Barbecued art: Japanese firing technique keeps artists guessing

Sunday, May 22, 2005

SEDALIA, Mo. -- The atmosphere was similar to a backyard barbecue with a master chef handling the grill.

Serving the goodies was Sedalia artist and teacher Alan Weaver, helped by workshop student Susan Lawrence. Together, they handled red-hot pieces baked in an improvised gas-fired kiln at about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Raku ceramics class has started only three weeks before, and now explosive combustions were rattling garbage cans and darkening the underside of washtubs, while smoke billowed from burning newspaper and smoldering wood pellets at the Coyote Clay workshop.

Lawrence, 47, of Marshall, is an art teacher and will be directing the art program at the public school in Brunswick this fall.

The workshop taught the finer points of Raku -- which means joy, ease or pleasure -- a ceramics process developed in 16th-century Japan to provide tea bowls for the traditional tea ceremony.

The Sedalia Visual Art Association sponsored the program, with Weaver as the instructor.

"It was wonderful," said Madge Gressley, who arranged the workshop. "Everybody wants to do it again."

Gressley said 12 people from Sedalia, Marshall, Cole Camp and Jefferson City enrolled in the class.

Artists start out by molding raw clay by hand, and then gave their creations hell.

During the final stages, the artwork is baked at temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and then is left to simmer in a high-carbon smoke.

Artists will not see what their pieces really look like until their creations are smoked, cooled and washed off. The firing and the smoke determine how the glazes color.

"It's like a microcosm of life," said Lawrence, who has a fine arts degree from the University of Georgia in Athens. "You mold your piece the best you can into what you want, imagine the colors you want as you paint on the glaze, and then you stick it in the kiln and accept what you get when it's all over," she said.

Weaver said it's kind of like raising a child. You mold it, "and then you have to turn it loose to the heat and smoke and see what you end up with," he said. "There's no telling how the carbon from the smoke will affect the piece. There might be a design where the paper is touching a piece, or an area where the carbon hardly takes at all.

"And the coppery or metallic areas can appear many different ways," he said.

In response to a disappointed student's request to refire a piece, Weaver said: "That wouldn't be Zen."

Articles produced by the dozen students during a session early in April included bowls, vases, sculptures, beads and trays.

One sculpture by Lawrence was a rhinoceros, complete with a cattle egret perched on its rear. She used a piece of burlap to texture the rhino, ending with an amazingly realistic miniature.

"I love to sculpt," said the Marshall artist.

Lawrence was even more pleased on firing day when her rhinoceros, set to smoke in a pan of wood pellets came out a dark, matte gray-black, and the bird on his back bright and glossy.

Joyce Kimball, former dean of students at State Fair Community College, said she was happy with the several Raku pieces she made.

"I started attending Raku workshops in 1998," Kimball said. She has a ceramics studio near Georgetown where she teaches ceramics painting, but not the Raku technique.

"I don't have the special equipment needed for Raku," she said, pointing to a high temperature kiln Weaver had built using a 55-gallon drum and a bucket full of sand bags for counterweights.

"You don't want to back up against that barrel," he said. "It gets mighty hot."

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