Raku Oohs and Awesome Ahhs

By: Jayna Hintz, curator of education on July 20th, 2011

I need a word better than WOW to describe last week. Right now, WOW is what comes to mind. It was a WOW week and so much more. Last week (July 10-16), I had the enjoyment of spending the entire week outdoors in the Woodson Art Museum sculpture garden. What was I doing? I was assisting Dean Hoegger, a Sturgeon Bay ceramist with 35 years of experience, invited to teach the Museum’s Earth & Fire summer art camp for middle- and high-school students. To prepare for his arrival, we wrapped tables in canvas, set up tents to provide shade, and set up propane gas tanks for the Raku kiln.
After Dean’s arrival on Sunday, we helped him unload and level three pottery wheels, clay, books, and a variety of tools. Everything was ready by 9:30 pm, and we all headed home feeling content that the next day would start without a hitch. During the night a storm hit, and all of us worried what we would find the next day. Based on our experience I recommend plastic sheeting; it worked for keeping things dry. A few wet cardboard boxes needed to be unpacked and replaced with dry boxes but nothing was damaged. 
 After the first wave of students arrived at 8:15 am, we were up and running with a full class of 14 middle-school students by 8:30am. We started with pinch pots, and Dean covered the importance of drawing the clay up from the bottom and keeping the sides equally thick. This was a precursor for wheel-thrown pottery work that was planned for the next day. The students learned how to wedge their clay to prevent air pockets in their finished pieces. We moved from pinch pots to slab-built construction, creating cylinder-shaped jars with individual embellishments and incorporated different techniques for altering surface texture. At noon the middle-school students were done, and by 1pm the high-school students arrived, ready to start.
The high-school class rolled out in a similar fashion, except the students were introduced to the balloon-pot technique, which is a hand-built form. This technique produced some fantastic results. Students created balloon-pot-formed containers in a variety of shapes including an acorn, a strawberry, a square box, a few capsule shapes, and many others.
Throughout four of the five days, the students created pottery, Dean and I loaded kilns at night, and I unloaded them in the morning. The amount of completed bisque-ware continued to grow in anticipation of Friday’s Raku firing.
What is Raku? Raku is a low-firing process inspired by traditional Japanese Raku firing. Western-style Raku involves removing pottery from the kiln while at bright- red heat and placing it into containers with combustible materials such as straw, paper, or sawdust. Once the materials ignite, the containers are closed. This produces an intense reduction atmosphere that affects the color of glazes and clay pieces. The drastic thermal shock also produces glaze cracking, known as crackling, since it is deliberate.
One teen described Raku as “mind-blowing, awesome amazement, with a side of flame-broiled coolness.” For those of you who never have done Raku, it is very exciting. The surprise of how the reduction affects the glaze is awesome. We heard so many “oohs and aahs” as the students pulled their pots from the water after cooling. We were “oohing and aahing” right along with them.
To see what the students created and enjoy an ooh-and-aah moment of your own, stop by the Woodson Art Museum before August 29 and visit an exhibition of their artwork created during one week of summer art camp.

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