Artist demonstrates raku firing techniques

By Hank Lohmeyer

Artist demonstrates raku firing techniques | Cedaredge, artist, People in the News,

Photo by Hank Lohmeyer Daphna Russell explains the technique and operation of her outdoor kiln for two students who traveled to Cedaredge from Ouray County to learn the lessons of her art.

The arts community comprises a vibrant part of Surface Creek Valley's community life.

The ongoing displays, occasional special shows and events celebrating the arts are enhanced by local artists who give individual instruction at their homes and their studios, thereby increasing the knowledge, talent base and participation in arts here.

One example is a demonstration that Cedaredge sculptor Daphna Russell gave for two local artists and two others from Ridgway at her studio recently. The topic was the firing of sculpture made from raku clay.

Raku refers to a type of clay used and also to the various techniques for working with the material. Raku is also used in a type of pottery reserved for the Japanese tea ceremony, according to an online reference.

Russell is a well-known artist whose work has been displayed locally, in other states and in other countries.

Firing raku is a process that differs from firing objects made with other types of clay. Stories about how raku clay originated vary, Russell said. But the accounts generally involve the practice of adding some kind of material to the clay to extend it. Various sands were used in the early days of the medium; now those materials are often supplanted with various types of polymer materials. The added material creates small air spaces within the clay matrix which gives raku some unique qualities, including being very brittle and requiring the special firing processes.

Beginning her demonstration, Russell explained how she had built up the figure of a bear using a progression of geometric shapes fashioned from the raku by means of a slab sculpture technique. She explained how the bear's anatomical forms, or "biometric shapes" are created.

The creative process that Russell employs is free flowing and open ended. "If you have five fingers you have five new ways of doing things," Russell told her students. "When I use a tool, then the possibilities just expand exponentially."

The figure of the bear had been fired once to remove moisture from the clay, a process called "bisque firing." Russell was now ready to give it one of the two or more coats of thick glaze and demonstrated the application technique.

Then it was into Russell's backyard kiln for the firing demonstration. One of her students from Ridgway had brought some completed figures that were ready for the firing and the first one was placed in the kiln.

The piece was fired in the propane-fueled kiln at a temperature kept between 1,500 to 1,700 degrees for about 30 minutes. It was removed with the glaze hardened and transformed into a heavy, glossy patina.

Then a unique step in the process came into play. The piece was placed in a bucket with aspen chips or other sawdust-like material, and buried in the material completely. A lid was placed on the bucket. A smoldering heating process in the airless environment continued for another 20 to 30 minutes.

The piece was then removed from the wood chips and placed in the snow to quick cool. The anaerobic process combined with the effect of cooling adds character to the color and texture and often produces a cracked appearance in the glaze that is highly prized.

The Japanese word "raku" means "joy" or "happiness," Russell explained.

Russell offers classes in sculpture at her Cedaredge studio and at other venues in the county. Contact daphnarussellstudiosnet.