Raku firing and Zen Buddhism

Raku is a low-firing method of making pottery. It has its origins in the time of the shogun (military dictator) Hideyoshi towards the end of the sixteenth century (Momoyama period) in Kyoto, Japan. Hideyoshi wanted to encourage the tea ceremony and called upon his tea-master Sen no Rikyu to mastermind the ceremonies. A potter called Sasaki Chojiro was commissioned by the palace to hand carve tea bowls from Rikyu’s designs using tile making techniques.

Rikyu moved the tea ceremony in a new direction, towards a new form of ceramic expression called wabi sabi – peasant-like, monochrome ceramics with minimal decoration. The growth of Zen Buddhism (Sen no Rikyu was a Zen Buddhist monk) had replaced the lively, extravagant tea ceremonies of the past with solemn rituals that emphasised the transience of life. These tea ceremonies held spiritual significance and were associated with the Zen ideas of living in the here and now, finding peace and significance in something as mundane as drinking tea and appreciating every act as a unique event. The idea is to look inward for meaning to life rather than outside our existence like in Christianity and other faiths.

Wabi sabi is an aesthetic that embodies the principles of Zen Buddhism. It emerged  in Japan as a reaction to the lavishness, luxury and grandeur of the nobility and it’s essence was to find beauty in imperfection and embrace the natural cycle of growth and decay. The aesthetic incorporates a number of qualities: humility, asymmetry, authenticity, simplicity, tranquillity and the organic forms of nature, the complete antithesis to today’s fast paced, mass produced, disposable culture.

Recently I’ve been reading Oli Doyle’s book ‘Mindfulness, plain and simple’ which highlights the way meditation and mindful practice which stem from the discoveries of the Buddha can help us live happier lives. I felt the raku firing we took part in on Friday was a kind of practice in mindfulness because we were forced into the ‘here and now’ while having to continually watch the kiln, adjusting the gas depending on the height of the flames, checking how much the glaze had melted and concentrating on moving the hot ceramics carefully with the tongs.

In ‘A Potter’s Book’ Bernard Leach explains how the thick and porous nature of the clay used for raku tea-bowls made them bad conductors of heat so the hot tea could be held comfortably in the hands. At the beginning of the 20th century Leach brought the idea of raku back from exotic Japan to his studio in St Ives. Later, raku was re-invented in America during the 1970s, moving away from the idea of truth to materials and Zen philosophy and ‘the anti-machine ethic so beloved by the reactionary camp in the ceramic world went out of the window as space-race materials were pressed into service for kiln linings, and glass-fuming technologies for post-reduction treatments'(Jones, 1999, pg. 22). Western raku (like the one I took part in) differs from the eastern technique in that the pots are placed in a reduction chamber rather than left to cool in the open air or quenched straight away in cold water.

Raku firing is an exciting and rewarding process. First the work is bisque fired and glazed then the raku kiln is fired quickly to a temperature of about 900C with the pots inside. Through the top of the kiln it was possible for us to watch the glazes melting. Because the clay undergoes thermal shock, it’s important to use once-fired, grogged, stoneware clay rather than the LF i’d been throwing with. The only work I had suitable were slipcast shapes. We tried raku firing work that hadn’t been bisque fired but this only resulted in the work exploding in the kiln because of its high water content.

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One of the raku kilns firing

The pots were removed from the kiln after about 45 mins red hot with tongs and placed in an airtight container (a bin) of shredded paper and hemp wood chips. As they are moved into the colder air outside the kiln they undergo another sudden temperature change which produces cracks in the glaze. The lid is then placed back on and the bin left to stand in a ventilation chamber. This technique is known as smoking and is an ideal way to get rainbow coloured surfaces from a copper matt glaze. The smoke produced from the combustible materials is trapped and creates a reduction atmosphere in the bin but some oxidation also occurs to the glazes when the lid is lifted off. Carbon from the smoking highlights the cracks in the glazes and turns the naked clay black.

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Lifting work hot from the kiln into the bin of wood chips and sprinkling more combustibles on top.

After being left to smoke in in the chamber for an hour the work is lifted out with tongs and dipped into cold water- yet another thermal shock. The water washes off some of the carbon and combustible material but they need to be scrubbed with a sponge to reveal the surfaces properly.

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Pots after being dipped in water, ready to be scrubbed.

I enjoyed being more directly involved in the firing process than I am with an electric kiln and the physical and slightly terrifying activity of moving the work when it’s red hot.

RESULTS

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Side with shiny copper glaze and wax resist

Where I sponged on the copper matt on top it’s more green/brown. I don’t like the washed out blue of the cork stopper. Although the effect is very striking I find it a bit too showy for the aesthetic I’m searching for in my work. This bottle form isn’t suited to raku because it’s narrow and has a small base so is prone to fall over in the kiln.

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Reverse side of bottle

This side I glazed with Pale satin duck-egg blue raku glaze found in Linda Bloomfield’s ‘The handbook of glaze recipes‘. I like the fresh colour and the fine bubbly texture. A stripe of copper matt was brushed on top and resulted in rich shiny greens. The pattern on the bottle shows through black with carbon where wax resist was brushed on. The blue came out in patches of purple which reminds me of port wine stains on skin.

Pale satin duck egg-blue (cone 9):
Borax frit                                    42.5
High alkaline frit                     42.5
China clay                                    15
Bentonite                                      5
+ Tin oxide                                    15
+ Copper oxide                            0.5

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Glaze tests on slipcast banana
  1. Duck egg blue (more purple where applied thinly)
  2. Duck egg blue with copper blue on top – water colour effect sky blue but not very interesting texture
  3. Shiny copper blue on its own – darker blue with hints of purple
  4. Shiny copper with duck egg blue on top – this combination has the most interesting colour variations
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Glaze tests on slipcast ‘grape bunch’ glass bottle

Top half: white raku glaze splattered with copper blue which has turned purple. Bottom half matt copper painted on top of white crackle. I wish I’d glazed more of the form but was scared to in case it got stuck in the kiln.I like where the matte copper turns iridescent and shows emrland greens.

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Bottle dipped in white crackle with thick duck-egg blue brushed on top. I like the way the white underneath makes the colour look brighter. Teacup on top dipped in copper matt turned dark grey with little colour variation.

GLAZED POTS RESULTS

On Tuesday we took part in a glaze application workshop and our results came out the electric kiln on Friday too. I’m really happy with these LF bottle forms and like how they work as a series because of their variations in heights and shape.

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  1. Bottle dipped halfway down in yellow, dipped in blue up to base of neck then dipped in yellow at the rim. Patterns brushed on with red iron oxide, white and green sponged on patches.My favourite decoration. It’s busy and I tired to balance the shapes.
  2. Bottle dipped in white glaze with small area un-glazed. Manganese oxide splashed on top with a thick brush then turquoise self-mixed glaze splattered over.
  3. Manganese oxide and red iron oxide painted on under transparent. White and yellow pattern painted on top. Yellow becomes very feint when painted on top of white. I like the shape of this bottle and the way the vertical edges balance with a curved shoulder which hasn’t slumped like the others and a thin neck. I’d like to explore this form further.
  4. Dipped sideways in green, matt cream and manganese splattered on top. This fused to the kiln shelf at the base where the glaze ran (applied too thickly).

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I’m not as taken with this bowl’s decoration. The inside was dipped in blue and manganese oxide, turquoise glaze and red iron oxide brushed on the outer surface which looks patchy.

http://www.utne.com/mind-and-body/wabi-sabi
http://www.2000cranes.com/Raku.html
Jones, D, 1999. Raku, investigations into fire.Marlborough: Crowood.

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