Among the many exciting events taking place at Cedarhurst Center for the Arts in Mount Vernon this year, one of the most awe-inspiring and entertaining is the Raku pottery firing that happens just a handful of times each year.
An ancient form of Japanese pottery dating back the sixteenth century, Raku translates to “happiness in the accident”. A look into the process of the art form explains the fascinating transformation that occurs.
The course, taught by Judy Mason, begins its first of three sections on May 9 when participants meet for the wet clay night. Students are given a soft ball of clay and are instructed to shape the clay into a vessel of their choosing. A potter’s wheel is available for those practiced in the technique, but many use hand building methods, rolling the clay out and building forms with various tools. Following this first night, the pieces are left to dry for a week. On May 16, students return to Cedarhurst to take part in the glaze night where they can apply colors to the stoneware pieces that, at this point, have been bisque fired.
The real magic happens at the final event, which is the Raku firing on May 25. In the morning hours of the firing day, the outdoor kiln is heated until temperatures reach between 1800 and 1900 degrees at which point the clay vessels are placed inside. The kiln and the Raku firing event have been a mainstay at Cedarhurst for quite some time and remain a popular course offering and spectator event.
“We have been firing this style for a number of years at Cedarhurst. They built the Raku kiln in the nineties,” shared Carrie Gibbs, Director of Shrode Art Center at Cedarhurst.
Gibbs said the propane powered kiln is safer and takes less time to heat as compared to a wood fired kiln, which is much more time-consuming and harder to control. The gas kiln also allows the Raku firing to take place all in one day.
Once the pieces inside the kiln are glowing red hot, the lid is removed and tongs are used to transfer the intensely hot stoneware to metal trashcans containing combustible materials such as shredded paper. The lid is placed firmly on the trash can — and this is where the true magic of Raku occurs.
“When the piece touches the paper, it’s so hot that it immediately catches the paper on fire and the paper smokes the piece,” described Gibbs.
The smoke from the paper is trapped inside the trash can when its lid is replaced, transforming the colors on the surface of the glazed pottery. After the pieces are cooled they are cleaned to reveal the enchanting highlights and dark hues.
“You get rich, black charcoal colors and bright metallic lustrous colors after the pieces sit in the can and smoke for about a half hour. There’s a moment of magic when you get to see what happened,” said Gibbs.
There is no experience required to register for the Raku pottery course and a variety of skill levels are represented at the event.
“We do have some artists and potters who are part of our clay club, or potters that live in the region, who do not have a kiln like this. We also have community members who want to try it. So you can be a part of one of our firings having had no experience with clay before,” shared Gibbs.
The cost of the course is $40, and Cedarhurst members receive a ten percent discount. Pre-registration is required, but anyone in the community is welcome to watch the firing event. Scholarships are also available through Cedarhurst so that if the cost prohibits someone from participating, there are funds available to help.
The Raku firing event is the perfect opportunity for community members to learn about an ancient form of pottery with the added bonus of taking home a one-of-a-kind piece of stoneware. The sense of camaraderie surrounding the firing is contagious and enjoyed by students of the course and visitors to the Cedarhurst campus alike.