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Raku: Origins, Impact, and Contemporary Expression

November 11, 2006 – January 6, 2007
Opening Reception: November 11, 6 – 9pm

Raku: Origins, Impact, and Contemporary Expression

This exhibition provides a global perspective on contemporary ceramic artists working with raku firing methods. Featured artists are Tim Andrews (UK), Jean Biagini (France), Steven Branfman (USA), Patrick Crabb (USA), Chang-Juan Chang (Taiwan), Aline Favre (Switzerland), Fabienne Gioria (Switzerland), Rick Hirsch (USA), David Jones (UK), Toshio Ohi (Japan), Jim Romberg (USA), and Paul Soldner (USA).

Raku is a centuries-old technique of Japanese pottery characterized by low firing temperatures and the dramatic effects of removing the works from the kiln while glowing hot. American ceramist Paul Soldner is credited for pioneering new techniques in this ancient process.

The majority of the artworks on display were created during a twelve-day symposium attended by ten of the artists. The symposium was held during the spring of 2005 at the Eagleheart Center for Art and Inquiry in Colorado. Organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum and guest curated by Jim Romberg, this exhibition is a rare opportunity, to view a variety of world-class raku ceramics, learn about the raku process and the unique, collaborative environment that resulted from this outstanding symposium.

On Sunday, November 12th, AMOCA will present a Raku Extravaganza Workshop. This is rare opportunity for the public to join a raku demonstration featuring world renowned artists Steven Branfman, Patric Crabb, Jim Romberg, and Paul Soldner. The festivities are from 9am to 6pm and include a continental breakfast, introductions, clay techniques, a panel discussion, glazing methods, firing of raku kilns, and ends with an evaluation of the completed work.

The museum will expand its selection of gift items to include a substantial collection of raku artwork created by Southern California artists.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony and Origins of Raku

The tea ceremony, originally practiced by Zen Buddhist monks in China, found its way to Japan about 700 years ago. Over the centuries, the originally simple tradition was refined again and again until it became a complex combination of sensual and spiritual elements. Performing this ritual requires years of study, perhaps a lifetime, to perfect. The ceremony involves nearly every aspect of Japanese life – architecture, history, food, craft, art – expressed through various accoutrements such as costume, calligraphy, flower arranging, ceramics, incense, sweets, and, of course, tea. The preparation and serving of the tea is accompanied by a prescribed sequence of movements and gestures. In turn, a well-established set of responses and proper decorum is required of the guests. The mood is one of serenity, reverence, and formality. Of prime importance is the spiritual experience that is woven into the tradition, bringing together Japanese principles of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.

During the Japanese Momoyama period (1573-1615), Tea Master Rikyû, became a devotee of the unique ceramic tea ware made by a local potter, Ameya, his wife Teirin, and their son Chojiro. The ceramic work of this family came to be known as raku, a word taken from a Kanji character originally inscribed on a gold seal that was given to Chojiro by a local regent to honor his father’s pottery. The newly favored tea bowls, in contrast to the bright, three-color glazed ware that was popular at that time, were painted with monochrome, matte black or red glazes, expressing a divergent philosophy of beauty. The ideal bowl was devoid of ego and individual expression, revealing instead, an abstract, spontaneous, and unassuming nature. Made without a potter’s wheel, they were formed by hand, lacking graceful movement, decoration, or distinction of form. Instead of following a standard ceramic cycle of heating and cooling, raku pots were watched until the glaze melted then pulled, red hot, from the kiln. Thermoshock caused them to snap, pop, and sometimes fracture as they cooled rapidly in the open air. This unique firing process was aligned with wabi sabi, an aesthetic view point with an admiration for things natural, imperfect, or unrefined.

Bernard Leach (1887-1979), an Englishman born in Hong Kong, raised in Japan, and educated in England, returned to his geographical roots after finishing his art training to reconnect with eastern art movements. Leach is credited with introducing Japanese Mingei (folk art) traditions to western potters. A Potter’s Book, published by Leach in 1940 is a dissertation on his aesthetic values and ceramic techniques. The book describes his first encounter with raku while attending a party in Japan where guests were invited to apply brush decorations to clay bowls. Leach described his surprise at seeing his carefully decorated pot dipped into a opaque white mixture that obscured his design. His bowl and those of the other guests were then fired and cooled in rapid sequence and ready to take home at the end of the evening. His fears were assuaged when he saw that the white mixture was actually a clear glaze the allowed his brushwork to be seen. This experience left a lasting impression on Leach who sought out experts from whom he learned more about the art of raku.

Then in 1957, Paul Soldner, who studied with Peter Voulkos at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, was hired by Scripps College in Claremont, to teach ceramics. Assigned responsibility for the college’s annual ceramic exhibition, Soldner went in search of a dynamic ceramic demonstration to augment the event. Inspired by Leach’s book, Soldner opted to attempt raku firing. Rolling the just-fired pots in eucalyptus leaves dropped from trees above, then running through the crowd with a smoking pot to be plunge into a nearby fish pond – it was a frenzied performance. In terms of public response, the event was successful; however, the resulting ceramic work was not. The failure only encouraged Soldner who continued to experiment and develop his own particular brand of raku. He is known today as the “Father of American Raku.”

Contemporary American Raku is achieved through a distinctive ceramic firing process. The glaze formulas often contain high amounts of copper that promote a rich range of metallic color. A raku piece is brought to approximately 1800F degrees in a short period of time during which it is possible to watch the glaze melt. At glaze maturation, the piece is carefully removed, with long tongs, and placed in a metal trash can filled with leaves, sawdust, or shredded newspaper. The heat from the pot ignites the contents, at which point a lid is placed over the can. Deprived of oxygen, the flame is extinguished, but the ceramic piece continues to smoke and smolder in the reduction atmosphere. Often the still-hot ceramic forms are removed from the closed container and plunged into water where the quick cooling produces a crackled surface.

Raku: Origins, impact, and Contemporary Expressions
Ostensibly lead by Paul Soldner, there was something very exciting and adventurous about the pioneering phase of American Raku. Soldner seemed driven by an uncommonly strong appetite for investigation, which, in turn, inspired his students. Amid the dare-to-experiment atmosphere of Soldners classrooms, would-be potters were encouraged to seek their own solutions. Soldner and students eagerly awaited the results of each raku firing. Of equal significance, or perhaps even more important than the final product, was the “hunt.” Like gold fever, it was a mesmerizing, almost addictive exploration of a seemingly endless number of new and unique approaches.

In late spring of 2005, a ten day symposium held in Grand Junction, Colorado, was held in order to revisit this exploratory spirit. Jim Romberg organized the event, which was attended by ten international raku artists: Tim Andrews, UK; Jean Biagini, France; Ching-Yuan Chung, Taiwan; Aline Favre, Switzerland, Fabienne Gioria, Switzerland; Rick Hirsch, USA; David Jones, UK; Toshio Ohi, Japan; and Paul Soldner, USA. They gathered to celebrate past raku traditions, to assess current trends, to make collaborative work, and to rekindle the excitement originally associated with the early American Raku Movement. Raku: Origins, impact, and Contemporary Expressions exhibits the artistic output of this group plus the work of two artists who were added post-event, Patrick Crabb and Steven Branfman.

In the catalogue that resulted from this symposium, Jim Romberg summarizes the group’s discussion about raku. “What is it about the dynamics of this particular discipline that makes it so vital, promoting a bond between art and social order?” Romberg identified three points. First, there is the aesthetic philosophy behind the practice of raku. This attitude guides the search and gives it depth. Ideal bowls exemplify the wabi sabi spirit, which according to Romberg is “a complex relationship of material, human activity, and qualities of the natural world . . .” Wabi means things that are fresh and simple or rustic. It also can mean an accidental or happenstance element, maybe even a imperfection which lends elegance and uniqueness to the whole. Sabi means things whose beauty stems from age. It stresses the appreciation of transient things and of the cycles of life that give rise to change. It can also refer to the quality of unpretentiousness or a kind of primitive naturalness. The combined word wabi-sabi is the fascination with things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is the beauty of things modest, humble, and unconventional.

Secondly, traditional raku embodies a value system that makes “individual judgment and sensitivity” paramount. “This was not just individuality for individuality’s sake, but an expression of profound character, understood through discipline, practice and the study of a higher order of relations . . .” This view is in direct opposition to the western definition of beauty – that which is blemish free and without deviation. Additionally, this view is contrary to our penchant for duplication and mass production. Third, is the state of mind of the potter while he works. This condition is described as “holding oneself ‘in the presence of’ . . . allowing focus, concentration, and expression to move beyond effort . . .” This state – almost letting the clay lead the way and shape itself – is difficult to achieve.

This last point, “moving beyond effort,” is relevant to my own experience. Toward the end of my thirty years as a practicing potter, this “effortless” condition would, on occasion, fall over me like a spell. I lost my sense of person, and my surroundings faded away. The studio seemed filled with something like white noise which drowned out all elements of self-absorption and thought. I did not focus on how or what I was making, but bent to my own intuition as if on auto-pilot. This rarely-experienced mental state usually happened at the end of a tiring day, when I had finally succumbed to fatigue. I let the clay have its own way, and somehow, while experiencing the euphoria, inspired work flowed.

Raku: Origins, impact, and Contemporary Expressions has great visual impact, but even more than that, viewers of the exhibition can examine the various written statements of the participant artists. This is a chance to weigh in on the differences between eastern and western ceramic aesthetics, between past and current customs, and between individual and traditional practices. Was there any consensus of opinion within the membership of this symposium? Did the meeting facilitate respect for diverse international views? AMOCA offers an opportunity to explore the opinions of these raku masters, note the source of their disagreements, and share in the acknowledgment of common bonds.