking pottery causes the colorants to cool quicker than the clay below, producing crackles, metallic sections, and naked spots. The process generates expressive chance colors, or “happy accidents.”

Though it has a primal appeal, raku ware is relatively young, dating back to the 16th century in Japan. Known as American or Western raku, this contemporary technique varies wildly from the traditional Japanese process. Differences include the shape, slip, glaze, and firing, as well as the perception and attitudes attributed to them. Tradition dictated that raku vessels preside at ceremonial tea services where the objects are held in reverence. In America, anything goes.

In both processes, clay is quick-fired over an open flame, or raku kiln, replacing the all-day process of raising the kiln temperature slowly and meticulously. As you begin the raku firing, you feel the heat on your face. You lean into the open kiln with little more than mitts, tongs and eye gear for protection. You offer the bisque clay to the flames. What comes out is transformed. Your pale gray clay is glowing. You plunge it into the reduction bin. When you recover the piece it is coated in ash, hiding its true colors. You brush away the soot to reveal a contrasting form with iridescent copper, purple, and charred sections or, perhaps, white with cracked black veins and naked spots.

You examine your new arrival and wonder over the interesting, and often unexpected, marking. While you’ve made definite color decisions, raku ware has a mind of its own. It presents itself like a toddler determined to dress himself.

raku beads
The pendants shown here are by Laura Souder (rectangular pendant at left) and MAKUraku (circle, bird, and spikes). See jewelry made with raku in Bead&Button's MAKUraku design challenge gallery.

If you have the chance to experience the process of creating raku, embrace the opportunity. Let the clay seduce you. Together you will take a journey to a distance time when fire changed the world. The experience can change you, if you let it.

For information on how to make raku ware, watch our five-part video series featuring Colleen Volland of Cream City Clay in West Allis, WI. We visit with Colleen as she takes us through the fascinating process of making raku pendants and beads.

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