Raku began as an aesthetic and firing technique for tea bowls used in the Zen Tea Ceremony in Japan nearly five hundred years ago. The earthenware pots are brought to around 1600F (which qualifies as low-fire) and then removed from the kiln while still glowing bright as embers and placed in a container of combustibles or cooled immediately with water.
The official technique began in the late 16th century, when tea-master Sen-No-Rikyu sought out and patronized craftsmen whose work reflected Zen principles of harmony, simplicity, and restraint. He worked with one such potter, Chojiro, to develop the technique and aesthetic of Raku, which translates loosely as ‘comfort’ or ‘enjoyment’. The Emperor Hideyoshi presented Chojiro’s son with a gold seal with the characters ‘Raku’. Chojiro’s family took up the name and continues to create traditional Raku tea ware, 15 generations later. (see 'Raku, a Practical Approach' by Steve Branfman)
Raku arrived in the United States at several points in the early 20th century and has changed radically. It has mostly lost its spiritual and aesthetic dimensions, but the basic techniques are still in use. Pieces are drawn from the kiln while glowing brightly, and are cooled in blazing containers full of straw, paper, or other combustible materials. In typical American Raku, metal salts are added to many of the glazes that, upon reaction with the fire and smoke in the combustion chambers, give metallic and iridescent finishes.
In the 1970’s, Charlie and Linda Riggs popularized ‘naked raku’, which leaves no glaze at all on the finished work. Instead, slip and glaze are applied before the firing and then crack and crumble as they are heated and then cooled. Smoke from the combustion seeps between the cracks, and when the layers of slip and glaze are removed after the firing, an organic network of stark black lines – purely the result of smoke – is left on the bare clay.
I work in a variety of ‘traditional’ American Raku techniques and am developing my own, which will be featured here once I develop a larger body of work in that area. For me, the draw of Raku is in its organic process. The potter has only the most subtle control over the final product, leaving the smoke and fire to work their way. One of the aesthetics that I am working toward is one that communicates a balance and union of man and nature. I want to evoke, not replicate the natural world from which we are all ultimately born. Raku is a very useful tool in this ongoing endeavor.
Raku Vase, 17"