Above left: ceramics teacher Jonathan Mess demonstrates raku firing to his students at the Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts in Newcastle. Top right: Student work before raku firing. Lower right: Student work after raku firing.

Lincoln Academy ceramics students spent two days at Watershed Center for the Ceramics Arts in Newcastle last week for two days of raku firing, a tradition that ceramics teacher Jonathan Mess has been carrying on for over a decade. Raku ware (楽焼) has been used in the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony since the 16th century. The word raku describes an ancient ceramic technique of placing hot clay pieces (at temperatures above 1600 degrees) into a container of combustible material.

After making their ceramics pieces at Lincoln and bisquing them in the LA kilns, students transport their pottery to Watershed, where they glaze the pieces. Then students, with Mess’s guidance, fire the pieces in an electric kiln. When the kiln has reached 1600 degrees, students (who wear protective clothing and goggles) use metal tongs to remove the very hot ceramic pieces from the kiln and place them into metal cans filled with combustible materials. These materials can include sawdust, leaves, seaweed, and newspaper. When the metal can is covered, the heat and combustion create a reduction atmosphere, inducing chemical reactions between oxygen, carbon dioxide, and the clay and glaze minerals. The result is unique colors and interesting fire and smoke effects on both the glazed and unglazed surfaces of the work. Copper glazes, for example, can look as bright and shiny as a new penny on one side, and green and crusty as the Statue of Liberty on the other.

In the Japanese Zen aesthetic, an essential element of raku firing is that potters cannot control every part of the process, and they never know exactly how a piece will turn out. This leads to a sense of mystery, and the discovery of unexpected beauty. Results can vary greatly depending on glazing technique, humidity in the air, temperature inside and outside of the kiln, and what materials are being burned. “Raku firing gives us a chance to combine art, craft, science, geology, and chemistry into a real learning situation,” explained Mess. “Students invest significant time in this project, and it is always worth it, because there is so much to learn in a single raku firing.”

“It was one of the best things that I have done this year,” said David Winchenbach, an LA junior who hopes to study fine arts, including ceramics, after high school. “It was eye-opening for me to see everything that ceramics could be. It’s so different from all the other ways we process clay–so unpredictable. It was super fun to take out the thousand degree clay and throw them into these trash cans.”

“It is the best day of ceramics in the whole year,” said senior Eliot O’Mahoney, who experienced raku for the second time this year. “We get to spend the whole day thinking about ceramics.”

“We are lucky to have this partnership with Watershed,” said Mess. “Raku firing really expands students’ understanding of the vast possibilities of ceramics. Plus–nothing exploded this year!”

More photos of the Raku field trip to Watershed are on Flickr.