Donovan Chester: the fiery art and craft of raku

Pottery is a unique form of creative expression, one whose practitioners must be as well-endowed with technical savvy as they are with artistic vision. That’s particularly true of raku, the ceramic form practiced by Regina’s Donovan Chester.

Don’s studio was the destination of the third Twilight Tour put on by the Mackenzie Art Gallery this summer. About a dozen of us crammed into the confined space, surrounded by bags of clay, buckets of glaze, finished and half-finished pots, and learned about the history of raku–and how Don himself practices it.

Raku dates back to the 16th century, and historically is very much bound up with the Japanese tea ceremony. According to the Museum of Raku, the firing technique now called raku was pioneered by a potter named Chojiro. At first, the tea bowls he produced were called “ima-yaki,” which means “now wares”–in other words, avant-garde ware. They were then renamed “juraku-yaki,” thought to be because Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the leading warrior statesman of the time, presented Chojiro with a seal bearing the character for raku (which means “joy” or “ease”), which derived from Jurakudai, a palace built by Hideyoshi. Chojiro adopted the term for his pottery, and it became the name of the family that produced the wares.

Although raku was first popularized among Western potters by English potter Bernard Leach, who participated in the technique–and the tea ceremony–in Japan in 1911, modern raku owes most to Paul Soldner, who in the 1960s, on a hunch, buried a hot raku pot fresh out of the kiln in a pit in the ground with leaves.

A raku piece starts like any other kind of pottery, Don says, molded by hand, thrown on a wheel, or, in Don’s case, often formed with the help of a mold.

But the mold is only the beginning, he adds. “I consider it a starting point.” He notes that he once did a whole series of pieces that began with the same funnel-shaped mold. By the time he was finished, “the only thing common to them was the bottom.”

“I can’t leave well enough alone,” he admits. “Every time I use a mold again I have to fiddle it.”

Once the pots are made, Don air dries them, placing them on an egg-crate like material that is most often seen covering the bottom of fluorescent light fixtures and covering them with a cloth. This allow the pots to dry from the bottom up.

“Potters have to be creative,” Don notes of this innovative approach, and that creativity is also evident in the way he applies his glazing (after the pots have been fired once in an ordinary kiln), using a spray gun instead of dipping. That allows him to make far smaller amounts of glaze, and for good measure, some of the glazing effects work better with the thinner layer.

Finally, the once-fired and now-glazed pots go into the raku kiln, which (big surprise) Don built himself. It features a rounded lid on rails that can be easily slid aside for access to the interior.

That easy access is desirable because of the way raku is made. The glazed pots are loaded into the 1000-degree heat of the kiln until the glazes melt–typically, just 15 minutes or so–then hauled out with metal tongs (these, too, Don made, because he found commercial tongs were too flimsy) and immediately sealed inside a box (built by Don) containing wood shavings. The heat starts the shavings burning, but since there’s not fresh air, a reduction reaction takes place–that is, the oxygen required for the shavings to burn is drawn from the glazes on the pots, rather than from the air. That results in chemical changes to the glazes and resulting changes in color. (It also turns any exposed non-glazed clay black.)

Raku pots face tremendous stress: first, the shock of the sudden heating to 1000 degrees, then the shock of being suddenly drawn into the relatively cold air of the studio. These shocks, though they often result in broken pots, produce fine cracks in the glaze that is another feature of raku.

Some raku potters add another level of stress by monitoring the changes in color as the pot cools inside its bed of combustible material and freezing those colors when they’re just right by plunging the pot into cold water.

Yet despite all that trauma, the resulting work often has a quietness and contemplative aspect that is very Japanese. It’s something Don deliberately cultivates, toning down his glazes to avoid garish colors. “I’m looking for something a little softer and quiet and less intrusive, but still very beautiful,” he says.

Beauty is also what he seeks to achieve with his shapes; functionality is secondary. “People ask, ‘What would you use it for?’. I say, ‘Well, what would you want to use it for?'”

His philosophy, he says, is, “If you’re going to make a mug, the first thing you do is make it beautiful; the second thing you do is make it functional.”

A highly technical process that results in serene beauty, raku, it seems to me, is both is the perfect metaphor and ideal for the production of all types of art in the 21st century.

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