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Art of raku pottery blazes to life under Alaska's Midnight Sun

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Posted: Saturday, July 14, 2012 10:31 pm | Updated: 10:35 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Jed Williams lifted the 3 1/2-foot cylindrical lid of the kiln at his Chena Hot Springs Road home, exposing the red-hot pottery underneath.

Working quickly to retain as much heat in the wares as they could, Mary Gephard and Marty Baldridge grabbed the glowing pots with giant tongs and placed them gently into metal trash cans and boxes lined with shredded paper and newsprint, which bursts into flames on contact.

The annual Midnight Sun Raku Festival, held this year the Saturday before summer solstice, was in full swing.

Williams, a local potter, and his wife, Sheila, host the party each year at their home. Potter and non-potter friends flow in and out all day, enjoying the barbecued beef and potluck, trying their hands at the fast-firing technique. Some of the potters bring extra wares for non-potter folks to fire.

Created in Japan, raku is one of the fastest methods of firing pottery. It takes about two hours from start (glazing) to finish (cooled wares). Most firing methods take at least 24 hours, during which time the clay gets hot enough to “vitrify” or turn into a glass-like substance, that doesn’t happen in the shorter, lower temp firing of the raku method. As a result, raku is not recommended for food use because of its porous nature as well as its fragility. The interesting effects, like the crackle and brilliant metallic glazes, as well as the immediacy of the method, make it worth doing, especially when groups of potters work together to fire dozens of pots in a few hours.

Kiln designs vary — some are built with fireproof bricks on site, others use metal barrels with fancy pulley systems that lift the lids. This year, the potters used three kilns made from various types of metal mesh and lined with fireproof wool, all fired with propane.

The process starts at the glazing station, a makeshift plywood table with various buckets of glaze, brushes, and water for rinsing brushes. Glazes vary from white crackle to brilliant metallic coppers and blues. The bare spots left without glaze turn a characteristic charcoal black. The artists glaze their pots, which have already been fired once in an electric kiln.

The potters during this year’s Raku Festival placed their wares on platforms made of fireproof brick. Williams placed a lid over their wares, made from 1-inch thick, fireproof, kaolin wool that fits inside a metal mesh cage.

The firing begins when Williams lights the propane burner. It takes 45 minutes to an hour for the digital pyrometer to read 1,820 degrees.

The potters scrambled to get the wares into the metal containers. The fire caused by the combustible materials in the containers reduces the oxygen from the atmosphere, and smoke streamed out the cracks in closed lids of the metal boxes, assuring no oxygen is left inside.

Raku glazes react to this “reduction” atmosphere for 15 to 30 minutes. The dark smoke works its way into the pores of the pottery as it cools, creating its characteristic black color.

“Tradition dictates the wares are ready to remove from the container when you can spit on the metal and it doesn’t sizzle,” Williams said with a twinkle in his eye.

When the pieces are cool enough to be handled with thick leather gloves, Gephard and Baldridge removed them from their metal boxes and set them in the surrounding gravel. Gently plunging the pottery into a bucket of water to cool and rinse it completes the process.

The raku firing process is volatile and unpredictable, so there’s no guarantee the wares will turn out as planned. The thermal shock alone loses many pieces.

The fired pottery is laid out for display on a portion of the glazing table. The contrast of the brilliant, lustrous glazes and dull, charcoal black is striking. Carol Young’s slab fishes turn out especially shiny.

Dozens of pieces were fired in the nine-hour time span of the Midnight Sun Raku Firing, but a few still remain unglazed. They’ll make a good start for next year, when potters once again gather under the midnight sun.

Doris Pfalmer is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks.

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